A recent high court ruling in a noise pollution suit filed by residents living near the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture regrettably failed to recognize the extent of suffering the plaintiffs have to endure due to the constant, deafening roar of military jets.
Even so, the ruling severely criticized the government for its years of inaction over the serious problem that is damaging the well-being of many local residents.
It raised many questions about the basic stance of government policymakers toward the issue.
In the ruling, handed down Sept. 11, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court ordered the government to pay 26.1 billion yen ($241.5 million) in damages to the 22,000 or so residents living close to the sprawling base. It was the third noise pollution suit to target Kadena.
Despite the order for compensation payments, the ruling proved to be a big disappointment for the plaintiffs because it clearly represents a regression from a lower court ruling.
While recognizing that the roar of military jets is disrupting local residents’ daily life and raising the risk of the plaintiffs developing high blood pressure, the court did not refer to any other heath hazards posed by the noise pollution.
The ruling also reduced the amount of basic monthly compensation from between 35,000 yen and 7,000 yen to between 22,500 yen and 4,500 yen. But more importantly for the plaintiffs, it refused to grant their request for a temporary injunction on flights. The high court argued that the central government is “not in a position to regulate the operations of U.S. military aircraft.”
But the court nevertheless raised some issues that the government should take very seriously.
The high court, like the Naha District Court, rejected the government’s argument that local residents have to accept the noise because U.S. military bases have a crucial role in terms of the public interest from the viewpoint of the nation’s security and foreign policy.
It said the current situation requires residents living around military bases, a very small minority, to endure a “special sacrifice” because the facilities provide benefits to the Japanese people as a whole. There is “a serious inequality that cannot be overlooked or justified,” the ruling asserted.
The court also took the government to task for its negligence.
In 1996, the Japanese and the U.S. governments reached an agreement to limit noise from U.S. military bases, which stipulates that flights of U.S. military aircraft during the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. shall be limited to those that are necessary for overall base operations.
The ruling said a considerable portion of the agreement has not been adequately implemented, adding that the Japanese government has failed to take any effective actions to demand that the U.S. military comply with the accord.
In fiscal 2018, which ended in March, there were more than 1,500 late night and early morning takeoffs and landings at the Kadena base. At noise measurement points installed by the Kadena municipal government, noise levels reached 70 decibels or higher more than 80 times per month on average.
Obviously, the agreement has become a dead letter.
There is no dearth of examples of how operations at U.S. military bases ignore local residents’ wishes.
So far this year, parachuting drills have been conducted three times at the Kadena base, also in violation of the Japan-U.S. agreement.
In late August, a plastic window weighing about 1 kilogram fell off a transport helicopter operating out of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, and fell into the sea while in flight.
But the government paid no attention to the prefecture’s call for actions to clarify the cause of the accident and prevent a recurrence. Nor did it file a protest against the U.S. military’s decision to quickly resume operations of that type of helicopter.
It is all too understandable that Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki has complained about the way the government responded to the incident.
“I cannot but have doubts about the government’s awareness of its responsibility (for the matter),” he said.
Throughout the postwar period, Okinawa has been forced to endure the “special sacrifice” of bearing the excessive burden of hosting so many U.S. bases and suffering from “an inequality that cannot be overlooked” in its relationship with the Japanese mainland.
The Abe administration needs to put its shoulder to the wheel and start taking steps to fix this deplorable situation.