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Top court decides no more hearings on Henoko case; Okinawa gov't expected to lose

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga walks silently through the prefectural assembly building with a grim expression on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 2016. (Mainichi)

In a new development in the ongoing battle between the Okinawa Prefectural Government and Japan's central government on the construction of a new U.S. military base in northern Okinawa in exchange for shutting down a U.S. Marine Corps air station in southern Okinawa, the Supreme Court decided there would be no further hearings before it hands down a ruling on Dec. 20.

    The decision makes it almost certain that the Okinawa government -- whose governor rescinded approval given by his predecessor to the central government to reclaim land off the coast of Henoko in preparation for building a new base -- will lose the suit.

    "We claim to have separation of the three branches of the government, but the courts merely confirm the decisions made by the administration despite our clearly showing the will of the Okinawan people. The guardian of the law is dead," said Hiroshi Ashitomi, 70, co-leader of Heri kichi hantai kyogikai (Council opposed to the construction of military helicopter bases). As for Ashitomi and his fellow protesters' next steps, he said, "The court's decision was something we'd expected, and will not affect our protest activities. With the Supreme Court's ruling, the administration will likely be heavy-handed in pushing forth construction of a base in Henoko, but we will find ways to continue our activism, without rising to the government's provocations."

    "I'd expected that it would be unlikely that we'd see a court decision that went against state policy," said Yoshiharu Niina, 62, the head of the Teima district of Nago, the city where Henoko is located. Raising his voice, he continued, "But we will absolutely not allow a new base to be built in Henoko. We will use all measures available to us to resist."

    Ikuo Nishikawa, 72, a self-employed resident of Henoko, expressed shock at the court's decision and said, "When I think about the impact on my children and grandchildren, I think it'll be difficult to go against the Supreme Court and continue to protest." Still, he said, "My opposition to the building of a base in Henoko remains unchanged."

    Meanwhile, those who have expressed approval toward the construction of a base in Henoko, are calling on the Okinawa Prefectural Government to accept the Supreme Court's predicted ruling and focus on regional development. "I wouldn't welcome a new base with open arms, but I knew this was going to happen," said Akihiro Iida, 68, a former chairman of Henoko's chamber of commerce. Keeping in mind the negotiations the prefectural government will face once the central government recommences work on the Henoko base, Iida said, "I hope the prefectural government will carry out talks with the central government with a clear vision for Henoko, including the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, in mind."

    "The decision was within the scope of what we expected," said Masatake Kyoda, 48, representative director of Henoko daitai shisetsu anzen kyogikai (Council on the safety of the Henoko replacement facility). He emphasized, "It's a painful choice, but we must aim to secure jobs, education, and a safe day-to-day life."

    Revisions to the Local Autonomy Act in 1999 stipulated an equal relationship between the local and central governments. The Henoko case marks the first time the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling on a dispute between the national government and a local government since the law's amendments were instituted, and the court may use this opportunity to clarify its criteria and stance regarding resolution of such a conflict.

    In 1996, the Okinawa Prefectural Government lost to the central government in a case on the constitutionality of the forced leasing of land for U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture, which was fought all the way to the Supreme Court's Grand Bench. Subsequently, the Central and Local Government Dispute Management Council was set up within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications as a mechanism by which to resolve conflicts of interest outside of the courts. At the same time, however, a system in which the central government can file for declaratory judgment on illegality was established in 2012, and the Henoko case is the first in which that system is being employed.

    When in September, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court gave blanket approval of the central government's claims by stating that "only a portion of Japan, including Okinawa, is out of range of North Korea's ballistic Nodong missile," many experts expressed misgivings that the judicial branch of government had stepped out of its bounds. Masanori Okada, a professor of administrative law at Waseda University's Graduate School of Law was one of those critical of the court's statement. "The court went out of its way to address an issue that was unnecessary in handing down the ruling," he said.

    Because the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling that focuses on the role of declaratory judgments on illegality, Okada says, "It will be a significant ruling that will affect all conflicts between local and central governments going forward."

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