The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the national government over construction of a new facility for the U.S. military in Okinawa Prefecture to replace the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma will not end its bitter confrontation with the prefecture that hosts the bulk of the U.S. forces in Japan. While the top court decision will oblige Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga to rescind his revocation of a local permit for the government’s work to reclaim land off the Henoko area of Nago to build the new U.S. airfield, the governor has vowed to pursue other means in his power to halt the Henoko construction — which could result in more legal battles between Tokyo and the prefecture.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which maintains that building the new facility at Henoko is the only way to shut down the Futenma base in the middle of a residential area in Ginowan, should once again ponder the consequences of a protracted standoff with Okinawa and its impact on the operation of U.S. forces stationed there. Local frustration and anger over the disproportionately heavy burden of hosting the U.S. military was fueled again when the operation of MV-22 Ospreys deployed in the prefecture was resumed on Monday over the protests of local authorities — only six days after an Osprey crash-landed off the coast, raising doubts about the safety of the tilt-rotor transport aircraft with an accident-prone history.
The ruling given on Tuesday came as no surprise after the top court decided earlier this month to hand down its judgment without holding a hearing — a procedure needed if it was to review the September decision by the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court that essentially supported the national government’s position and determined it was illegal for Onaga last year to revoke the landfill permit issued by his predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, in 2013.
It was back in 1996 that Japan and the United States, in the face of rising local anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa, agreed that the Futenma base should be closed and the site returned to Japan “within several years” — on condition that a replacement facility would be built in Okinawa. It was only in summer 2014 that the government began preliminary work for reclamation of the planned Henoko site — just a few months before Onaga was elected governor on a campaign promise of halting the Henoko construction and riding the wave of local voter anger over Nakaima’s about-face on the issue.
Onaga’s revocation of the landfill permit by Nakaima in October 2015, citing “legal flaws” in the procedure, led the national government to take countermeasures against the governor, which eventually took the dispute to a full-blown court battle. While the Abe administration engaged intermittently in talks with the prefecture to resolve the dispute, both the government and the governor stuck to their respective positions. In March, the administration and the governor reached a court-mediated settlement that obliged both sides to drop their lawsuits against each other and the national government to suspend its work at Henoko and hold more talks with the prefecture. But the dispute was brought back to the courtroom when the government filed a new suit against the governor in July, and both the government and the prefecture agreed in the March settlement to comply with a final court decision on the case.
That will require Onaga to withdraw his revocation of the permit given by Nakaima. The government will resume its work at Henoko once Onaga takes that step. But the governor has indicated he will keep up his efforts to prevent construction of the new facility at Henoko. He is believed to be exploring other means within his power to block the project, such as withholding his go-ahead for future steps in the construction. The national government will likely respond by taking steps to override each of the governor’s decisions, including through the courts. The standoff could drag on.
The problem at the core of the dispute is that Okinawa and its people are not convinced by the government’s take that relocation of Futenma’s functions to the planned facility at Henoko will reduce the local burden of hosting the U.S. forces. They do not accept the administration’s assertion that the danger posed by the Futenma base to local residents can be eliminated only by Okinawa accepting yet another new U.S. military base on its soil. When they ask why the replacement facility must be built in Okinawa, they are told that issues concerning the U.S. bases in Japan are defense and diplomatic matters for which the national government holds sole jurisdiction. But the support and understanding of the local governments and residents hosting the bases is crucial for the stable operation of the security alliance under which the U.S. forces are deployed.
In fact, the government essentially follows the U.S. on matters concerning the operation of its military forces in Japan. The Dec. 13 crash-landing of a Futenma-deployed Osprey off the coast of Nago rekindled local concern over the safety of the aircraft, and Okinawa officials called for a halt to Osprey flights, demanding a full probe into and explanation of the accident. Abe told a TV program last Friday that he had asked the U.S. to suspend Osprey flights and called for a thorough investigation of the accident. But the U.S. military reportedly says the decision to resume the flights Monday had been conveyed to the Japanese government Friday — which suggests that any possible input from Japan on the issue was not taken into account in the decision.
In expressing its “understanding” of the U.S. decision, the government says the U.S. explanation that it is resuming the Osprey flights because last week’s crash-landing was not caused by a problem with the aircraft itself is reasonable. But in essence it can only follow what the U.S. says since Japan has no means of verifying the cause of the accident, having been excluded from its probe under the provision of the bilateral status of forces agreement.
The government’s response to the Osprey accident and quick resumption of flights by the aircraft are hardly reassuring for Okinawa as it continues to resist the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko.
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