On a Firm Foundation of Mayonnaise: Human and Natural Threats to the Construction of a New Base at Henoko

The reasons for abandoning construction of the new US Marine Corps Air Facility, being built for the Marines by the Japanese Defense Ministry at Henoko in northern Okinawa, are many.  It tramples on the Okinawan people’s anti-war sensibilities; it places an unequal burden on Okinawa compared to mainland Japan and is therefore discriminatory; it will cause more accidents and crimes victimizing Okinawans; it will damage, perhaps fatally, the coral garden in Oura Bay (much of which is to be filled) and destroy the habitat and feeding ground of the dugong, an endangered species considered sacred by Okinawans; it can only be done by overriding the people’s will with massive riot police force.

These are not reasons that are going to persuade the US government. However recently there are emerging other problems more likely to catch that government’s attention.

First of all, the location may be illegal, or if that’s too strong a word, in violation of US military safety regulations for airstrips.  Those regulations set height limits for buildings and other structures within a certain distance from the airstrip. Three years ago the Japanese Defense Ministry sent a letter to Okinawa Electric informing them that 19 of their transmission towers, built on top of the hills behind the construction site, violate these height regulations and would have to be removed. This was kept secret from the public until discovered by the Okinawa Times.  The Times then did a survey and found that, using the same height regulations as the standard, a large number of shops and residences, the Okinawa Campus of the National Institute of Technology and (unbelievably) the US military’s Henoko Munitions Storage Depot are also in violation.

In addition, the project is increasingly coming to look like an engineering disaster.

What are the grounds for thinking so?  First, the fact that testing of the soil beneath the construction site on Oura Bay, begun in 2014, continues today, suggests that the Defense Agency has been unable to determine that the sea bottom is firm enough to bear the weight of the two airstrip-length blocks of concrete they plan to set down there.  Several engineers who have been serving as independent watchdogs over the project, have suggested some explanations. Much of Okinawa’s bedrock is limestone, which is notoriously soft.  If the sea bottom is even partly limestone, that would make poor foundation for an airport.  To people who argue that surely the government’s engineers know how to overcome such problems, the independent engineers point out that Kansai International Airport, completed in 1994 by reclaiming land in Japan’s Inland Sea, is slowly sinking; every day trucks bring in rocks and dirt to shore it up, and the buildings are kept level with jacks.  A further problem: Okinawa’s bedrock is laced with limestone caves. If there are any such caves under the Henoko construction site, that would make it an even more terrible place to put an airport.

Recently one of the engineers managed to obtain from the Defense Ministry a soil test report, which the Ministry understandably had not shared with the media.  While much of the testing is done by bringing up soil samples with boring equipment, this report describes the results of the Standard Penetration Test (SPT).  This test is carried out using a rig somewhat like a small pile driver.  An iron tube is lowered to the sea bottom, attached to a rigid pole long enough to extend above sea level.  An iron slide hammer of fixed weight is dropped from a fixed distance on to the pole, and the number of blows required to drive the tube down six inches is recorded.  This number is called the N-value, and an N-value of 50 or more is considered a firm foundation. According to the report, in several places under the airstrip site the pole didn’t need the hammer: when it reached what looked like the sea bottom it just kept on going to the six inch mark and beyond.  The sea bottom there was given an N-value of “0”.  To give an image of what this “0” meant, the engineer suggested we imagine a sea bottom composed of tofu.  Hearing this, an expert on sea bottoms from mainland Japan offered a correction: not tofu: mayonnaise.  Since then, “mayonnaise” has become a buzzword at the protest site. We are told that in some places this “mayonnaise” (slime would be another name for it) extends as far down as 130 feet.

Tarak Kauff and I , who was in Okinawa with a Veterans For Peace delegation, talked to one of the engineers.  I told him I had heard two mayonnaise theories: one, that a mayonnaise sea bottom would make construction impossible; two, that construction is possible but would require new permits from the Governor.  He told us the latter is true.  When the sea bottom is unstable, it is possible to bring in a (real) pile driver, drive huge pylons into the stable hardpan (assuming there is such) beneath the guck, and then set a steel framework over those, like a table with many legs.  But the construction permit under which they are working now, granted by a former governor in a stunning betrayal of his campaign promises, is for a different operation, so they would need to apply for a new one. Governor Onaga Takeshi, who defeated the turncoat governor in a landslide, was clearly not going to grant such a permit, so the Japanese Government was placing its hopes on this year’s Gubernatorial election.  Sadly Governor Onaga died of cancer just before the election, but his chosen successor, Tamaki Denny, trounced the Government’s favored candidate in another landslide.  It looks like the Defense Department is going to try to railroad the thing through anyway, permit or no permit.

