Okinawa loses third lawsuit over construction changes at Marine Corps airfield
Stars and Stripes November 16, 2023
NAHA, Okinawa — A Japanese court has denied another legal challenge by Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki to stop construction of a Marine Corps runway on Camp Schwab.
A three-judge panel at Naha District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Okinawa prefecture seeking to block changes to construction permits required by Japan’s Ministry of Defense to finish the project.
The judges found the prefecture lacked standing to file suit, according to a copy of the decision released after Wednesday’s hearing.
“The lawsuit is dismissed,” Judge Hideki Fujii told the packed courtroom. The hearing lasted less than a minute.
The district court’s decision is the third legal defeat for the prefecture this year. The Japan Supreme Court ruled against Okinawa in similar suits in August and September.
The suit was filed in September 2022, according to the prefectural website. Oral arguments were heard in February, April and July.
Tamaki, who did not appear at the proceedings, is weighing an appeal, a spokesman from the prefecture’s Henoko Base Construction Countermeasures Division said by phone Thursday. Some government officials in Japan may speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Tamaki said in a statement on the prefecture’s website shortly after the decision. “I was expecting the court to issue a fair and neutral ruling based on the essence of local autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The unfinished airfield being built on reclaimed land in Oura Bay is meant to one day replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan. That base, surrounded by densely packed city neighborhoods, is considered inherently dangerous by some Japanese officials.
The construction zone at Schwab is divided into two main sections — 279 acres on the base’s north side and 91 acres in the south, the prefecture’s website said. Work on the larger parcel has been on hold since April 21, 2020, when the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents the Defense Ministry on the island, asked Tamaki to approve changes to the construction plans.
Tamaki refused, arguing that the soft seabed there poses a hazard and that Tokyo had failed to consider the environmental impact on the endangered dugong, a cousin of the manatee protected by Japanese law.
Two years later, land minister Tetsuo Saito called Tamaki’s denial “illegal and unreasonable” and overturned the decision. Tamaki then filed three lawsuits, which have all been dismissed, including the two rejected by the Supreme Court.
Tamaki has refused to honor the Supreme Court’s decisions and has been subsequently sued by Saito, who seeks to supplant the governor’s approval authority. Oral arguments in that case began in the Fukuoka High Court on Oct. 30; the next court date is not yet set, a court spokeswoman said Thursday.
On Wednesday, about 20 people, mostly elderly Okinawans, filed into the courtroom in anticipation of the verdict. The panel ruled design changes are a government function and are delegated only to local officials for approval.
Tamaki said the decision threatens the autonomy and independence of local governments. A ministry spokesman declined to comment on the ruling when reached by phone Thursday.
Out of 11 lawsuits the prefecture has filed attempting to stop the airfield, it has lost six, three have been withdrawn and one is pending in Fukuoka High Court.
The project, originally slated for completion by 2014, will now take until at least 2032 and cost the Japanese government $6.9 billion.