Japan trial starts over US base move on Okinawa

A dispute between Japan's government and the southern island of Okinawa went to court as locals opposed the building of a new US military base there.
A dispute between Japan's government and the southern island of Okinawa went to court as locals opposed the building of a new US military base there. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - An emotional dispute between Japan's government and the defiant southern island of Okinawa went to court on Wednesday (Dec 2), as Tokyo tries to build a new US military base there despite local opposition.

A lawsuit filed by the central government last month aims to force Okinawan governor Takeshi Onaga to let construction go ahead for the facility.

It is meant to replace an existing air base located in a crowded urban area of Okinawa and widely seen as a potential danger to nearby residents.

Japan and the United States have been struggling for nearly 20 years to move the base to a remote part of the island. But they have been stymied by local officials, who say Okinawa bears too heavy a burden in supporting the decades-long security treaty between the two countries.

Okinawa, which is less than one percent of Japan's total land area, is home to some 75 percent of US military bases in Japan and more than half of the 47,000 American military personnel stationed in the country.

Onaga on Wednesday urged the court in the prefectural capital of Naha to dismiss the case, arguing that the rest of Japan must share the burden of hosting US military facilities.

"Okinawa has never voluntarily provided property (for US bases)," Onaga told the court, according to multiple media reports.

"The central government is attempting to force through construction. That's no different from the time under US military occupation." Tokyo, however, stuck to its position.

"It is extremely important that we remove the present danger" associated with the existing base, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing in Tokyo.

"The central government is moving ahead with the construction work." Okinawa was the scene of a bloody battle between American and Japanese troops in 1945, with the United States subsequently occupying the island for 27 years before handing it back to Japan.

Okinawans have long complained about noise, accidents and crimes committed by US service members both before and after the island's reversion to Japan in 1972.

Tokyo and Washington first proposed moving the Marine Corps Futenma air base in 1996.

But local residents have insisted Futenma should be closed and a replacement built elsewhere in another part of Japan or overseas.