There is more. Seismologists believe there are two active earthquake faults directly under the construction site.  That might be a gamble worth taking if it were a matter simply of providing aircraft a place to land and take off.  But in the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, which is where construction is taking place, the Henoko Munitions Storage Depot, which used to store nuclear weapons is, we are told, to be up-graded so as to do so again as part of the new base. Try to imagine a project more insane than putting a nuclear weapons storage site on top of an active earthquake fault.

In the Okinawa protest movement these issues are much discussed.  It’s not just a matter of engineering science.  Okinawans tend to talk about their land as a sentient being. Many have the feeling that not only the people, but also the land itself is rejecting the construction of the new base. Many remember how the anti-US base movement in the Philippines was supported by the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo, resulting in the demise of the US’s Clark and Subic Bay bases.  So with apologies to Robert Frost,

Some say Camp Schwab will surely sink in slime.
Some say it will be shattered by a fault.
From what we know of nature’s scale of time,
Its final grave will certainly be slime.
But far beneath the slime, an active fault
Could swiftly bring its business to a halt.                

What You Can Do

Veterans For Peace-Ryukyus/Okinawa Chapter Kokusai (VFP-ROCK) submitted to the 2018 VFP national Convention in St. Paul, a resolution appealing to the US Government’s General Accountability Office (GAO) to do an investigation of these allegations against the Henoko project. The idea is that, apart from the many reasons the Okinawans are adamantly against this project, it is also not in the interest of the US to be gifted a legally and structurally flawed airbase, however free. There is also strong reason to believe that the Japanese Government, anxious to save face, is not being wholly honest with the US in its progress reports.  And we have reason to believe that (GAO) is already worried about the project.  The resolution (see below) passed by acclamation.

VFP-ROCK is now carrying out campaign to lobby US congress members to urge GAO to do this investigation. (GAO generally only does investigations when requested by congress people.)  If readers who agree with this strategy would forward this resolution, if possible with a cover letter, to their respective representatives in Congress, that would be a great help.  This is a fight that can be won.

Call for Goverment Accountability Office (GAO) Investigation of Henoko Base Construction, Okinawa

Whereas, GAO declared in its 2017 Marine Corps Asian-Pacific Realignment(GAO-17-415) that the runways at the proposed MCAS Futenma Replacement Facility in Okinawa are of insufficient length, and

Whereas, in doing so GAO declared itself competent to investigate the merits of this project, and

Whereas, other aspects of this project cast doubt on whether it serves US national interest, to wit:

*the majority of the once-sovereign Okinawans, now bearing 74% of all US bases in Japan, view this project as another example of the discrimination to which Okinawa has been subjected throughout its modern history, and

*because both of fierce protests and environmental problems, construction is years behind; and

*among the latter is the fact that the runways are to be built over a pristine coral garden, habitat of the endangered dugong, requiring an environmental sensitivity of which Japan’s Defense Ministry seems incapable; and

* soil testing, begun in 2014, continues today, which means the Defense Ministry has not yet determined that the sea bottom is sufficiently firm to support two runways (some areas are soft limestone, others mayonnaise-like slime); and

*adjacent the site are 19 electrical transmission towers, buildings including a college campus, and the Henoko Ordnance Storage Facility, all exceeding US military height limits; and

*two active earthquake faults lie beneath the site; and,

Whereas, on 28 July Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga began the legal proceedings required to revoke the permit, granted to Japan’s Defense Agency by his predecessor, to fill part of Oura Bay, triggering a legal battle that will surely cause further delays and possibly, should law prevail over politics, doom the project altogether; and,

Whereas, this project makes a mockery of the US military’s “good neighbor” pretensions and places its entire presence in Okinawa in danger, and

Whereas, the Japanese Government, obsessed with saving face, has not proved a reliable informant regarding this project,

Now therefore, Veterans For Peace urges GAO to launch its own investigation of this situation, to determine the merit of these allegations, and to judge whether attempting to force this project through will be worth the cost – or, more ominously, the risk.