TOKYO — The Japanese government took the local government in Okinawa to court Tuesday, launching a legal battle in their longstanding dispute over the planned relocation of a U.S. military air base on the southern island.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's recent decision to cancel an earlier approval for land reclamation for the base's relocation.
The long-stalled plan would move the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma from a densely populated neighborhood to Henoko Bay, a less-populated part of Okinawa, but many residents want the base moved out of the prefecture entirely. They feel Okinawa bears an unfair burden of the U.S. military presence in Japan. The prefecture houses more than half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan and U.S. bases occupy nearly a fifth of the land on its main island.
"The central government's one-sided imposition of the burden of (American) bases on us clearly discriminates against Okinawa," Onaga told reporters. He said the central government's action is "incomprehensible" to many Okinawan residents and that "I will make the case in court that our position is valid."
The hearing is to begin next month.
Mike Mochizuki, a Georgetown University professor of political science and international affairs, said Onaga's anti-base stance has made residents of Okinawa, a southern island with a distinct culture, more aware of their identify.
"The more the Japanese government pushes on the current Henoko plan, the more resistance will get stronger, and eventually it may get so strong and that it might become so broad that it would make it difficult for us to maintain other important facilities on Okinawa," he said.
Onaga's predecessor approved the land reclamation, but then lost to him in a re-election bid. The central government sued Okinawa after Onaga refused to follow an order from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to reinstate approval for the work.
Land and transport minister Keiichi Ishii said Okinawa's resistance only prolongs Futenma's risk to its current neighborhood and prevents Japan from keeping its diplomatic promise to the U.S.
Tokyo briefly suspended the reclamation work earlier this year while seeking a compromise but has since resumed it.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.