NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - A high court on Wednesday rejected the Okinawa Prefectural Government’s demand that the transfer of a key U.S. base within the island prefecture be halted, boosting the central government’s bid to continue construction work on a new air facility.
The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court upheld a lower court ruling, dismissing an appeal by the local government to suspend work for the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The central government plans to start full-blown land reclamation work on Dec. 14 to build the replacement facility.
In the legal war with the state initiated by the late Takeshi Onaga, the predecessor of the incumbent Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki and a fierce opponent of the relocation plan, no court has ruled in favor of the prefecture.
At issue is the controversial Japan-U.S. plan to move the Futenma facility from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal district in Nago, both in Okinawa.
Many people in the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, want the Futenma base to be moved out of Okinawa altogether. They are also concerned the land reclamation work will have a huge impact on the marine environment in the area, with its coral reefs and which is inhabited by the endangered dugong.
In March, the Naha District Court rejected the substance of a lawsuit filed by the prefecture in July 2017, referring to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that said state and local governments cannot bring suits seeking the central government to comply with their ordinances.
Okinawa has claimed the central government is acting illegally given it wants to move forward without permission from the local governor for work that involves damaging seabeds where fishing rights have been granted.
The state has argued that there is no need to obtain such permission from the governor because local fishermen’s cooperatives have abandoned their fishing rights.
In 1996, Tokyo agreed with Washington on the return of the land used for the Futenma base, which is situated close to schools and private residences.
The central and Okinawa governments have been at odds over the relocation of the Futenma base since Henoko was picked as the host for the replacement facility in 1999.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has maintained the relocation to Henoko is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the base without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
Tamaki, who won the September gubernatorial election with a pledge to oppose the base transfer to Henoko following Onaga’s death, rebutted by arguing that the airstrip does not need to stay within Okinawa from military and geographical points of view.
To prevent the state from moving ahead with building a replacement facility in Henoko, the Okinawa government in August revoked approval for the land reclamation work granted by Onaga’s predecessor in 2013.
But land minister Keiichi Ishii in late October authorized the restart of reclamation work, prompting Okinawa to file a complaint with a state panel tasked with settling disputes between the central and local governments.