Fighting to Protect the Dugongs of Japan’s Henoko Bay

Earthjustice has been involved for more than a decade in legal efforts to protect the Okinawa dugong and Henoko Bay, one of the dugong’s last remaining habitats.

The dugong is a marine mammal similar to the Florida manatee. (Andrea Izzotti/iStock)

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The new governor of Okinawa, Japan takes local sovereignty seriously, and he’s using his position to oppose U.S. military development that would threaten the Okinawa dugong. But this gentle giant of the sea won’t be spared without a fight.

You may never have heard of the dugong, a marine mammal similar to the Florida manatee. Dugongs are shy creatures, living out their quiet lives in shallow seagrass beds around the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. The waters surrounding the Japanese island of Okinawa are home to some of the few remaining Okinawa dugongs, rare, genetically isolated and critically endangered members of the dugong species. Dugongs are central to the creation mythology, folklore and rituals of the people of Okinawa. Because of its cultural significance, Japanese law protects the dugong as a cultural monument.

The United States occupied Okinawa after World War II and, although the island was returned to Japanese control in 1972, the United States maintains a heavy military presence there. An overwhelming majority of U.S. military operations in Japan are still based in Okinawa, and the local people bear the costs of this security arrangement. Despite the importance of the dugong to the local people and its status as an endangered species, the American and Japanese governments are planning to construct a military base on landfill in Henoko Bay, one of the most important remaining habitats for the Okinawa dugong.

The construction plans for the new base call for dredging and dumping large amounts of landfill into Henoko Bay, destroying the seagrass beds on which the dugongs rely for food. Construction and operation of the base will cause serious contaminant pollution from sedimentation and run-off, equipment and aircraft fuels, waste and ordinance storage. Noise and light pollution will also harass the quiet-loving dugong. These threats put the Okinawa dugong in real danger of extinction.

In 2003, Earthjustice, on behalf of U.S. and Japanese environmental groups and Okinawan citizens, challenged the United States Department of Defense’s failure to properly consider the impacts of the base on the dugong. We achieved the first ever application of a section of the National Historical Preservation Act that requires the government to consider harms to culturally significant objects when acting overseas. In 2008, a federal judge in California determined that the National Historical Preservation Act does indeed apply to the Department of Defense’s actions in Japan, and the Department of Defense must therefore consider the impacts of the base on the dugong.

Earthjustice’s work to protect the dugong and hold the U.S. government accountable is part of a larger Okinawan struggle against militarization in the community dating to the end of formal U.S. occupation more than forty years ago. Earlier this year, Takeshi Onaga was elected governor of Okinawa on a platform that included promises to stop base construction and relieve the undue burden of the U.S. military presence on the Okinawan people. His election showed the central government in Tokyo how strong anti-military sentiment is in the local population.

Governor Onaga recently delivered on his promise to do everything in his power to halt base construction by overturning his predecessor’s approval of a land reclamation permit necessary for construction of the new base. The Japanese federal government immediately filed a lawsuit against Governor Onaga, claiming that his action threatens national security and is contrary to the will of the Japanese people. Okinawan residents continue to support Governor Onaga.

Governor Onaga’s stand against military operations in Okinawa and the overwhelming support of his constituents sends an important message to the United States and the Japanese government: the will of the local population is clearly against new military bases in Henoko, or indeed anywhere in Okinawa, and ignoring these calls for greater environmental and human rights protections will plague the U.S.-Japan relationship until local voices are heard. Washington and Tokyo cannot continue to insist on a single course of action in Henoko that threatens both the dugong and the human rights of Okinawan citizens. 

A native of Maryland, Jacob worked with the International Program in San Francisco in 2016. He gained experience in international human rights and environmental law as an intern with the Center for International Environmental Law and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.