Japan court backs Tokyo's bid to relocate US air base in Okinawa

People stage a rally in front of the main gate of the Camp Schwab of the US Marine Corps in Nago, Okinawa prefecture, on Sept 16, 2016.
People stage a rally in front of the main gate of the Camp Schwab of the US Marine Corps in Nago, Okinawa prefecture, on Sept 16, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese court on Friday (Sept 16) approved Tokyo's plan to relocate a United States military base on Okinawa, in a move unlikely to immediately resolve a long-running spat between central and the local authorities.

Tokyo wants to move the unpopular US airbase in a crowded residential district on Okinawa to a sparsely populated area in its north, but many locals want the base moved off the island altogether.

A court in the prefectural capital of Naha ruled in Tokyo's favour on Friday, a court spokesman said, in the first judicial decision over the disputed reclamation.

The dispute has seen Okinawan governor Takeshi Onaga and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government file rival lawsuits as local authorities have blocked plans to reclaim land for the relocation - a priority for Tokyo as it seeks to satisfy its ally the United States.

Tokyo and Washington first proposed moving the Futenma marine air base in 1996, while insisting it must remain on Okinawa - a strategic island in the East China Sea from where US troops and aircraft can react to potential conflicts throughout Asia.

But opponents insist the base should be shuttered and a replacement built elsewhere in mainland Japan or overseas, saying they are sick of noise pollution, accidents and crimes committed by US service members.

Presiding judge Toshiro Tamiya ruled that Mr Onaga's move to block the land reclamation was illegal.

"There is no choice but to go ahead with the landfill in order to reduce the trouble at Futenma," Judge Tamiya told the court, according to Jiji Press.

Construction work on the new facility, still in its initial stages, was suspended in March this year, with the central government offering a truce while the case was underway.

"We welcome that the government's argument was accepted," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, told reporters.

But he said Tokyo would continue discussions with Okinawa to reach a settlement.

After the verdict, Mr Onaga told local media that he will appeal to the Supreme Court and pledged to do whatever he can to block the relocation.

More than half the 47,000 American troops in Japan under a decades-long security alliance are stationed on Okinawa, the site of a major World War II battle that was followed by a 27-year US occupation of the island.

A series of crimes including rapes, assaults and hit-and-run accidents by military personnel, their dependants and civilians have long sparked protests.