Japan’s top court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the central government in its dispute with Okinawa over the relocation of a U.S. air base within the southern island prefecture, likely allowing controversial construction to resume.
With the Supreme Court decision in, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga plans to withdraw an action he took in 2015 to block the relocation of U.S. Air Station Futenma, a prefectural government source said. But the standoff between Tokyo and Okinawa is likely to drag on as the governor may try other methods to thwart the project.
Although expected, Tuesday’s decision is another slap in the face for the Okinawa government, whose strong demand that the U.S. military’s Osprey aircraft remain grounded fell on deaf ears as their flights were resumed Monday, less than a week after one crash-landed off Okinawa.
In the ruling handed down by the No. 2 Petty Bench of the Supreme Court, Presiding Justice Kaoru Onimaru said it was illegal for Onaga to revoke his predecessor’s approval for landfill work required for the plan to move the Marine base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.
The judgment was in line with a high court ruling issued in September, which the Okinawa government had appealed.
After decades of hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, many people in Okinawa want the Futenma base to be relocated outside the prefecture. They are frustrated with noise, crimes and accidents linked to the U.S. bases, and safety concerns were reignited in the wake of the Dec. 13 crash-landing of an MV-22 Osprey aircraft off Nago.
The central government has maintained that the current relocation plan, crafted under an accord with the United States, is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.
In September, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, acknowledging that the danger and noise problems posed by the Futenma base are “serious,” said in its ruling that the relocation plan will reduce the “overall” burden shouldered by people in Okinawa in accommodating the U.S. bases.
It also said the benefits to be accrued from the relocation exceed disadvantages, rejecting the Okinawa government’s concerns over potential damage to the environment of the Henoko area. It thus determined that it was “illegal” for Onaga to revoke the landfill work permission given by his predecessor.
The Henoko sea area, where a V-shaped runway is to be constructed through land reclamation to accommodate a Marine air base, is known as a marine habitat for coral reefs and endangered dugong.
The Japanese and U.S. governments struck an accord in 1996 on the return of the land used for the Futenma base after public anger was fueled over the 1995 rape of a local girl by three American servicemen. After years of wrangling, the Henoko area was eventually picked as the relocation site.
In 2013, then Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the central government’s request for the landfill work at the coastal area. But Onaga, who was elected in 2014 on a pledge to oppose the Futenma relocation within Okinawa, revoked the approval in October 2015.
Onaga has said earlier he will swiftly retract his revocation if his loss in the lawsuit is finalized. But he has also been exploring other options to thwart the relocation work.
For example, he can resist renewing permission for work that involves damaging rocks and stones in the sea, which is set to expire next March. The central government is likely to counter Onaga’s resistance by resorting to procedures meant to override his moves.