Gov’t, Okinawa end legal battle over Okinawa base relocation

TOKYO — The Japanese and Okinawa prefectural governments said March 4 they have reached a settlement in the legal battle over the planned relocation of a U.S. military base within the southernmost island prefecture.

Given that the two sides accepted a court-mediated settlement, they will now hold a new round of talks toward an “amicable settlement” of issues involving the planned transfer of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area of Ginowan.

As part of the settlement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the state will suspend landfill work to build a replacement facility in the less populated Henoko district of Nago.

However, a wide gap remains between the two sides because Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga is demanding that the Futenma base be relocated outside Okinawa.

Abe and Onaga also said that if the two sides fail to strike a deal through negotiations and bring the matter to a court once again, they will follow a court judgment. Speaking to reporters, Abe said that if the two sides were locked in a legal battle with both sides suing each other, it would become increasingly difficult to move the Futenma base out of Ginowan.

“As the current situation shows, the state and Okinawa Prefecture have waged a legal battle in an endless manner,” Abe said. “If such a relation continues, (the dispute) will end up being deadlocked and the situation of the Futenma base — surrounded by homes and schools and situated right in a populated area — will be kept fixed for years,” he said.

Japanese officials say the base is the “most dangerous airfield in the world.”

Speaking separately in Tokyo, Onaga said Okinawa too wants to resume talks with the state after engaging in a legal battle the past six months — and expressed a willingness to achieve a breakthrough through talks with the Abe government. But it is not immediately known whether another round of talks will yield tangible results given the gap between the two sides over the Futemna issue.

Abe said his government maintains the position that moving Futenma to Henoko is the “only solution” for Japan to win a full return of land occupied by the base from the United States. The relocation of the Futenma base is a key part of a broader bilateral agreement to realign the U.S. military forces in Japan.

Asked by reporters about Abe’s comment, Onaga said, “I think that is a very disappointing remark.”

And Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, when asked if a legal decision favoring Okinawa would force the state to abandon the current relocation plan, said only that he “will not answer a hypothetical question.”

The top government spokesman also acknowledged that suspension of landfill work in the coastal area of Henoko could delay the Futenma relocation plan.

The Japanese and U.S. governments agreed in 2013 that the land used for the base would be returned in Japan’s 2022 fiscal year, which ends in March 2023, at the earliest if a relocation facility is completed in the coastal area of Nago.

The conflict between the prefectural and central governments escalated since Onaga revoked last October the landfill approval issued in 2013 by the governor’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima.

The central government subsequently filed a lawsuit demanding that Onaga retract his decision, which then resulted in a countersuit by the Okinawa prefectural government over a state decision to overrule a prefectural attempt to block landfill work.

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