The Supreme Court has ruled that Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga broke the law when he revoked permission that his predecessor had granted to the national government for reclamation work as part of the relocation of a U.S. military base within the prefecture. Although the judicial authority's final decision has been handed down on the legal battle, the national and prefectural governments are far from reaching a political settlement over their dispute.
The top court reasoned that Onaga's revocation of the permission for reclamation is illegal since there is no illegality in the permission issued by his predecessor.
Attention was focused on how the Supreme Court would make judgment on a conflict between the central government and a local government over defense and diplomatic issues. Another focal point was how the top court would evaluate the prefectural government's claim that the construction of a substitute facility for the U.S. military's Air Station Futenma within the prefecture constitutes a violation of Article 92 of the Constitution, which guarantees local autonomy.
However, the top court never touched upon these issues in its ruling and made judgment solely on whether the governor's revocation was appropriate as an administrative procedure.
Gov. Onaga, who had repeatedly said he would follow the final court decision, is expected to retract his revocation of the permission for reclamation work.
A ceremony is scheduled to be held on Dec. 22 to mark the return of part of the U.S. military's Northern Training Area in Okinawa Prefecture to landowners. The central government is poised to take advantage of the ceremony to demonstrate that the burden of U.S. bases on Okinawa Prefecture has been reduced and gain momentum to go ahead with relocating Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture. After these moves, the national government is set to resume the suspended relocation work.
Onaga said, "We'll employ all possible methods to block the relocation," suggesting that he will fully utilize his authority as governor to counter the national government's move to go ahead with the relocation.
However, the issue of the base relocation to Henoko cannot be settled even if the national and prefectural governments hold debate on legal theories. Therefore, even if the state and prefecture were to hold an endless court battle, neither side would benefit from such a conflict.
The battle began when Okinawa residents reacted sharply to the previous governor's decision in 2013 to approve the reclamation work despite his campaign pledge to oppose the relocation of Futenma base to Henoko, and they elected Onaga, who is opposed to the base relocation within the prefecture, in the following year's gubernatorial election.
Although public opinion against the relocation within the prefecture has repeatedly been demonstrated, the central government used the former governor's permission to go ahead with the relocation work in a high-handed manner. Questions are being raised over whether such a practice is appropriate in light of democratic principles and the spirit of local autonomy.
What is important is not administrative procedures but how politics should function to settle the issue. The national government should take the initiative in efforts to settle the matter.
Osprey MV-22 transportation planes will take off from and land at a new base that the government plans to build off Henoko as a substitute facility for Futenma base as well as helipads that have been built in return for returning part of the Northern Training Area to Japan.
Protests are intensifying in Okinawa Prefecture against the Japanese and U.S. authorities' approval of the resumption of Osprey flights even without clarifying the cause of the crash-landing of one of the aircraft off Nago earlier this month. Even if the national government were to go ahead with the relocation of Futenma base by taking advantage of the recent top court ruling, the work would never go smoothly.
The central government launched the suit after apparently deeming it could not settle its dispute with Okinawa over the base relocation issue through negotiations. However, suspicions have arisen that the national government only showed its readiness to hold dialogue with the prefectural government just as a formality. The central government should hold sincere discussions with the prefectural government in a patient bid to settle the matter even though it may take a long time.