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Central, Okinawa gov'ts reluctant to compromise over U.S. base relocation

It has been becoming increasingly unclear how and whether the central and Okinawa prefectural governments will be able to settle a dispute over the planned relocation of a key U.S. base within the southern island prefecture.

That's because the Central and Local Government Dispute Management Council avoided making a judgment on the legality of the central government's order for Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga to retract his cancellation of his predecessor's approval of landfill work off the Henoko coastal district in Nago to build a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is currently based in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan.

It was originally assumed that Onaga would sue the central government after the dispute panel's decision. The central government is struggling to find a solution to the dispute because Onaga is not planning to file a lawsuit against the state for the time being. The dispute management council is a third-party panel set up in the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

The dispute panel's screening is part of procedures based on settlement terms proposed by the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court with the aim of sorting out court battles and unifying legal proceedings over the dispute. Among the proposed settlement terms stipulated is a procedure in which regardless of whether the dispute panel judges the central government's order is "legal" or "illegal," the Okinawa Prefectural Government is to file suit against the central government in a bid to seek a judicial ruling. But on June 17, the dispute panel concluded, "Even if either judgment is made, it is unthinkable that it will contribute to building relations between the two parties."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on June 20, "The illegality of the state's order was not recognized." He then urged the Okinawa Prefectural Government to take the case to court promptly, saying, "If Okinawa is dissatisfied with the dispute panel's decision, it is supposed to file a lawsuit within one week based on the terms of the court-mediated settlement."

A senior Okinawa Prefectural Government official, meanwhile, said, "The revocation of the approval (of landfill work) remains valid." Gov. Onaga said at a news conference on June 18 that he had no plans for the time being to file a lawsuit against the central government. Onaga expressed his intention to place priority on holding direct talks with the central government, saying, "This issue is not something that we should try to settle through court battles."

Central government officials are upset about the way in which the Okinawa Prefectural Government is handling the dispute, with one official saying, "It is against the rules." But there is in fact no effective way for the central government to respond. If the central government were to sit at a new negotiating table as suggested by Gov. Onaga, the two parties would certainly remain as far apart as ever.

There is an option for the central government to file a lawsuit against Onaga to try to confirm the governor's action was illegal, stating, "The governor does not comply with the order to rectify." But it could be taken to mean that the central government is abandoning reconciliation efforts. Furthermore, if the central government were to resume landfill work, advocating the "legality" of ordering Onaga to rectify his action, it could trigger protests among groups opposed to the planned relocation of the U.S. military base within the prefecture and develop into physical clashes between the two parties.

Out of consideration for the possible impact of the issue on the House of Councillors election for which official campaigning is set to kick off on June 22, the central government is poised to carefully consider how to respond for the time being. Final settlement of the case had been expected to be reached at a court as early as next January or February and construction work had been expected to be resumed next spring, but it is becoming increasingly likely that they will be delayed. A senior central government official said, "We will wait and see for a while. It's better for us to calm down a bit."

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