The Yokohama District Court’s May 21 ruling in a lawsuit filed by local residents seeking a ban on nighttime flights to and from Atsugi air base in Kanagawa Prefecture underlines the need for the government to launch serious negotiations with the United States to reduce the noise from the operation of U.S. military aircraft.

In the landmark ruling, the court determined that local residents around the Atsugi base, which straddles the cities of Yamato, Ayase and Ebina, suffer from excessive aircraft noise and ordered the government to suspend nighttime flights by Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It was the first court ruling to suspend flights of Self-Defense Forces aircraft since residents living near air bases around the country started taking legal action against aircraft noise in the 1970s.

However, the ruling rejected the plaintiffs’ call for grounding aircraft of the U.S. Navy, which jointly uses the Atsugi air base with the MSDF, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The Yokohama court said that under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, Japan cannot apply its laws and regulations to the operations at U.S. military bases in this country. It faithfully follows the Supreme Court’s decision in the first noise pollution lawsuit involving the Atsugi base filed in 1976, in which the top court ruled that the Japanese government has no power to ban activities of the U.S. armed forces deployed in this country and that local residents cannot take civil action to seek to ban flights of SDF aircraft.

Even though the Yokohama court awarded a record amount of compensation for the plaintiffs, the ruling effectively does little to cut down on the noise, which comes primarily from U.S. Navy aircraft as the MSDF already refrains from operating its aircraft between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in principle.

In the latest lawsuit, the fourth legal case involving the Atsugi base, some 7,000 residents from eight cities including Yamato, Ayase and Tokyo’s Machida, sought the grounding of aircraft using the base via an administrative litigation while seeking damages through a civil action.

The plaintiffs live in areas where the noise level is greater than 75 on the weighted equivalent continuous perceived noise level, an international index for gauging aircraft noise. The government provides subsidies to residents in such areas to install home-soundproofing measures. Even so, the residents complain that aircraft noise has hampered their sleep as well as daily conversation and other activities at home.

The Yokohama court determined that the noise that the residents suffer is not at such a low level that they can be expected to naturally accept it, although it does not pose direct harm to their lives or physical conditions. Saying the government has failed to fulfill its duty to alleviate the damage, the court awarded the 7,000 plaintiffs a total of about ¥7 billion in damages, a record amount for noise pollution suits involving military bases, in addition to banning MSDF nighttime flights, except for night flights deemed “unavoidable.” But as the noise problem stems primarily from U.S. Navy aircraft, which are unaffected by the ruling, it will continue.

The government has been reluctant to address noise pollution around U.S. air bases in this country. Even if it is difficult to change the Status of Forces Agreement in the near future, the government should immediately start talks with the U.S. to reduce the noise, for example, by scaling down nighttime aircraft operations at bases. Minimizing the burden placed on civilians living around U.S. military installations in Japan will enhance the stability of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and, in doing so, contribute to stronger bilateral relations.

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