- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

NAHA, Japan In the 30th year since Okinawa's return to Japanese administration from U.S. military rule, the issues of the American military presence in Japan's southernmost prefecture appear to be taking a fresh turn as "mermaids" swim to center stage.
These are the local dugongs sea mammals believed to have inspired the mermaid stories of sea explorers from the age of sailing.
Okinawa citizens, scholars and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are threatening to sue in U.S. courts to block construction of offshore military facilities near the east coast of Nago in the north of Okinawa Island.
Environmentalists, scholars, NGOs and local citizens strongly oppose construction of a floating facility to replace Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station. They say it will devastate the environment, posing a grave threat to the survival of dugongs and other rare species.
If the floating U.S. airfield is built, it "will destroy coral reefs and sea-grass beds, which are resting and feeding areas for dugongs," said Takuma Higashionna, of Save the Dugongs Foundation, who was born and grew up on the shore of the pristine sea. "This is the sea we can be proud of before the world."
Although this is also a security issue and billions of dollars of taxpayers' money will be poured into the construction, the opponents have not attracted much attention in the rest of Japan. Local concern, however, now is backed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Conservation Union, also known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In October 2000, the IUCN urged Japan to complete a voluntary environmental-impact assessment regarding construction of the proposed military facility, and it also urged the United States and Japan to take appropriate measures to protect dugongs and other rare species such as the Okinawa woodpecker and Okinawa rail.
In a report issued in February, the UNEP also urged Japan to protect dugongs and said the primary threats to dugongs are net fishing and habitat loss or degradation. "Military exercises can be detrimental to dugongs and their habitat by contributing to marine pollution, acoustic pollution and habitat destruction resulting from vehicle operations," it said.
"Unless measures are undertaken to protect dugongs in the Okinawa region, they will soon be extinct in Japanese waters," UNEP warned. "The most effective method of conserving dugongs in Japan would be to establish a sanctuary in the area of most important dugong habitat," the U.N. organization suggested.
The World Conservation Union's recommendation and the UNEP report "have certainly made the issue internationalized," said Shinichi Hanawa of the World Wide Fund for Nature (Japan).
Mr. Higashionna agrees, saying the United States and Japan "cannot ignore them."
"Camp Schwab should be returned to the Japanese public since it was constructed with Japan's money," he said. Because of the region's biodiversity, "it would be more appropriate to have a facility like an environmental research center rather than a military base."
The east coast of Nago city was chosen for a facility after Washington and Tokyo agreed to close Futenma Marine Corps Air Station because of issues involving its location in a densely populated area of central Okinawa.
The 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen brought local residents onto the streets for massive protests. To ease their anger, the United States and Japan promised to make the U.S. military presence less oppressive. Closing Futenma was the highlight of the pledge.
Okinawa, which reverted to Japan 30 years ago on May 15, 1972, 20 years after the Allied occupation ended in most of the country comprises less than 1 percent of the country's land mass but hosts about 75 percent of all the U.S. military personnel in Japan.
In a 1997 nonbinding referendum, Nago citizens voted against construction of a sea-based military facility. After the vote, Gov. Masahide Ota announced he had rejected the plan.
But after the election of Keiichi Inamine as his successor, Okinawa and Nago accepted the base in exchange for a development package worth around $1 billion. A proposal by the prefectural government proposal seeks to enlarge the 1,500-meter-long floating heliport to a 2,600-meter-long, civilian-military airport.
Critics question whether such a large airport is necessary in such a sparsely populated region.
"The government has never explained to us why a base is needed here. They just keep talking about economic-buildup programs," said Mr. Higashionna.
The United States and Japan "have squeezed many U.S. military bases and a number of problems into this tiny island. Because no more bases can be constructed on land, they are now trying to build up a new one on the sea," said Yasuhiro Miyagi, director of Save the Dugong Campaign Center Japan, who was defeated by incumbent Tateo Kishimoto in Nago's February mayoral election.
"The construction plan should be stopped and we should reconsider it," said Mr. Miyagi.
Opponents of the floating airport blame the government for having made light of the ecological impact of construction during the selection process.
Mr. Hanawa said the World Wide Fund for Nature sent a letter to Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was prime minister, asking him not to choose the site off Nago because of environmental concerns. In the custom of Japanese politicians and bureaucrats, Mr. Hashimoto never responded to the letter, he said.
Environmentalists and the project opponents also point to an American "double standard," since the dugong is listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
"Americans complain about the Japanese eating whales, but it is OK that U.S. military helps make dugongs in Japan die out. That's wrong," Mr. Miyagi said. "Here in Okinawa, the Americans have their own way in everything, and the Japanese government is supporting that."
The United States has been struggling with Japan for more than 25 years "to provide better protection of various species of marine mammals around the world," Toshio Kasuya, a marine-mammal biologist at Teikyo University of Science and Technology, and Robert L. Brownell Jr. of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, Calif., said in a paper. "Now it is ironic that if the U.S. expands Camp Schwab, the new facility is likely to become a major threat to the survival of the Okinawan dugong population."
The dugong is believed to have inhabited Asian waters from the east coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean to Australia, but it appears to have become extinct in East Asia except around Okinawa, researchers say.
A group of environmentalists, Okinawans and NGOs plans to sue the U.S. Defense Department to protect the dugong.
"Since the protection of the dugong is considered to be a U.S. national interest, its military's use of the [Okinawa offshore] area is against that interest," said Takaaki Kagohashi, an environmental lawyer and executive director of the Rights of Nature Fund.
"With the ESA, we seek to correct its conduct. It is natural that the United States should comply with its own law when they actually use the site."
Mr. Kagohashi said he has consulted lawyers and nongovernmental organizations in the United States, and the plaintiffs will include the dugong, U.S. citizens living in Okinawa and American NGOs. They also plan to take a legal action against the Japanese government.
A State Department official said Washington is willing to work with Tokyo to carry out the SACO (Special Action Committee on Okinawa) plan, which will reduce its footprint on the island.
"We are willing to relocate Futenma Air Station to facilities that would provide kinds of military capabilities that we believe are necessary," the official told The Washington Times.
But he did not respond to environmental concerns raised by Okinawa residents.
"Japan is responsible for trying to work within Japan to determine what the needs of the Japanese people are," he said.
An official at Japan's Defense Facilities Administration Agency says the agency has yet to decide on details of its environmental assessment of the planned site.
Responding to people's concern, an official at the Cabinet Office says the government "will make maximum efforts in order not to affect the region's environment and people's lives" in connection with the relocation of Futenma Air Station.
"We have a major premise that this is a Cabinet decision. At this point, there is no way this can be changed," the official said.
Still, "The governments of Okinawa, Japan and the United States will have to deal more with increasingly mounting environmental concern," said Hiroshi Hosaka, a professor of sociology and communications at the University of the Ryukyus.
Moreover, the construction plan has been stalled as Okinawa demands a 15-year time limit on use of the proposed U.S. military facility.
For many people in the region, the bottom line is: "To whom does Okinawa belong?"
For Fumiko Nakamura, an 88-year-old activist who was born and reared near the proposed floating airport site, "If it belongs to Japan, the government should listen to our voice."
"If the Japanese government decides to give up the plan in order to protect dugongs, it will be respected throughout the world," said Mr. Higashionna of Save the Dugongs Foundation. "I think that will make good diplomacy."
The IUCN recommends that the area in northern Okinawa be nominated as a world heritage site because of its high biodiversity.


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