NAHA, OKINAWA – The Naha District Court on Thursday ordered the government to pay around ¥2.46 billion ($22.6 million) in damages to 3,395 residents due to aircraft noise from a key U.S. air base in Okinawa Prefecture, but rejected the plaintiffs’ demand to halt flights there.
Presiding Judge Tetsuya Fujikura of the court’s Okinawa branch recognized the emotional distress and negative health impact that aircraft noise has on residents around Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, saying it disrupted their sleep and daily lives. The plaintiffs had demanded about ¥10 billion in damages.
Fujikura said the government “has left the problem unaddressed” without taking effective measures, even though the noise from the base has been an issue since the 1970s.
The court dismissed a request to suspend flights with noise levels exceeding 40 decibels early in the morning and at night, as well as 65 decibels at other times, saying the government “is not in a position to regulate the operation of U.S. military aircraft.”
The plaintiffs said they plan to appeal to a higher court.
The ruling comes as the Japanese and U.S. governments try to complete moving the base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated Henoko coastal area of Nago. Both are on Okinawa.
But the relocation plan has drawn opposition from the people of Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, as they want the Futenma base to be removed from the prefecture.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government’s stance on the relocation plan remains “completely unchanged” despite the ruling, calling the Henoko plan the only solution that balances national security concerns and the elimination of the risks at the current site.
“I understand that (the ruling) means the state’s arguments did not gain the full understanding of the court,” the government’s top spokesman told a news conference.
“The relevant government ministries and agencies will make arrangements to deal appropriately with (the issue) from here on.”
The central and Okinawa governments have been mired in legal battles after Tokyo filed a lawsuit against Okinawa because Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was elected for his anti-base stance on the relocation plan, revoked in October last year his predecessor’s approval for landfill work required for the relocation.
The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court ruled in September that the governor’s decision was illegal, prompting him to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Thursday’s noise ruling follows two similar ones filed by other groups of citizens. In July 2010, the Fukuoka High Court ordered the central government to pay around ¥369 million in damages to the plaintiffs, but rejected their plea for the suspension of flights.
In June last year, the Okinawa branch of the Naha District Court also ordered Tokyo to pay damages of about ¥754 million.
Residents who live near the Futenma base have long suffered from its noise pollution, and Zenji Shimada, the 76-year-old priest leading the plaintiffs, and his family are among them.
Shimada’s family moved to Ginowan in 1977 because he hoped living in a house on a hill overlooking the sea would help cure his son’s asthma. But they soon heard the loud noise of U.S. military helicopters flying by. They weren’t aware of the problem because there was no training at the base when they were moving in or when they came to look at the house beforehand.
His daughter, born in 1978, suffered a nighttime convulsion during the noise. She then began refusing to take breast milk, he said.
Shimada started a protest alone the same year by sitting in front of a gate of the base with a banner that read: “Silent people must die down.” He later organized a citizens group and began filing lawsuits to suspend flights at the base.
“I wonder whether the Constitution, which is designed to protect human rights, is really respected. I want to raise questions about the foundation of this country,” Shimada said before Thursday’s ruling.
In the previous lawsuit, the ruling ordered the state to pay compensation but rejected a call for flight suspensions as well.
“(The noise) even disrupts our conversations in everyday life. We cannot sleep easily when catching a cold. There is no environment where we can raise children in peace,” Shimada said, demanding that the base be removed to fundamentally solve the problems.
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