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Court awards ¥2.8 billion over Kadena aircraft noise

Date Posted: 2005-02-25

Nearly 4,000 residents near the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa are being compensated a combined ¥2.8 billion in the largest redress amount for an aircraft noise pollution suit.

Residents were unsuccessful in getting the Okinawa branch of the Naha District Court, to ban nighttime flights at the largest U.S. air base in East Asia. The court decision was a mixed verdict, first rejecting the government's argument that the redress should be lessened as the residents chose to live around the base, knowing it would be noisy. The plaintiffs included four who were diagnosed by the prefecture with losing some hearing loss due to noise.

At the same time, Presiding Judge Kyoji Iida said the court could not establish a causal link between the noise pollution and their hearing problems, dismissing a claim made in a 1999 prefectural report that laid their hearing loss chiefly to aircraft noise.

A total of 3,881 residents from six communities encircling the base will receive ¥2.802 billion, far less than the ¥16 billion being asked in the lawsuit filed in March 2000. The award -- the largest compensation amount for air base or airport noise -- surpasses the roughly ¥2.74 billion the Yokohama District Court ordered paid by the government in October 2002 in a suit over noise from the Atsugi naval air facility in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is used jointly by U.S. and Japanese forces.

The Okinawa case had the plaintiffs demanding the Japanese and U.S. governments halt the night flights. The court dismissed that demand made on the Japanese government "because it seeks to halt an act by the third party," referring to the the U.S., and brushed aside the demand on the U.S. on grounds that the matter is "outside of the jurisdiction of a civil trial."

An appeal is expected by the plaintiffs, who are disgruntled with the decisions. "This is the worst court decision., said the plaintiffs’ chief attorney, Toshio Ikemiyagi. “I don't think the court ever seriously examined the damage suffered by the residents.”

The suit saw 5,541 plaintiffs seeking compensation, including retroactive damages, for a period from 1997, three years before the suit was filed in March 2000. The statute of limitations on damages suits is three years.

The plaintiffs each also sought ¥34,500 a month for future damages until the night flights end, but the court rejected the monthly payments, saying compensation could only be paid for past, not anticipated, damages. The court ruled that 3,881 plaintiffs, living in areas with a level of noise greater than 85 decibels on an international index measuring airplane noise, qualify for government compensation.

Until last week’s decision, courts had ruled that those living in areas around military bases with noise levels greater than 75 on the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level index should receive state compensation. The individuals' monthly compensation in the Kadena case will vary according to the index reading in the area: ¥9,000 to those with a WECPNL index of 85 to 90,¥12,000 in areas with an index of 90 to 95, and ¥18,000 for those in areas registering 95 decibels or more.

The court rejected the government's argument that the compensation amount should be lessened as the residents chose to live around the base, knowing it would be noisy.

A separate suit demanding a halt to night flights between 7pm and 7am has been filed by 21 of the plaintiffs. That suit, against the U.S. government, also seeks to reduce the noise caused by engine tests and daytime flights. There’s little chance the suit will go forward, though, because the court says sovereign acts by foreign governments are outside a Japanese civil court's jurisdiction.

After the decision was announced, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters "We will continue trying to obtain the understanding of the local people (on the noise issue) . . . because they are inconvenienced by it."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said he believed the ruling was reasonable because it recognized the government's position by dismissing the residents' demand to halt nighttime flights and to compensate them for future damages. But the government apparently failed to obtain the full support of the court, because it gave the plaintiffs retroactive compensation, he said.

The latest suit was prompted by a 1998 ruling Fukuoka High Court, which ordered the state to pay ¥1.37 billion to 867 local residents for noise-related damages. The court also did not include a ban on night flights, saying U.S. military activities do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Japanese government. Some of the 5,541 Kadena plaintiffs also took part in the earlier suit.

The court ordered the government to pay the sum, but the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement stipulates that the two countries are to share the burden of such compensation according to their respective responsibilities in the cases. The United States has not paid any compensation in the case.

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