NAHA (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government on Friday pushed ahead with full-fledged offshore landfill work necessary for the relocation of a key U.S. base within Okinawa, despite persistent local opposition and legal wrangling.
The adding of soil and sand began before noon in the Henoko coastal district of Nago, the planned site of a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, marking the start of irreversible alteration of the site toward relocating the base, which currently sits in a crowded residential area of Ginowan.
"I cannot help feeling strong resentment towards the work being carried out in defiance of the prefectural residents' will," said Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki.
The soil was dumped in a 6.3-hectare area on the southern side of the landfill site.
Protestors gathered in front of the gates of U.S. Marines Camp Schwab, adjacent to the site, from early morning and held sit-in demonstrations while holding up placards and calling for the immediate suspension of the landfill work in a standoff with riot police.
"We have been betrayed by the government all too often. I am sick of it," said Seiko Kaneku, 69, from Uruma on the prefecture's main island.
"Why do they force bases on to Okinawa? Don't ignore the people's will," said Shoshin Nakama, a 71-year-old farmer from the town of Kin also on the main island.
The relocation plan originated from an agreement reached between the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 after public anger was fueled by the 1995 rape of an Okinawa girl by three American servicemen. But progress has been slow, with many locals hoping that the U.S. base will be relocated outside the subtropical island prefecture.
The feud between the central and local governments re-emerged under the tenure of previous Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, and now the fight has been picked up by Tamaki, who was elected in September on an anti-U.S. base platform after his predecessor died of cancer.
There have been legal battles, too, but the central government's plans to proceed with construction work were given a boost after the Supreme Court ruled against Okinawa's position in December 2016.
In April 2017, the central government began building seawalls in the Henoko coastal area so that it can place soil and sand inside the encircled area.
Under a plan to transfer the air functions of the Futenma airfield to the site, the central government is scheduled to reclaim some 157 hectares of land in waters off the Henoko area and construct a V-shaped runway.
While the ministry initially said it will need five years to complete the reclamation work, the work is expected to take longer due to changes in the construction procedure.
After decades of hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, many people in Okinawa are frustrated with noise, crime and accidents linked to them and do not want any new base to be built inside the island prefecture.
Locals and civic groups are also concerned about potential environmental damage caused by the relocation. The sea off Henoko has coral reefs and is a habitat of the endangered dugong.
The central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is "the only solution" for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is situated close to schools and homes, without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.