Okinawa loses legal bid to halt Marine Corps runway construction
Stars and Stripes December 9, 2022
TOKYO — Japan’s highest court dismissed without debate last week a lawsuit brought by Okinawa prefecture to halt construction of a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab.
A five-justice panel of Japan’s Supreme Court in Tokyo on Thursday upheld lower court decisions that force Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki to accept construction permits issued in 2013 by then-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
The panel disregarded Okinawa’s argument and held instead that the prefecture was not a “qualified plaintiff.”
The court “rejects this final appeal,” Presiding Justice Atsushi Yamaguchi told the half-filled courtroom Thursday.
The runway at Camp Schwab on Okinawa’s rural northern coast is decades behind schedule. It is meant to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan, which Japanese officials consider inherently dangerous due to its central location in a densely populated area.
Tamaki said he was disappointed with the “unacceptable” verdict, according to a post on the prefecture’s website.
“With this decision, the Supreme Court is judging that the government is in an upper-class and the municipalities are in a lower-class,” Tamaki said. “It is a problem in the aspect of local autonomy.”
He warned other municipalities that they, too, could be forced to bend to Tokyo’s will.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday that the central government will continue “working hard” to gain Okinawans’ understanding, according to a video posted to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s website.
“We want to realize the reversion of Futenma air station, which is said to be the most dangerous in the world,” Matsuno said. “We will work hard to remove risks.”
The lawsuit, originally filed in Naha District Court on Aug. 7, 2019, sought to reinstate then vice-governor Kiichirou Jahana’s decision a year earlier to revoke the construction permits. Jahana cited an unstable seabed and environmental concerns at the runway location.
Jahana was overruled in April 2019 by Keiichi Ishii, at the time Japan’s minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, according to the prefectural website.
A three-judge panel from Naha District Court ruled in November 2020 that Okinawa lacked standing because its lawsuit did not seek protection or remediation over rights or profits, the website said.
That decision was upheld by the Fukuoka High Court in December 2021, the website said.
With Thursday’s loss, Okinawa prefecture is down to three ongoing lawsuits trying to halt construction, according to the prefectural website. Two were filed in in August 2022, the third a month later.
All seek to reject an application by the Okinawa Defense Bureau, a branch of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, to alter the original project plans.
Okinawa has now lost five lawsuits over the runway. Another four were withdrawn.
Stars and Stripes reporter Keishi Koja contributed to this report.