The national government has taken its dispute with Okinawa Prefecture over a plan to relocate the U.S. Marines Air Station Futenma to a new facility in northern Okinawa back to the courtroom — just months after both parties agreed to a court-mediated settlement in March that urged them to resolve their differences through dialogue. The Abe administration contends that the construction of the new airfield in the Henoko area of Nago is the “only solution” to closing the Futenma base in Ginowan — which has been pending since it was agreed on by Tokyo and Washington in 1996 — and it dismisses Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s opposition to the creation of yet another American military facility in Okinawa, which already hosts a bulk of the U.S. military presence in the country.
In pushing for the Henoko construction over the opposition of the prefectural government, the Abe administration has not reflected on the popular will in Okinawa as expressed in recent series of elections — such as the defeat of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s locally elected Cabinet minister by an opponent of the project in the Upper House race in July. In the lawsuit that it filed last month, the government again stated that the continuing stalemate in the Futenma relocation severely hurts Japan’s diplomatic and defense interests. It should realize, however, that support of the prefecture’s residents and administration are also crucial to the stable operation of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.
The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, which began deliberations on the suit earlier this month, has decided to wrap up the case in the next session and give its ruling in September. If the ruling is appealed by either side, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a final decision by early next year. But even if the judiciary rules against the prefecture, Onaga — who is driven by the local popular mandate that elected him governor — is reportedly ready to seek other means to resist construction of the new facility in Henoko, so the standoff could continue. The Abe administration should realize this risk and explore ways to resolve the dispute through talks by acknowledging Okinawa’s popular sentiment on the issue.
What’s at stake in the dispute is the permit granted in 2013 by then-Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima for the national government’s plan to reclaim land off the Henoko area to build the new airfield. Onaga was elected governor the following year on a campaign promise of halting the Henoko project — and in October 2015 he revoked his predecessor’s reclamation permit on grounds that it was “legally flawed.” That prompted the national government to take action to invalidate Onaga’s decision. It filed a suit asking the court to give it the power to override the revocation and withdraw it on his behalf. That led Onaga to file counterclaims, bringing his prefecture into a full-blown court battle with the national government.
The settlement proposed by the Naha branch of the high court — and accepted by national government and Okinawa in March — called on both parties to withdraw their respective lawsuits, and on the government to suspend its reclamation work, which began in 2014. The settlement called on the parties to streamline their lawsuits — and obliged both to follow a court decision once it is finalized. It also urged the two sides to try to resolve the dispute through dialogue in the meantime.
It was speculated that the Abe administration agreed to the settlement to take some political heat off the Henoko dispute — so that the escalating court battle with Okinawa would not negatively impact the ruling coalition in a series of elections, including the Upper House race in July. And sure enough, the administration filed the new lawsuit against the prefecture once the Upper House election — in which the Liberal Democratic Party lost its last remaining Diet seat in Okinawa’s electoral districts — was over. The suit concerns an order that the government issued to the prefecture to reverse its revocation of the reclamation permit. In June, a public dispute settlement panel, without rendering a judgment on the legality of the order, urged both the national government and Okinawa to hold sincere talks to seek an acceptable solution to the Henoko dispute. The quick reversion to the legal battle leaves one wondering whether the government was serious about engaging in meaningful dialogue with Okinawa when it agreed to the settlement in March.
The Abe administration also seems ready to ratchet up pressure on the prefecture by linking progress in the Futenma relocation issue to more than ¥300 billion in annual government spending to promote Okinawa’s economy — in an apparent reversal of its earlier position that the two issues would not be linked. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated earlier this month that further delays in the reorganization of U.S. bases in Okinawa, including the relocation of Futenma, would lead to cuts in some of the spending allocated for the redevelopment of land used by the U.S. forces after it has been returned to Japan.
The government may be confident of its chances of winning the court battle with Okinawa — as it did in past cases related to the U.S. military bases in the prefecture. But it is doubtful that a victory in the lawsuit will convince Okinawa to support Futenma’s relocation to Henoko.