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Editorial: Central gov't, Okinawa should talk to avoid new court clash over Henoko base

The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly has approved the prefectural government's plan to sue to halt reclamation work underway off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, to build a substitute facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in Okinawa. Gov. Takeshi Onaga is poised to file the suit with the Naha District Court.

The ongoing battle between the national and Okinawa prefectural governments over the base relocation will once again be brought to court. Concerns cannot be dispelled that the conflict will escalate to the point that both sides are suing each other.

The national and prefectural governments have thus far fought four lawsuits over Onaga's revocation of permission for the reclamation work issued by his predecessor.

The two sides reached reconciliation in three of the suits in March 2016. In the fourth case, however, the Supreme Court issued a December 2016 ruling upholding lower court decisions siding with the central government, which had argued against the governor's refusal to retract his permission revocation.

The national government then began shore protection work in April this year. The prefectural government appears poised to launch a fresh lawsuit on the grounds that the national government went ahead with the work without obtaining gubernatorial permission for breaking up reefs. Prefectural government regulations stipulate that anyone who intends to break up reefs and rocks in ocean areas where fishing rights have been established must receive permission from the governor.

The central government obtained permission from Onaga's predecessor, but did not seek to renew it when it expired this past March, on the grounds that the local fisheries cooperative had given up its fishing rights in the area off Henoko. The prefectural government contends that the fishing rights in the area are still effective on the grounds that abandonment of such rights is not effective unless the holder of the rights applies to and gains approval from the governor for the decision.

The prefectural government apparently believes that if its argument is upheld in the suit, the governor could refuse to issue permission for breaking up reefs off Henoko, and thereby could block the reclamation work.

Gov. Onaga is poised "take all legal measures" to block the reclamation work.

As a countermeasure, the central government is considering going through a procedure to become a proxy for Gov. Onaga and withdraw his decision to revoke his predecessor's permission, and filing a damages suit against Onaga himself. Under such circumstances, the conflict between the two parties would only intensify.

In the lawsuit it will launch shortly, the Okinawa Prefectural Government will demand that the central government seek renewed permission from the governor for reclamation work. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that courts are not supposed to try a lawsuit in which a local government demands that other government bodies fulfill their administrative obligations.

Candidates supporting Gov. Onaga failed to secure a majority in a recent Naha Municipal Assembly election, though Onaga previously served as Naha mayor, showing that pro-Onaga forces are gradually losing support from Okinawans. Meanwhile, a Nago mayoral election is scheduled for January 2018, and a gubernatorial race will be called in autumn 2018.

If a court is to rule that Onaga's suit is not suitable for trial in line with the top court precedent, it would justify the national government's continuation of the work off Henoko and the prefectural government would be backed into a corner.

In the settlement reached in March last year, the national and prefectural governments are supposed to hold consultations aimed at an amicable solution to the dispute and sincerely respond to the issue. Both sides should respect the spirit of the settlement and show their readiness to transform their legal battle into political dialogue.

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