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Okinawa governor renews demand to stop US base relocation plan

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki shows a board, displaying statistics of US military bases in Japan including Okinawa, during a press conference in Tokyo on March 1, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

The Okinawa’s governor has renewed calls on the central government in Japan to halt the controversial construction plan of a US airbase being relocated in the southern Japanese island despite strong opposition from local residents.

Denny Tamaki made the plea on Thursday while reacting to a Japanese defense ministry estimate earlier in the week that the project would require more than twice the time and costs earlier projected.

The central government's plan requires the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, which is currently located in a busy and densely-populated part of Okinawa, to be moved to the remote coastal region of Henoko in Nago some 50 kilometers away.

Opponents of the move say the relocation of the base will not only threaten the area’s delicate marine ecosystem, but also endanger its 2,000 local residents, and thus, they want the base moved entirely out of Okinawa.

“In order to achieve a closure and return of Futenma air station as soon as possible, the construction work like this should immediately stop,” Tamaki told reporters.

The Japanese defense ministry announced that moving Futenma base to Henoko would cost $8.5 billion and take 12 years, pushing its completion and the closure of Futenma into the 2030s.

Under an earlier plan agreed to by Tokyo and Washington in 2013, construction was to cost about $3.2 billion and take five years, with completion expected in about 2022.

This is while the controversial plan has already been delayed by more than 20 years due to vehement opposition from locals.

This aerial view shows land reclamation work on the Henoko coastal district of Nago, Okinawa prefecture, on December 14, 2018, to build a new site for relocating a US military airbase. (Photo by AFP)

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to press on with moving the base and the relocation is also backed by Washington. Tokyo’s government and Okinawa authorities have been at loggerheads over the plan to move the US base.

The relocation of Futenma to Nago was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to calm local anger after US servicemen gang-raped a local schoolgirl. But the plan has long been stalled in part over local opposition.

In a closely-watched referendum in Okinawa earlier this year, more than 70 percent of Okinawan voters opposed the relocation and expansion of the US Marines’ Futenma air base to a remote part within the prefecture.

Many Okinawa residents associate the bases with crime, pollution, and accidents and want the base off the island altogether.

Okinawa hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan. It makes for 64 percent of the land used by the US bases under a bilateral security treaty rooted in imperial Japan’s defeat in WWII.

Over the years, the US base on Okinawa has drawn countless protests and sit-ins. The election last year of Tamaki, who was born in 1959 to a US Marine father he has never met and a Japanese mother, has injected passionate energy to the anti-American sentiments in Japan.

The US relies on Japan and its other main regional ally South Korea to support efforts to challenge China.

Anti-US sentiments have been on the rise after a US serviceman was found guilty in December 2017 of rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawa woman.

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