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Japan’s top court rules in favor of U.S. base relocation within Okinawa

Kyodo

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of the central government in its dispute with Okinawa over the Futenma base relocation, likely allowing the controversial construction plan to resume.

Although not unexpected, the decision is another slap in the face for the Okinawa Prefectural Government. On Monday, the U.S. military resumed Osprey flights, despite the prefecture’s objection, after grounding the tilt-rotor transport aircraft last week following a crash-landing off Okinawa.

The Supreme Court’s decision also marked an end to the legal fight that followed Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s revocation of his predecessor’s approval for land reclamation work. This landfill work is part of the project to relocate the U.S. Futenma base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.

But the standoff between the central government and Okinawa is likely to drag on, as Onaga has already hinted at obstructing the base relocation through other means.

The Second Petty Bench of the Supreme Court handed down the ruling without conducting any hearings, which would have been necessary had it decided to reconsider a high court ruling in September that backed the central government’s relocation plan.

After decades of hosting the bulk of the U.S. military facilities in Japan, many people in Okinawa want Futenma to be relocated outside the prefecture. They are frustrated with noise, crime and accidents linked to the U.S. bases. 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 Futenma without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga welcomed the decision, saying the Supreme Court “fully accepted” the central government’s arguments and added that the government is willing to “cooperate” with Okinawa Prefecture over the relocation plan based on the ruling.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said in a statement that the Defense Ministry plans to “swiftly resume” the landfill work, which has been suspended amid the intensifying dispute, once Onaga retracts his revocation.

In its September ruling, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court acknowledged that the danger and noise problems posed by Futenma are “serious” and that the relocation plan will reduce the “overall”  burden shouldered by Okinawa’s residents.

It further ruled that benefits from the relocation exceed the disadvantages, rejecting the Okinawa government’s concerns over potential environmental damage to the Henoko area. It thus determined that it was “illegal” for Onaga to revoke the landfill work permission granted by his predecessor.

The Henoko sea area is 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 Futenma after public outrage in the wake of a 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-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved a central government request for the landfill work at the coastal site. But Onaga, who was elected in 2014 on a campaign pledge to oppose the Futenma relocation within Okinawa, revoked the approval in October 2015.

Onaga has said 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 in the sea, which is set to expire in March.