The Supreme Court’s ruling last week that refused to pass judgment on a call for a ban on nighttime and early morning flights by U.S. military aircraft at the Atsugi air base near Tokyo highlights the limitations on what the judiciary can do to reduce the noise problem around U.S. bases in Japan. The government should open talks with the United States to fully explain the plight of residents around U.S. military installations and prod it to take concrete and effective measures to reduce their hardship.
The lawsuit was filed in 2007 by some 7,000 residents around U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is jointly used by the U.S. Navy and the Maritime Self-Defense Force — the fourth such suit over the aircraft noise from the base.
In 2014, the Yokohama District Court determined that local residents were suffering from excessive aircraft noise and ordered the government to suspend flights by MSDF aircraft between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — the first ruling calling for suspension of Self Defense Forces aircraft flights since residents near air bases across the country started taking legal action against aircraft noise in the 1970s. The court awarded 6,900 plaintiffs a total of ¥7 billion in damages for the noise caused by aircraft using the base but rejected their demand to ground U.S. Navy aircraft during the nighttime and early morning hours, saying that under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement Japan cannot apply its laws and regulations to the operations of U.S. military bases in this country.
In an appellate trial, the Tokyo High Court upheld the district court’s ban on the MSDF flights and increased the amount of compensation to ¥9.4 billion by adding a portion that covers a period through the end of 2016 — since 59 U.S. carrier-based planes responsible for much of the noise are scheduled to be transferred to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture at the beginning of 2017. It was the first court decision to grant compensation taking into account noise damage from future operations of military aircraft. However, it followed the Yokohama court ruling with regard to the operation of U.S. Navy aircraft.
In fact, the courts’ ban on MSDF flights from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. did little to cut down on the noise since it comes primarily from U.S. Navy aircraft — and the MSDF had already refrained from operating its aircraft during those hours. The high court ruling that granted compensation for future noise damage was a landmark decision, but subsequent court decisions on separate lawsuits over noise from the Iwakuni base and U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture only awarded damages over the noise from past operations of military aircraft.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-0 ruling, not only overturned the lower court rulings that prohibited the MSDF’s 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. flights at Atsugi but limited the scope of compensation by rejecting damages for future noise problems. It also refused to pass judgment on the call for a ban on the flights by U.S. military aircraft, reiterating that the operation of U.S. bases is outside Japan’s jurisdiction.
While acknowledging that noise from MSDF aircraft at Atsugi can cause serious damage to nearby residents, the top court said MSDF operations at Atsugi are within the defense minister’s discretional power, thereby annulling the lower courts’ ban on the flight of its aircraft. While citing the highly public nature of MSDF aircraft operations, the top court pointed out that the government has spent more than ¥1 trillion on sound-proof measures for houses around the base and that it has voluntarily halted nighttime and early morning flights of MSDF planes.
The Supreme Court decision is likely to set precedents against lower courts granting compensation for problems caused by the operation of military aircraft. Residents seeking damages for base noise will face greater difficulty winning a court order for suspending operations of SDF planes, let alone U.S. aircraft. Thus the noise problems faced by residents around air bases will likely continue.
The transfer next year of the 59 Atsugi-based aircraft to Iwakuni will only shift the burden to residents around that base, which has already accepted 15 aerial tankers previously based in Okinawa. Unless the noise from U.S. military aircraft is reduced, the problems around air bases in this country will remain unresolved.
In its ruling last month that awarded ¥2.458 billion in damages to 3,400 residents around the Futenma base for their noise problems, the Naha District Court said that while Japan receives security benefits from the U.S. military deployment at the base, the activities of the U.S. forces there are causing a “special sacrifice” and “inequality … that cannot be justified” to a group of people that includes the plaintiffs. The government should take this ruling seriously and start talks with the U.S. to prod it to take steps to resolve noise problems around its air bases in this country.