Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture will have to allow new US Marine Corps air strips to be built on its main island regardless of public opposition to Washington’s increasing military presence in the region, a Tokyo court has ruled.
The Japanese Supreme Court made its ruling against Okinawa on Monday, saying plans approved by the central government in Tokyo were valid. Construction of the new runways, which had been suspended during the legal dispute, must now be allowed to resume.
At issue is a plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from an urban area of the island to reclaimed land in Henoko, on the eastern coast. The central government began doing reclamation work in 2018, but plans had to be revised after most of the site was found to be on overly soft ground. The prefectural government rejected the new plans as insufficient, reflecting concerns that the project will damage the environment.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki was re-elected last year after campaigning on a pledge to continue fighting the US military project. He has called for scrapping the plans in Henoko and immediately shutting down Air Station Futenma.
“The ruling is extremely disappointing because we had expected a fair and neutral judgment based on respect for the local government autonomy,” Tamaki told reporters on Monday. He said he was deeply concerned by the precedent of nullifying the local government’s independent decision and disregarding its constitutional right to autonomy.
US and Japanese officials agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma base and reduce Washington’s military presence in the prefecture by 21% amid public uproar over the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a US Navy seaman the previous year. Tokyo has brushed off demands by Okinawan leaders to relocate the base outside the prefecture.
Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s land area, hosts 70% of the US military facilities in the country. As much as one-third of the prefecture’s population was killed during the April 1945 US invasion of Okinawa in World War II.
The area has taken on increased geopolitical significance as Sino-US relations deteriorate. US President Joe Biden declared a “new era” of defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea last month. Those ties will include expanded joint military exercises in the region. Chinese and North Korean officials have decried Washington’s previous joint exercises with Japan and South Korea as destabilizing provocations. Biden has vowed to work together with Japan to counter China’s “dangerous behavior in the South China Sea.”
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