National / Crime & Legal

Supreme Court overturns ruling to suspend nighttime SDF flights at Atsugi air base

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned lower court rulings that ordered the government to suspend nighttime and early morning Self-Defense Forces flights at the Atsugi air base near Tokyo.

The rejection of the noise pollutant suit over the military base, shared by the SDF and U.S. forces in Kanagawa Prefecture, could affect similar lawsuits concerning five other military bases in Japan — Kadena and Futenma bases in Okinawa Prefecture, Yokota base in Tokyo, Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture and Komatsu base in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Given that the government has taken measures to alleviate noise pollution around the Atsugi base, it is difficult to claim that flights by SDF aircraft lack validity or fall outside the discretion of the defense minister, presiding Judge Hiroshi Koike said in the ruling.

The Supreme Court also denied the plaintiffs’ call for compensation for future damages caused by noise pollution, but ordered the state to pay past damages for noise.

The decision was meant to follow precedents set in rulings in similar cases, which had ordered compensation only for past damages, Koike said.

The overturned decision favoring the government is “extremely regretful,” said Tokio Kaneko, leader of the group of plaintiffs. “I believe the Supreme Court ruling this time is a sign that we have to continue our fight.”

The lawsuit, the fourth over noise from the Atsugi base, was filed in 2007 by about 7,000 residents from Kanagawa Prefecture and Tokyo.

The suit led to landmark rulings in lower courts, which ordered the government to suspend flights by SDF aircraft for the first time. It was also the first time a court said the government must pay future damages over noise from a military base.

The Yokohama District Court in May 2014 ordered a suspension of SDF flights from the air base, which is located near residential areas, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and pay ¥7 billion in damages.

The Tokyo High Court upheld the district court ruling in July 2015, ordering the government to pay ¥9.4 billion, including ¥1.2 billion for noise resulting from future flights through 2016.

The compensation was ordered to cover noise pollution damages until the end of 2016, as U.S. carrier-based aircraft at the Atsugi air base are scheduled to be transferred to the Iwakuni base as early as 2017.

In both rulings, the lower courts had dismissed calls to stop flights of U.S. military planes, which residents have claimed are a major cause of noise pollution, because the Japanese government does not have jurisdiction. The Supreme Court agreed.

In previous lawsuits over noise at military bases, the court has conventionally rejected calls to halt flights of both U.S. and SDF aircraft, only ordering the payment of compensation for past noise pollution.

The Naha District Court in November, for example, ordered the government to pay around ¥2.46 billion in compensation to 3,395 residents near Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but it dismissed calls to suspend flights of U.S. planes.

The top court denying the regulation of flights by military aircraft is “extremely absurd,” said Shin Nakano, a lawyer leading the group of plaintiffs.

“The ruling shows that the Supreme Court hasn’t changed from the same old being,” he said. “We are asking about the usage of our own land, not about the U.S. military base. It is against common sense that we cannot have a say about how our own land is used.”

The plaintiffs plan to file a fifth lawsuit over the Atsugi air base noise as early as February.