TOKYO Japan's top court on Tuesday ruled in favour of a government plan to relocate a U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa, dealing a blow to islanders' efforts to get rid of the base altogether.
The government and Okinawa authorities have been at loggerheads for years over the U.S. Marines' Futenma air base as resentment has simmered among residents who bemoan what they see as an unfair burden in supporting the U.S. military presence in Japan.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has led the campaign to get the base off the island while the central government has proposed moving it away from the urban area where it is located to a less populated part of the island called Henoko.
As part of his campaign, Onaga rescinded approval for land reclamation work, issued by his predecessor, to clear the way for the base relocation.
But a high court ruled his decision illegal and on Tuesday the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
The defence ministry, which is overseeing the plan to relocate the base, said it would resume work as soon as it was officially cleared to go ahead.
"We plan to do our utmost for the transfer of the Futenma air base to Henoko to prevent the air base from becoming fixed at the current location and to remove the danger posed by the base," Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department applauded the ruling.
"We welcome the decision by the Japanese Supreme Court," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "The United States and Japan remain committed ... to the plan to construct the Futenma replacement facility at the Camp Schwab-Henoko area and adjacent waters."
The Futenma base is surrounded by schools, hospitals and shops and residents worry about air crashes. Crime by U.S. servicemen has also on occasion inflamed anger.
A U.S. military tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft came down in the sea off Okinawa last week.
Onaga has indicated he will maintain his opposition to the relocation of the facility to the current the site of the Camp Schwab Marine Corps base.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tom Brown)