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SECURITY > Okinawa

Behind the Scenes / Henoko litigation battle remains a quagmire

  • September 27, 2017
  • , The Japan News , 5:05 a.m.
  • English Press

By Masakazu Matsushita and Kohei Takahashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers


In the ongoing conflict over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture, the prefectural government filed a suit against the central government in July, once again entering a court battle. The central government plans to move on steadily with the relocation construction work, but the prefectural side is fully prepared to resist, and there is a danger of a further barrage of lawsuits. There is likely to be a delay in realizing the planned relocation date of fiscal 2022.


Collapse in 3 months


The litigation battles between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture began in October 2015 when Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who opposes the relocation to Henoko, canceled the previous governor’s approval for landfill work related to the relocation, claiming “the procedure is legally flawed.”


In order to proceed with the relocation, the central government temporarily suspended the validity of the cancellation. In November that year, the central government filed a lawsuit with the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, with the aim of implementing a so-called substitute execution to validate the permit again. The prefectural side also filed two suits, including one seeking to repeal the central government’s suspension.


With the unusual situation of three concurrent lawsuits, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe judged that “if the litigation battles continue, the current situation of Futenma may become permanent.”


The government and the prefecture accepted the recommendation of the High Court branch in March 2016, and a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement included that (1) the prefecture would wait to file a lawsuit until after the third-party Central and Local Government Dispute Management Council made a decision and (2) they would comply with any ruling from the lawsuit and cooperate thereafter.


However, in June 2016, the council refrained from making a judgment on the suitability of the central government’s directive, which ordered Onaga to retract his withdrawal of the landfill work approval, and instead urged consultation between the government and the prefecture. The prefecture shelved the lawsuit, and the settlement collapsed after about three months.


After that, in a central government lawsuit demanding confirmation of the illegality of Onaga’s actions, the court in Naha ruled that “the nullification of approval was illegal,” and the Supreme Court’s ruling favored the central government in December 2016. The prefecture withdrew the revocation in line with the judgment, but when the relocation work resumed, it filed a fresh lawsuit seeking a suspension of construction and applied for a provisional injunction to urgently suspend the ongoing work.


The central government criticized the new lawsuit, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying, “It’s important to respond in accord with the intent of the settlement.” The prefecture took the position that “the finalized court ruling is just a judgment on the landfill approval, and it remains possible to file a suit on a different procedure.”


The settlement, which aimed to avoid a litigation battle, has become a mere facade, and the conflict between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture has become a quagmire.


Trusting ‘will of the people’


The purpose of the latest lawsuit is to prevent construction at sea, but Onaga also has the ulterior motive of wanting to latch onto the “will of the people” who oppose the relocation.


When seabed construction is carried out on the Henoko coast, the governor’s permission is required to break the reef rocks, in accordance with prefectural fishery adjustment regulations. The central government decided that “permission is unnecessary,” as the local fishery cooperative had given up its fishing rights, and in April of this year it started construction of a seawall required for landfill. The prefecture insists that it is “unauthorized” and intends to interrupt this construction.


However, a 2002 Supreme Court ruling judged that “the state or a local government cannot bring a suit seeking [an order for] others to comply with their administrative duties.”


At the first hearing of the trial on Aug. 7, in which a provisional injunction was sought to suspend construction, the central government requested a dismissal by pointing to the 2002 Supreme Court judgment. A prefectural official indicated that “the Supreme Court precedent is a high barrier, and the chances of winning are slim.”


Nevertheless, what pushed it to forge ahead with the lawsuit was the governor’s “intention to carry out the will of the people opposed to the relocation,” in consideration of the Nago mayoral election set for February 2018 and the gubernatorial election the following autumn, according to a source close to Onaga.


Compared to the central government, which is proceeding with construction, the Onaga side is thought to have few effective means of blocking it. In city mayoral elections in the prefecture, the Onaga side has suffered three consecutive defeats by candidates supported by the national government and the Liberal Democratic Party.


With this in the background, there is a deepening sense of impatience on the prefectural government side. A pro-Onaga prefectural assembly member is concerned about the future, saying, “The governor might be losing his unifying power.”


Of the 11 cities in the prefecture, the nine mayors other than those of Naha and Nago have distanced themselves from Onaga. Onaga is positioning Nago as a “last stand,” and needs to build up “anti-Henoko” public opinion within the prefecture, with a view to a mayoral election victory.


However, even if Onaga loses in the lawsuit, he has declared his intention to revoke and invalidate the landfill work approval. While the earlier cancellation was by reason of procedural flaws, the reasons for “revocation” include a serious legal breach by the central government after the approval. In response to this, the central government is also considering litigation for withdrawal of the revocation. There is concern that the legal battle will continue indefinitely, as long as Onaga is Okinawa’s governor.


Inevitable delay in relocation


Aiming to eliminate safety risks related to the continued operation of Futenma Air Station and to stop the station from permanently staying there, the Japanese and U.S. governments developed a joint announcement at the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee, also known as the two-plus-two security talks, on Aug. 17, reconfirming that the Henoko relocation is “the only solution.” As the conflict with Okinawa Prefecture has developed into lawsuits and relocation work is temporarily suspended, delays in the relocation, which is scheduled for “fiscal 2022 or later,” have begun to appear.


The construction of alternative facilities for Futenma, including landfill work and construction of the main airfield facilities, is expected to take about five years. The government planned to finish the main construction by the end of October 2020, and make the new site available for use in fiscal 2022 or later after the facilities were developed.


However, as Onaga canceled the landfill approval and the respective lawsuit reached a settlement in March 2016, all work has stopped. Construction of the seawall started in April 2017, but Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said immediately afterwards at a hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services that the relocation has “slowed.”


According to officials of the Japanese and U.S. governments who are involved in the issue, work is said to be about two years behind schedule.


Aiming for an early relocation, the Japanese government wants to start landfill construction next summer, but the prefectural government is expected to continue to resist, within the scope of the governor’s authority. “If things were going smoothly, it would take five years [to complete construction]. But if the obstruction continues, it will double or triple the time and cost,” said a Defense Ministry senior official. Further delays in the relocation plan are being assumed.


Prof. Noboru Yamaguchi of the International University of Japan, an expert on national security policy, said: “It should have been resolved through dialogue, in principle, but it has come to a point where neither side can give way to the other, and lawsuits are unavoidable. However, if a court ruling is handed down under a democratic system, both sides should comply with the judgment.”

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