Even as the case finally makes its way to the courtroom, the national government and Okinawa Prefecture continue to view the dispute over relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from totally different perspectives. Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, appearing last week in the first court session on a lawsuit filed by the national government to override his revocation of prefectural permission to conduct landfill work at the planned replacement site in the Henoko area in Nago, said the matter should be considered in the overall context of Okinawa’s postwar history and disproportionately heavy burden of hosting military bases under the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

The government, on the other hand, wants to focus on the legal and administrative questions over the governor’s act of withdrawing the permit, which was issued by his predecessor two years ago. It also dismisses Onaga’s challenge against the necessity of building the replacement airfield within Okinawa, saying that a prefectural governor can’t determine matters of national security and diplomatic concern — meaning the construction and operation of U.S. military bases in Japan under the bilateral security treaty — because those fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the national government.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems fairly confident of winning the court battle with Okinawa, which began last Wednesday at the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, just as it did 20 years ago, when the government successfully overruled then-Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota’s refusal to sign documents for the leasing of land for the U.S. bases. The high court is expected to take several months before handing down its ruling, after which the case can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

But even if the court eventually rules in favor of the government, thus empowering it to cancel the governor’s revocation of the landfill permit and proceed with construction in Henoko, the new facility would then be built by overriding local opposition after a bitter legal battle. What impact such an all-out confrontation over the Futenma relocation would have on public sentiment in Okinawa toward the U.S. military presence — and possibly toward the security alliance itself — would be hard to predict.

Onaga, who was elected governor in November last year on his promise of halting construction of the new facility in Henoko, revoked in October the landfill permit given by his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima in 2013, citing “legal flaws” in Nakaima’s decision. The Abe administration quickly responded by taking steps to suspend the validity of Onaga’s revocation — thereby making it legally possible for the government to proceed with work for the reclamation — and then filed the suit with the court asking to empower the government to override Onaga’s move.

The court proceedings reproduce the same gap between the prefecture and the national government that became evident when they briefly engaged in a series of dialogues this summer to try to find a way out of the impasse, while suspending the Henoko work for about a month. Onaga said the local opposition to the Henoko project — which would close one U.S. base in Okinawa only to build another there — must be considered in the overall context of Okinawa’s postwar history of having its land seized by U.S. forces after the 1945 Battle of Okinawa and turned into military bases. Seventy years after the war’s end, nearly three-quarters of the military facilities in Japan solely used by U.S. forces remain concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for a mere 0.6 percent of Japan’s land.

During the first court hearing, Onaga accused the national government of “bulldozing through” Futenma’s relocation to Henoko despite local popular will against the project, saying the situation surrounding the bases in his prefecture “is no different” from when Okinawa was under U.S. rule between 1945 and 1972. “Does local autonomy or democracy exist in Japan? Is it normal that Okinawa alone bears the burden? I want to ask (these questions) to all of the people [of Japan],” he said.

The government does not seem ready to squarely answer that question. The state’s representative said the court “is not a venue to discuss” how the U.S. bases should be stationed in Japan. The stability of administrative decisions must be protected, the government repeated as it defended the legitimacy of Nakaima’s 2013 go-ahead for the Henoko reclamation.

Brushing aside Onaga’s calls to consider the historical background of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, the Abe administration has reiterated that the starting point of the Futenma relocation is the 1996 agreement between Tokyo and Washington that the site of the U.S. Marine base would be returned to Japan on condition that a replacement facility is built in Okinawa. Placing the new facility in Henoko, it says, is the only solution to removing the danger posed by the Futenma base, located in the middle of a densely populated area of Ginowan, central Okinawa, and failure of the relocation plan could damage the Japan-U.S. relationship.

Even though it has just started, the court battle appears more likely to sharpen than narrow the differences between the national government and the prefecture, and the eventual ruling may even deepen their confrontation over issues surrounding the U.S. bases. The administration should be fully aware of the possible consequences of this court battle with Okinawa.

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