A Tokyo court has ruled that the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan must allow the construction of new US Marine Corps air strips on its main island, despite opposition from the public. The Japanese Supreme Court made its decision on Monday, stating that the plans approved by the central government in Tokyo were valid. As a result, the construction of the new runways, which had been suspended due to a legal dispute, must now be allowed to resume.
The dispute revolves around a plan to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from an urban area of Okinawa to reclaimed land in Henoko, located on the eastern coast of the island. The central government began reclamation work in 2018, but had to revise its plans after discovering that most of the site was on overly soft ground. The Okinawa prefectural government rejected the revised plans, expressing concerns about the potential environmental damage caused by the project.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, who was re-elected last year, campaigned on a promise to continue fighting against the US military project. He has called for the scrapping of the plans in Henoko and the immediate shutdown of Air Station Futenma. Tamaki expressed disappointment with the court ruling, stating that he had expected a fair and neutral judgment that respected the local government’s autonomy. He also expressed concern about the precedent set by nullifying the local government’s independent decision and disregarding its constitutional right to autonomy.
The relocation of the Futenma base and the reduction of the US military presence in Okinawa were agreed upon by US and Japanese officials in 1996. This decision was made in response to public outrage over the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a US Navy seaman the previous year. Despite demands from Okinawan leaders to relocate the base outside the prefecture, Tokyo has chosen to maintain its military presence in the region.
Okinawa, which comprises less than 1% of Japan’s land area, currently hosts 70% of the US military facilities in the country. During World War II, the prefecture suffered significant losses, with as much as one-third of its population killed during the US invasion of Okinawa in April 1945.
The strategic importance of the Okinawa region has increased as relations between the US and China deteriorate. US President Joe Biden recently declared a “new era” of defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea, including expanded joint military exercises in the region. Chinese and North Korean officials have criticized Washington’s previous joint exercises with Japan and South Korea, viewing them as provocative and destabilizing. Biden has pledged to work together with Japan to counter China’s “dangerous behavior in the South China Sea.”
As the court ruling stands, despite public opposition, the construction of the new US Marine Corps air strips in Okinawa will proceed. The decision has disappointed local leaders and raised concerns about the central government’s encroachment on local autonomy. The ongoing military presence in Okinawa continues to be a contentious issue, with historical and geopolitical factors adding to the complexity of the situation.