The Tokyo High Court’s recent ruling upholding a lower court decision that ordered the government to suspend nighttime flights by Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft at the Atsugi military base near Tokyo underlines the need for Japan to make serious efforts to get the United States to reduce the noise from its military aircraft at the base. The Atsugi base, which straddles the cities of Yamato and Ayase in Kanagawa Prefecture, is jointly used by the MSDF and the U.S. Navy, but nighttime noise comes primarily from U.S. Navy aircraft as the MSDF has refrained from operating its aircraft between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in principle since before the May 2014 ruling by the Yokohama District Court.

The lawsuit, the fourth legal action taken over the noise from the Atsugi base, was filed in 2007. The high court ruling gave a total of ¥9.4 billion in compensation to about 6,900 local residents from eight cities, including Machida in western Tokyo as well as Yamato and Ayase — ¥4,000 to ¥20,000 per person a month — surpassing some ¥7 billion ordered by the Yokohama court, which had represented the highest level of compensation in this kind of lawsuit. The high court decision was also the first ruling to grant compensation that takes into consideration the noise damage from future operation of aircraft at the base. A ¥1.2 billion portion of the damages covers a period through the end of 2016 — since U.S. carrier-based planes responsible for a large part of the noise are scheduled to be transferred to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture at the beginning of 2017. It also represented the first high court decision to order a halt to flights by aircraft of any branch of the Self-Defense Forces.

However, the high court rejected a call by the plaintiffs for a ban on nighttime flights by U.S. military aircraft using Naval Air Facility Atsugi, as the base is officially known, on the grounds that under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, controlling the operation of U.S. forces aircraft is beyond the government’s jurisdiction. It followed a Supreme Court ruling on the first lawsuit filed in 1976 over the Atsugi base noise, which said the Japanese government has no power to regulate activities of the U.S. forces deployed in this country. The top court also said local residents cannot take a civil action seeking to ban SDF flights. The plaintiffs this time sought the grounding of aircraft using the Atsugi base via administrative litigation while seeking damages through a civil suit.

Even though it dismissed the call for banning the nighttime flights of U.S. aircraft, the high court recognized that the aircraft noise at the Atsugi base constitutes a violation of important rights of the local residents concerning their living environment and could affect their health. It said that although the MSDF has refrained from late-night and early morning flights, the overall noise pollution has not improved, thereby the SDF has failed to fulfill its duty under the SDF Law to take steps to prevent disasters to local residents. It added that there are limits to the effectiveness of government measures to reduce the noise level for residents who live in areas around the base, including sound-proofing of their homes.

The latest ruling as a whole strongly calls on the government to make efforts to reduce damage to local residents from the noise generated by aircraft using the Atsugi base. The government should pay heed to the plight of the residents and explore negotiations with the U.S. for measures to reduce the noise from its military aircraft, including restrictions on their flights, in addition to taking steps to cut back on the noise from SDF aircraft.

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