Henoko Base Relocation Lawsuit: Central, Okinawan Govts Must Jointly Devise Vision after Court Battle

It is not productive for Japan’s central government and the Okinawa prefectural government to continue to be at loggerheads over the U.S. military base issue. They need to discuss the issue with open minds, with a view to the future of Okinawa, and steadily facilitate measures for the promotion of the region.

Regarding planned ground improvement work in the Henoko coastal area in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, where the functions of the U.S. Futenma Air Station in Ginowan in the prefecture are to be relocated, arguments have been completed in a lawsuit at the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, which was filed by the central government to demand the substitute execution of approval for the central government’s design changes — meaning that the central government would be empowered to give the approval in place of the prefectural governor.

Regarding the ground improvement work, the Supreme Court in September ruled against the prefecture, which has continued to refuse to approve the design changes, thereby obliging the prefecture to grant the approval.

During oral arguments in the lawsuit in which the central government asked the court to give it the power to approve the design changes by proxy, the central government argued that “the prefecture’s failure to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision was contrary to the principle of a law-abiding nation.” In response, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki appeared in court and demanded that the claim be dismissed on the grounds that “the central government had abandoned the method of trying to resolve the issue through dialogue.”

In the ruling, it is highly likely that the central government’s case will be approved. The court is expected to set a deadline and order the prefectural government to approve the design changes, and if the prefectural government still does not comply, the central government is likely to approve them instead and begin the ground improvement work.

The Futenma base, surrounded by houses and schools, is described as “the most dangerous U.S. military base in the world.” To eliminate this danger, it is inevitable for the central government to use the substitute execution procedure and proceed with the relocation plan to Henoko.

Amid Japan’s deteriorating security environment, the importance of Okinawa, where U.S. marines are stationed, is increasing. The relocation of Futenma to Henoko is a realistic option, and the central government should proceed with the ground improvement work immediately.

However, Okinawa’s problems are not limited to the base issues. The prefecture’s average income is among the lowest in Japan and its unemployment rate is higher than that of the rest of the country.

The legal battle must be settled once and for all, and the central and prefectural governments must turn to dialogue and cooperation in considering regional promotion measures.

In the 1990s, the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto worked out a base realignment plan in consultation with the United States to reduce the base-related burden on Okinawa. The Cabinet of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi worked to build trust by, for example, deciding to host a summit among leading countries in Okinawa.

Considering Okinawa’s history of hardship, it is the central government’s responsibility to promote the development of the prefecture. In addition to fostering industry, it is important to provide broad support for science and technology, culture and other areas. It is also necessary to give consideration to improving medical care there, which has been exposed as vulnerable due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Okinawa, an idea has been floated to establish an international organization that will serve as a center for multicultural coexistence. The idea is to deepen exchanges with Asia-Pacific countries through education and training sessions. It is advisable for the central government to support such an effort.

It is also essential for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Tamaki to meet directly and have a heart-to-heart talk about reducing the base-related burden and advancing promotion measures.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 2, 2023)