29 September 2016

Okinawa appeals high court ruling supporting U.S. base transfer plan


The Okinawa prefectural government on Friday appealed a recent high-court ruling that backed the central government’s move to transfer a key U.S. air base within the southern island prefecture under a plan strongly opposed by local residents.
“The ruling that excessively takes the side of the central government…will leave a serious problem to the future,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said in a statement, referring to the first judicial judgment in the intensifying dispute with Tokyo over a plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, meanwhile, made her first visit to Okinawa since assuming that post in early August and expressed regret to local municipalities over a U.S. military aircraft crash off Okinawa a day before, which she said had stirred “great concerns” among the citizens there.
The crash of the U.S. Marines AV-8 Harrier jet was the latest in a series of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Harrier jets, which are capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing, have been involved in 18 accidents since Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule in 1972, including crashes into the nearby sea in 1994 and 1995.
The U.S. Marine Corps announced Friday the temporary grounding of all Harrier jets in Okinawa.
“It is common practice for units to execute operational pauses following a significant mishap,” the Marines said in a statement, adding that all the jets will be “inspected to ensure they meet operational readiness standards”.
The statement did not say how long those planes will be grounded. The Okinawa prefectural government has called for a suspension in the operations of the same jets until the cause of the accident is known.
In the latest incident, the Harrier jet, after taking off from U.S. Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, crashed around 1:55 p.m. Thursday about 150 kilometers east of Cape Hedo at the north end of Okinawa. The pilot was picked up by a U.S. Air Force rescue aircraft.
Before heading to Okinawa, Inada told reporters Friday that the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau has urged U.S. forces in Japan to prevent such accidents.
“I want to call on the U.S. side to handle the operation of airplanes with the utmost consideration for citizens and our country. I would also like to call for thorough safety management,” she said.
During her two-day visit, Inada is scheduled to hold talks with Onaga on Saturday to seek support for the Futenma relocation plan, which is based on an agreement between Japan and the United States in 1996.
The central government has maintained that the plan is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, located in a densely populated area, without undermining the deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance. But Onaga and many Okinawans want the base to be relocated outside the prefecture.
The dispute has become a legal fight after Onaga revoked last October his predecessor’s approval for the carrying out of landfill work needed to move the Futenma base.
In a lawsuit filed by the central government, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court said in its ruling on Sept. 16 that the transfer plan is the only way to address safety and noise problems at the base and that the act of revocation was “illegal.”
After the Okinawa prefectural government appealed the ruling, Isao Takeshita, a lawyer representing the prefecture, told reporters, “The lower court ruling goes against the spirit of local autonomy.”
“We expect the top court to go through our arguments carefully and face the matter squarely in reaching a judgment,” he said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference in Tokyo that the government will “take necessary actions” once procedures at the top court begin, while vowing to “act sincerely” over the issue.
Tokyo and Okinawa both agreed earlier to abide by a final ruling on the case, which could be issued within the current fiscal year ending March.
If Okinawa loses the lawsuit, the governor is expected to retract his revocation, paving the way for the central government to resume work to relocate the Futenma base. But Onaga may continue to explore other ways to block progress.