Court rules against Okinawa’s move to block US base relocation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 September, 2016, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 September, 2016, 2:22pm

A Japanese court on Friday ruled against Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga’s move to block the relocation of a key US air base within the island prefecture, making the first judicial judgment on the high-profile dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa that is certain to be appealed by the prefectural government.

The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court determined that it was “illegal” for Onaga last October to revoke his predecessor’s approval for landfill work required for the controversial plan to move the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.

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In the lawsuit filed in July, the central government, which is aiming to push ahead with the land reclamation project, sought recognition that the governor acted illegally by not complying with an order to retract his revocation.

With neither the central government nor the Okinawan government showing signs of compromise, the case is certain to go to the Supreme Court. The top court may issue its final word on the case within the current fiscal year ending March.

The latest legal battle follows a court-mediated settlement in March that laid out steps the central and local governments should take before bringing the case to court again. After several months of stalemate in which both sides stuck to their positions, the central government sued the governor again in July.

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During the ensuing trial, the central government argued implementing the landfill work is important to maintain the relationship of trust with the United States, which it says was fostered through long negotiations based on the 1996 bilateral accord on the return of the Futenma base site to Japanese control.

The central government also says the relocation plan is intended to address safety concerns for residents living near the base. But the attempt to build a replacement facility in the same island prefecture has drawn objections from the Okinawan government and locals, with the prefecture having to host the bulk of US military facilities in Japan even after it reverted to Japanese rule in 1972.

In a hearing in August, Onaga said the central government “is ignoring the will of the people of Okinawa and leaving [the prefecture] with an excessive base-hosting burden”. He also said, “If everything is decided in line with state policies, local autonomy will die”.

The prefectural government also insisted that the approval of reclamation work by Onaga’s predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima was problematic because it was issued without sufficient study of the adverse impact the construction project would have on the marine environment.

Both the central and Okinawan governments have agreed to comply with the final ruling.

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If the central government wins the case, it is expected to quickly resume relocation-related construction work, which was halted as part of the March settlement.

Onaga, if he loses, is expected to retract his revocation. But he is known to be exploring other ways to block the progress of the relocation.

Onaga was elected in November 2014 on a platform of opposing the base transfer plan within Okinawa.

The governor further solidified public support after a recent House of Councillors election left all Diet seats for Okinawa constituencies filled with lawmakers opposed to the relocation plan.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s loss of the sole remaining Okinawa Diet seat came after the alleged murder of a local woman by a US civilian base worker in April this year fuelled anti-base sentiment among locals.