In 2003, three Japanese citizens, six U.S. and Japanese environmental associations along with Okinawa residents on behalf of the dugong as plaintiffs filed a claim against the U.S. Department of Defense at the U.S. District Court in northern California. The plaintiffs claimed that the U.S. Marine base construction scheme in Henoko Bay would destroy the habitat of marine mammals like the dugong. For local Okinawa residents, the dugong has been integral part of their cultural and historical heritage, and the planned military facility would violate the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. This military facility was planned to replace the existing and controversial military base in Futenma as the location is within residential areas and some accidents had plagued residents for a long time. This replacement plan, however, met strong opposition from environmental activists and Okinawa people in general partly because of the impact on the dugong. They also opposed because Okinawa people had been overburdened by American military presence for too long. In 2008, the judge of the district court dismissed the standing of the dugong in this case, but mostly agreed with the plaintiffs' argument, ordering the DOD to conduct proper impact assessment prior to the commencement of the construction. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet, however, are now determined to continue construction despite the strong opposition from residents. The newly elected Okinawa prefecture governor has strongly acted against this Henoko plan, sharply confronting with Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga. The dispute has not been resolved yet.
Update (until March 2019).
In April 2017 the Japanese government started building seawalls in Henoko Bay. On October 25, about 60 kayaks paddled out in the bay with signs and slogans such as “don’t destroy the sea”. On land, people of Okinawa have participated in sit-down and lay-down peaceful protests (Asahi Shinbun 2017a). Despite strong political opposition by the Okinawa government and activist resistance through community groups and larger organisations like Greenpeace Japan, On 6 November 2017, the central government began construction for two more seawalls in Nago, in an attempt to reclaim more of the area for the base expansion. The Okinawa prefecture government wants to see the military base leave Okinawa all together, but the central government is determined to carry on with their plan of filling this sea area in the autumn of 2018 (Asahi Shinbun 2017b). The Okinawa government filed a lawsuit against the central government in July of 2017 against the expansion of the military base, however it is still pending and the project is continuing as planned (Kyodo News 2017). Apart from the endangered Dugong, there are other environmental issues that are worth mentioning in regards to this case. A survey conducted by the Environment Ministry revealed that 70% of the coral reef in Okinawa’s Sekiseihoko are is dead from coral bleaching (The Japan Times 2017). At the seawall construction side, a rare and endangered coral was found (Kyodo News 2017). This coral has been removed and relocated in order to ensure its protection, but this is a stark reminder of the kind of damage the US military base expansion can have to the marine life and ecosystem of the ocean which is already severely threatened due to warming sea temperatures. According to Global Research (2017), all components of the notorious defoliant Agent Orange have been found on Okinawa, and there is evidence that it was used throughout the island, despite the Pentagon denying this fact. In 2015, it was discovered that surrounding waters were highly contaminated with the poison dioxin. This adds another layer of controversy when it comes to the presence of US military forces in Japan, and particularly on Okinawa.
By March 2019, the conflict continues. The
Center for Biological Diversity in the US stated  that more than a dozen US conservation and animal protection groups “urged the
House Armed Services Committee to push for a temporary halt to construction of
a U.S. military base in Japan that could wipe out the Okinawa dugong, one of
earth’s most endangered marine mammals. Okinawa voters recently approved a
measure opposing the airbase.” The Department of Defense is being sued for
failing to comply with U.S. environmental laws requiring a thorough evaluation
of the project’s threat to the Okinawa dugong, a critically endangered manatee
relative. “Our own natural heritage is at risk when we destroy sensitive ocean
habitats and endangered species. We would not condone such activities at home,
nor should we condone them abroad,” states the letter from the Center for
Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Animal Welfare
Institute, and 10 other nonprofit organizations. “Wiping out these gentle
animals to build this controversial base would deeply stain America’s
international reputation,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center’s
oceans program. “The House Armed Services Committee should push the Pentagon to
halt this reckless construction and thoroughly evaluate the project’s threat to
dugongs and Okinawan culture.” The ongoing construction ignores a democratic
referendum last month in which an overwhelming majority of Okinawa voters
opposed the base construction. Building the base will involve filling in and
paving over hundreds of acres of rich coral and seagrass habitat crucial to the
handful of surviving Okinawa dugongs.
The organization in the US leading this
campaign is the Center for Biological Diversity. This is a nonprofit
conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online
activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. This
organization is what in the global environmentalist argot is called a BINGO,
big international non governmental organization, here helping a movement of
“conservation with the (Okinawa) people” and not, as in other cases that we
shall see in this book, “conservation without the people” or even against the