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High court upholds ban on SDF night flights at Atsugi, lets U.S. off the hook

Kyodo

The Tokyo High Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the government to suspend nighttime and early morning flights by Self-Defense Forces aircraft at the Atsugi military base near Tokyo due to noise, while dismissing the plaintiffs’ call to halt flights of U.S. planes there.

The high court also ordered the government to pay ¥9.4 billion in damages for noise at Atsugi, including ¥1.2 billion for noise resulting from future flights through 2016.

It is the first ruling on an aircraft noise suit that calls for a payment of future damages.

The court determined that the compensation should cover the period until the end of 2016, given the U.S. military is scheduled to shift its operations from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, by as early as 2017.

The Yokohama District Court ruled in May 2014 that the government must suspend SDF flights between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and pay ¥7 billion in damages, the largest award on record for an aircraft noise suit.

Neither that ruling nor Thursday’s by the Tokyo High Court affected U.S. military aircraft because the Japanese government has no jurisdiction over them.

The plaintiffs said they consider the ruling a win, although they indicated they may take the case to the Supreme Court to seek a ban on night flights by U.S. planes, as many see this as necessary to completely resolve the issue.

The government will also consider appealing the ruling, said Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, who described it as “unacceptable.”

“It is very regrettable that the government’s claims could not gain the court’s understanding,” Nakatani said.

In handing down the ruling, presiding Judge Takashi Saito said an excessive amount of aircraft noise has been persisting for 40 years and the noise “pertains to the living environment of residents, and it is a serious infringement of rights that could affect their health.”

The plaintiffs, numbering nearly 7,000 and coming from eight cities, including Ayase and Yamato in Kanagawa Prefecture, filed the suit in 2007, seeking damages and suspension of flights at Atsugi from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

The Yokohama District Court ruling was appealed by both sides, with the government saying the noise had already been compensated for and eased through insulation work.

The SDF was voluntarily restricting early morning and late night flights even before the district court gave its ruling.

The latest suit is the fourth over noise at the Atsugi base since the 1970s.

The previous three, which have been finalized, ordered the government to pay compensation for past damage caused by the noise.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers hailed the ruling as a great leap forward.

“It is a big achievement that the high court ordered the flight suspension, and it’s also extremely important that the court acknowledged damages from future flights,” said attorney Mamoru Fukuda.

“It’s a groundbreaking ruling,” Tokio Kaneko, a leader of the plaintiffs, told a gathering of their supporters near the high court. “The suit will definitely go to the Supreme Court, so let’s make sure that we win,” he said to applause.

However, some plaintiffs also expressed dissatisfaction over the court’s refusal to suspend U.S. military flights.

“We don’t know if it will be quiet in the future. It probably won’t be while I’m alive,” said a 78-year-old plaintiff who lives 2 km from the base.

Another plaintiff, 76-year-old Ryuta Saito, built his medical clinic 40 years ago on a piece of land in the city of Yamato he inherited from his mother. The clinic is 3 km from the base.

“I knew about the base but I had no idea it would be this noisy,” he said.

He said the noise often disrupts examinations using a stethoscope, which must be conducted with utmost concentration so as not to miss any murmurs, he said.

Saito recalled a female patient he was treating two decades ago. The woman, in her 50s, was suffering from sarcoma on the right side of her lower back, and whenever a U.S. aircraft flew by, the vibration caused her to develop muscle cramps in her right leg.

The woman’s pain was so severe that blood vessels in her arms would bulge when she squeezed a pillow to bear the pain.

He lamented that the woman had to deal with the noise until her death, deprived of the right to spend her last days in peace.

The noise has also been a major concern for Shigeyoshi Yamaguchi, 68, who runs a kindergarten 1.7 km from the base.

Back in 1974, Yamaguchi’s mother had Tsuruma Kindergarten refurbished from a wooden structure to reinforced concrete, which was rare at the time.

The mother made the decision to make the building stronger so it could serve as “a shelter” for children in case of a plane crash, Yamaguchi said, explaining that a U.S. military aircraft had crashed into a nearby iron factory, killing some of the workers.

Yamaguchi said his major concern is that noise from the base may also pose a threat to children’s emotional health, as every time they hear the roar of an aircraft they stop playing and talking.

“It might affect their ability to concentrate in the future,” he said. “The best way to give children a quiet sky is to issue a blanket flight ban that would also include U.S. military aircraft.”

But he is aware it may not be that easy.

“I know it’s difficult. It’s not just about what Japan can do,” he said.

  • gokyo

    The title is a little misleading. The U.S. was never “on the hook” considering the courts have no jurisdiction.

  • Liars N. Fools

    American military is state within a state in Japan. How proud of an advanced country like Japan to tolerate such a state,