The dispute over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another site in Okinawa has finally developed into a court battle between the national government and the prefecture that hosts the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan. The Abe administration appears confident that it can override the local opposition to building the replacement facility off the Henoko area of Nago. But it should also think about the long-term impact a full-blown legal confrontation with the prefectural government would have on Okinawa's sentiment toward the U.S. bases and possibly the bilateral security alliance itself.

The government on Tuesday filed a lawsuit with the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, seeking a court judgment to empower itself to override Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's recent revocation of permission given in 2013 by his predecessor to work on reclaiming land off Henoko to build the new airfield to replace the Futenma base in Ginowan, central Okinawa. If the court decides in its favor and the ruling is finalized, the government plans to act on behalf of the governor to withdraw his revocation and go ahead with the project.

It is the latest development in the relocation of Futenma, which was originally agreed on between Japan and the United States way back in 1996 — on condition that a new replacement facility would be built in Okinawa, but it's the first time the matter has been taken to court. Okinawa Prefecture has separately filed a complaint with a third-party organ that settles disputes between national and local governments against a decision by the land minister to suspend the validity of Onaga's revocation of the reclamation permit, and is also ready to take the matter to court if its argument is not upheld.