In a further escalation of the political battle between Tokyo and Okinawa, the central government filed a lawsuit against Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Tuesday.
The suit demands that the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court order Onaga to retract his decision to revoke permission granted by his predecessor to conduct landfill work related to the ongoing project to relocate the U.S. Futenma air base.
This is the first lawsuit of its kind since 1995, when the central government brought a suit against then-Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who had refused to sign documents necessary to expropriate land plots used for 11 U.S. bases in the prefecture.
The governor eventually lost the lawsuit at the Supreme Court.
The latest lawsuit is likely to further fan anti-Tokyo sentiment among Okinawan residents, a majority of whom have demanded that the U.S. Marine air station be relocated outside the prefecture. About 18.2 percent of Okinawa Island is being used by the U.S. military.
Anti-military sentiment has been particularly strong in Okinawa, which experienced fierce ground battles during World War II and was put under postwar military occupation by the U.S. until as late as 1972.
Meanwhile, the central government has argued that relocating the Futenma air base to the Henoko district of Nago, northern Okinawa, is necessary to meet an agreement with the U.S. government to relocate the base and remove the danger of possible accidents and noise problems in densely populated Ginowan, where Futenma is currently located.
Onaga’s revocation of the landfill permission “has harmed the public interest,” land minister Keiichi Ishii, who filed the lawsuit against the governor, said during a news conference in Tokyo later Tuesday.
“If we neglect this situation, the current dangerous situation at the Futenma base would be left unchanged,” Ishii said. “It would also mean we would breach the promise with the U.S. to relocate it to Henoko.”
During the coming court battle, the governor is likely to challenge the validity of the Japanese security policy of maintaining U.S. Marines in Okinawa. Top U.S. military leaders often describe Okinawa as “the keystone of the Pacific.”
Onaga has argued there are no “rational reasons,” as required by the landfill law, to reclaim the sea off Nago to build the new base there.
Thus the landfill permission, granted by then-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, had “legal defects” that invalidated it, according to Onaga.
Okinawa hosts many U.S. and Japanese military bases, and moving Futenma outside the prefecture “would lower neither the military presence nor deterrent power to an unacceptable level” for the security of Japan, the governor argued in a statement last month.
High-ranking officials in Tokyo have said they are convinced the central government will win the lawsuit. Landfill work will continue during the trial, they also said.
The trial is scheduled to open Dec. 2.
The central government has maintained there were no legal defects in Nakaima’s procedures to grant the landfill permission, and a governor has no power to make decisions affecting national security or diplomatic policies.
In a 1968 landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an administrative body can retract an “illegal or inappropriate decision” only if its merits would outweigh the demerits and that maintaining the status quo would adversely affect “public interest” to a remarkable extent.
The land ministry argued that Onaga’s retraction did not meet the conditions set by the Supreme Court ruling because it would make it impossible to remove the danger posed by the Futenma base and critically damage “the relationship of trust” between the U.S. and Japan. Moreover, ¥4.73 billion already paid for the landfill work would end up being wasted.
“The relationship of trust between the two countries, which has been built up over many years, would be disrupted and could even collapse, which would cause unmeasurable demerits for diplomatic, defense and economic relations between Japan and the United States,” the ministry maintained in a statement submitted to the court for the lawsuit.
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