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Editorial: Top court's ruling on SDF nighttime flights at Atsugi base betrays locals

The Supreme Court has scrapped lower court ruling that banned nighttime and early morning flights by Self-Defense Forces (SDF) planes around Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture in a lawsuit filed by local residents. Moreover, the top court dismissed their demand for compensation for future noise pollution, which a high court ordered the government to pay to the plaintiffs. The ruling is harsh on local residents, who are victims of noise pollution around the base used jointly by U.S. forces and the SDF.

A court ruling ordering the government to pay approximately 8.2 billion yen in damages to the plaintiffs for damage from past noise pollution has already been finalized. Still, the top court's Dec. 8 ruling represents a step backward from the high court ruling and it is no doubt hard for local residents to accept.

The noise pollution around the base is serious. Many local residents are complaining of insomnia and stress. The Supreme Court expressed understanding of the plaintiffs' complaints, stating, "In particular, the extent of the noise disturbing residents' sleep is extremely serious. The damage, which adversely affects local residents' quality of life, cannot be underestimated."

At the same time, however, the Supreme Court asserted that flights by SDF aircraft are highly of a public nature and serve public interests. The court noted that the SDF has exercised self-restraint on nighttime and early morning flights to a certain extent and that sound proofing work on surrounding homes has been subsidized by the government. It then concluded that SDF flights are not deemed inappropriate on the grounds that "significant levels of countermeasures against noise pollution have been implemented."

Flights by SDF aircraft are undoubtedly of a public nature. Still, questions should be raised over the Supreme Court decision.

Legal battles over noise pollution at the Atsugi base have been continuing for four decades since the first such lawsuit was launched in 1976. However, the fact that serious health damage caused by aircraft noise has still been continuing demonstrates that countermeasures taken by the government against such pollution are inadequate.

Besides Atsugi, many noise pollution lawsuits are being tried across the country. In November, the Okinawa branch of the Naha District Court ordered the state to pay compensation to residents around the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan for noise disturbance. In handing down the ruling, the court pointed out that damage from the noise has been left unaddressed, strongly criticizing the government over the lack of countermeasures against the pollution.

The very reason that the Tokyo High Court ordered the government to pay compensation to the plaintiffs for future noise disturbance in the Atsugi noise pollution suit was because the court took seriously the fact that local residents have been suffering the pollution for years.

U.S. forces' carrier-based aircraft, which are blamed as the main source of the noise around the Atsugi base, are expected to be relocated to the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture. However, even if the source of the noise is shifted elsewhere, it will not lead to a solution. The government should work harder to take countermeasures against noise around U.S. military and SDF air stations.

About 560,000 households across the country are eligible for government subsidies to cover the entire cost of soundproofing work on their homes against noise pollution. Such work has been conducted on 80 percent of these houses. The government needs to work on what can be done to curb the noise as soon as possible.

The latest Supreme Court ruling was a final one that also dismissed a demand by the plaintiffs for a ban on nighttime and early morning flights by U.S. military planes around the Atsugi base. The top court's decision not to even deliberate on the case based on past rulings deserves criticism that the court escaped from making judgment on the matter.

The government should continue to negotiate with U.S. forces over measures to reduce the levels of noise around their bases in Japan.

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