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Expansion of US Military base puts endangered Henoko Bay Dugong at risk on Okinawa, Japan


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 [1] 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


Basic Data

Name of conflict:Expansion of US Military base puts endangered Henoko Bay Dugong at risk on Okinawa, Japan
State or province:Okinawa prefecture
Location of conflict:Henoko, Nago city
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Military installations
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The design of the Futenma Replacement Facility is based on the bilateral agreement between Japan and the U.S., "United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation" (2006). Japan agreed to construct the facility. It is to be V-shaped runways, each with about 1,800 meters in length. The runways extend over the peninsula of the Camp Schwab site between Henoko Bay and Oura Bay. The construction of this facility will require about 160 hectares of marine area with 2,100 cubic meters of soils for landfill. This construction will affect about 78.1 hectares of sea grass bed and about 6.9 hectares of coral area. The beach area of the Camp Schwab will be completely destroyed.

Project area:184
Level of Investment:approx. USD 3,300,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:about 1,869
Start of the conflict:25/09/2003
Relevant government actors:U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Department of State; Japan Ministry of Defense; Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Okinawa prefecture; Nago city
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Save the Dugong Foundation; Japan Environmental Lawyers' Association (JELF); Center for Biological Diversity; Turtle Island Restoration Network; Dugong Network Okinawa; Committee Against Heliport Construction/Save Life Society; WWF Japan; Conservation Alliance Japan; Okinawa Reefcheck & Research Group; Dugong No Sato; Diving Team Snack Snafkin

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Property damage/arson
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Public campaigns
Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Referendum other local consultations
Refusal of compensation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Media based activism/alternative media
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Street protest/marches
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Development of alternative proposals
Official complaint letters and petitions
Threats to use arms


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Development of alternatives:Futenma Base can be removed to Guam (which belongs to US) without building a military facility at Henoko.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The issue is on-going. Okinawa governor has maintained a strong position against the Henoko plan. He is backed by a large number of Okinawa residents. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his followers put increasing political pressure on Okinawa governor to accept the Henoko plan.
In this case, the driving force for the conflict in not the capitalist industrial growth in the social metabolism (energy and material flows) as in so many other conflicts in the EJAtlas inventory (in Japan and the world in general) bur specifically a US military installation. Opposition draws upon the “cult of wilderness” but also on local and national feelings against US military.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

U.S. National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), 16 U.S.C.; Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C.; Agreement Between the United States and Japan Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands (1972); Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (1960); Status of Forces Agreement (1960); Alliance Transformation and Realignment Agreement (2005); United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation (2006); Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and National Heritage (1972)

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations issued a request for the protection of the Okinawa dugong in 2000.

Thousands march on Henoko base site, 2014

‘Endangered Okinawa dugong’s habitat to be bulldozed for the sake of US military base’

Kyodo News 2017, "Japan begins constructing more seawalls for new U.S. base in Okinawa"

Global Research 2017, "Agent Orange on Okinawa: Six Years On"

Asahi Shinbun 2017b, "New building work begins at site for U.S. base in Okinawa"

Asahi Shinbun 2017a, "Kayak protest in Okinawa held after 6 months of U.S. base work"

The Japan Times 2017, "Okinawa to see work start on two new Futenma seawalls next week"

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[1] Center of Biological Diversity (USA), statement of March 2019.

Meta information

Contributor:Kenichi Matsui, Associate Professor, University of Tsukuba, Japan
Last update01/05/2019



Save the dugong protests at Henoko, Okinawa. Aug 2014


Greenpeace protesters against the US military base

Photo credit: Greenpeace

Protest against Henoko US military base

photo credit: Ian Teh

Peaceful protest against Henoko US military base

Photo credit: Greenpeace

Henoko Bay

Looking at the Camp Schwab site from Henoko Bay beach. December 2011.