TOKYO -- The Okinawa governor is threatening a countersuit against the Japanese government's legal action to push through a contentious U.S. Marine Corps base relocation plan, setting the stage for an acrimonious court battle that could deepen the divide.
Tokyo plans to move the Futenma air station, now in a residential area in the city of Ginowan, to the less-populated area of Henoko in the city of Nago. Former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima had granted approval for the necessary land reclamation work in 2013. His successor, Gov. Takeshi Onaga, elected on a promise to halt the transfer, revoked the permit in October.
Frustrated by the revolt, the central government filed a lawsuit Tuesday with the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court seeking the authority to override Onaga's decision. It argues that the approval cannot be revoked because there were no legal flaws in the process, and that the dangers Futenma poses to nearby residents cannot be eliminated without moving the facility.
The court battle will be the first between the government and Okinawa since a 1995 tussle over a lease on land housing a U.S. military base. Oral arguments will begin Dec. 2.
"We haven't heard any proposals to resolve the issue from the governor," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Tuesday afternoon, directing unusually harsh criticism toward Onaga. The government has no choice but to go to court, he said.
Tokyo expects the high court to decide the case sometime between February and March and, should the prefecture appeal, sees the Supreme Court handing down a ruling in about a year. Construction is set to continue in the interim, with the government planning to start preparatory work on an embankment this year.
A ruling in the central government's favor would ensure that construction can be completed by 2020. The government sees efforts to return facilities and land south of another U.S. military installation, Kadena Air Base, as helping to win over the public. About 9,000 U.S. troops, roughly a third of the total stationed in Okinawa, would be transferred overseas, including Guam, Suga said.
Onaga, accompanied by a legal adviser, did not conceal his anger when he spoke to reporters an hour and a half later. "This is a sign of discrimination against Okinawa," he said. "It reminds Okinawans of seizures by 'bayonet and bulldozer,'" he added, referring to U.S. confiscation of Okinawan land after the end of World War II. He is considering legal action against the government, he said.
The court battle is not certain to end in Onaga's favor. Those close to the governor are weighing holding a referendum or a new election to claim a fresh public mandate, letting him revoke approval for the reclamation work again even if he loses in the courtroom.
The next year will bring the Ginowan mayoral election in January and upper house and prefectural assembly elections in the summer. In 2014, another election year, candidates opposed to the Henoko move won lower house elections as well as the Okinawan gubernatorial race and the mayoral election in Nago.
Foreign policy expert Yukio Okamoto urged the central and prefectural governments to come to an understanding as soon as possible. A construction freeze with no alternatives on the table could lead to the Marine Corps withdrawing amid the turmoil, he warned, explaining that the deterrent of the Japan-U.S. alliance relies on neighbors thinking the security agreement will kick in if they bother Japan.
An unnatural pullout could cause Japan's neighbors -- particularly China -- to see a power vacuum and assume the security agreement is not functioning normally, Okamoto said.