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Plaintiffs in Atsugi base airplane noise lawsuit irked by Supreme Court ruling

Disappointed-looking plaintiffs report the Supreme Court's ruling after it overturned lower court rulings to rule against them, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 8, 2016. (Mainichi)

Plaintiffs in the fourth lawsuit against airplane noise at the Atsugi Air Base expressed their disappointment and frustration after a Dec. 8 ruling by the Supreme Court overturned two lower court orders that would have been national firsts in banning Self-Defense Force (SDF) aircraft from nighttime and early morning flights.

At 3:25 p.m., following the Supreme Court decision three lawyers ran out to the front of the court building's gate and held up banners reading "Unjust overturned ruling" and "The Supreme Court abandons extending relief to victims."

"It was an awful result," said one of the plaintiffs to their supporters waiting for the ruling at the gate.

One of the plaintiffs is Nobuyuki Murata, 78, of Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, who listened to the ruling from observer seating. The presiding justice reasoned that the flight of SDF aircraft from the base hardly can be deemed inappropriate in light of social norms. "Is there nothing we can do?" he wondered, unable to contain his anger. Murata's house is located around 1.3 kilometers north of the base and on an extension line of its runway. He had the house built in 1968 and moved there from Kawasaki. When U.S. carrier-based planes were brought to the base in 1973, the noise they created far exceeded what he had imagined.

When the U.S. aircraft take off, the noise makes the floors and walls of Murata's home vibrate. In between flights by U.S. aircraft, SDF aircraft also take off. A "loudness index" rates Murata's house's situation as a 90 out of 100. Even though he has had nationally-subsidized soundproofing work carried out, he can't hear the television or the voice on a telephone when one of the planes is taking off.

"I can feel the sound from the U.S. planes in my body, and when I think the aircraft have stopped the SDF planes start taking off, making me more irritated. It has made me worry about the effects on my health," says Murata.

In the second lawsuit for the Atsugi case, which was launched in 1984, Murata served as general secretariat for the plaintiffs for 14 years. While the district and high court rulings in that lawsuit recognized past damage and approved compensation, they turned down the plaintiffs' demand for flights to be stopped. In the fourth lawsuit, for the first time there were rulings that would stop flights by SDF planes during nighttime and in the early morning, and Murata was able to hold some hope that "maybe there are some judges who will listen to us."

However, the Supreme Court's ruling on Dec. 8, while placing heavy importance on government measures like soundproofing subsidies, also turned down the plaintiffs' demands for halted flights. "I think the Supreme Court may be deferring to the wishes of the government," says Murata.

At a gathering after the ruling, Tokio Kaneko, 66, the head of the plaintiffs, revealed an intention to start a fifth lawsuit next year, saying, "It's an unfortunate result, but we mustn't be discouraged."

Michio Fukumoto, 67, the head of the plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit over the United States Air Force's Yokota Air Base in Fussa, Tokyo, came to the Supreme Court to support the plaintiffs in the Atsugi case on Dec. 8. "After fighting for this for 40 years it really is a shame," he said tearfully.

Junko Otsuki, 46, is vice-general secretariat of a group lawsuit on sound pollution at Iwakuni Air Base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to which U.S. carrier-based planes are planned to be transferred from Atsugi Air Base in the future. She says, "I feel completely disappointed in this ruling that recognized health damage from the loud noise but could offer no help about it. But, I also learned how important it is to show in court how severe damage from the airplane noise is, and I want to continue doing so."

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