March 31, 2020 at 14:15 JST
Land reclamation work is under way off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, to build a new U.S. military base. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The Supreme Court ruling on the dispute between the state and the Okinawa prefectural government over the Henoko base project is terribly divorced from the common sense of society.
The top court handed down the ruling after being engaged in arguments over fine, highly technical legal issues without paying serious attention to the true nature of the problem.
The Supreme Court on March 26 ruled in favor of the central government in the case, dismissing the local government’s lawsuit seeking a halt to the reclamation work to build a U.S. military base off Henoko, a district in the city of Nago in the prefecture.
The fresh legal battle over the long-running dispute started in August 2018 when the prefectural government revoked the permit granted by a former governor to reclaim land off Henoko to build a U.S. military facility to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.
The Okinawa government cited new related developments and findings, including the discovery that the seafloor in some parts of the reclamation area is extremely soft.
The Defense Ministry responded to the move by filing a formal request to the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism at that time to invalidate Okinawa’s decision.
The minister, who is in charge of issues concerning the law governing land reclamation, predictably ruled in favor of the ministry, allowing it to resume the reclamation work. The prefectural government then took the legal action to stop the work.
It is absurd that a member of the Cabinet was asked to rule on a legal dispute between the state and a local government in the first place. Also outrageous is that the Defense Ministry, in seeking the land minister’s green light for the reclamation work, invoked the administrative complaint review system, designed to handle cases in which the rights of citizens have been violated by administrative acts.
The top court, however, endorsed the central government’s dubious act based on an intolerable reading of the law, arguing that provisions of the public water body reclamation law do not differentiate in the legal status between government organizations and private citizens in such matters.
This is a typical case of failing to see the forest for the trees. Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki had every right to denounce the ruling, which effectively suppressed the voices of Okinawa.
The ruling “runs against the spirit of local autonomy and creates serious future problems for the relationship between the state and local governments,” he said.
It should be noted here that the ruling only concerned the legality of the procedures taken by the central government to proceed with the land reclamation work. It does not represent a judicial go-ahead for the work itself.
The discovery of extremely soft ground under the seabed in parts of the reclamation area is expected to force the government to submit a change in the design for the prefectural government’s permission, but unsurprisingly the local government has no intention to give it.
In addition to a series of elections in which local voters made their opposition to the base plan clear, the new plan is totally unacceptable also from the viewpoint of environmental protection. It calls for driving more than 70,000 piles into the seafloor over three years to deal with the problem, causing serious damage to the environment.
The central government has made every effort to make the environmental impact look smaller than it will actually be and claimed that there is no need to carry out a fresh environment assessment.
One week before the Supreme Court ruling, the Naha District Court handed down a notable ruling in a separate lawsuit filed by local residents.
While dismissing the plaintiffs’ request for the invalidation of the land minister’s verdict, the district court pointed to the need of a fresh environment assessment for the land reclamation work. That is simply a common-sense argument.
As our editorials have repeatedly contended, the government’s plan to relocate the Futenma air base to Henoko is completely untenable.
The government should stop sticking to this undoable plan and focus its efforts on swiftly removing the danger posed by the Futenma base to the safety of local residents.
Also on March 26, an expert panel set up by the prefectural government argued that it would be more reasonable from the security viewpoint to decentralize and deploy the U.S. Marine Corps based in Okinawa Prefecture in smaller units to the Japanese mainland in line with the U.S. security strategy.
The question is simply whether forging ahead with the Henoko base plan, which will involve solidifying the extremely soft ground, and cost nearly 1 trillion yen ($9.124 billion) according to a government estimate, will really make sense.
The answer should be clear to anyone.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 31
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