NAHA, Japan, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- A ruling by a Japanese court on Friday cleared the way for the Pentagon's plans to relocate a Marine Corps installation in Okinawa -- at least, for the next few months.
The three-judge Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court decided that an effort by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga to scrap the U.S. construction project, which has stalled the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, was illegal.
"Even taking into account the desire of Okinawans who seek reductions in the base facilities and see the reclamation as unprofitable, there is nothing lacking in the requirements for approval [of the project]," the court ruling said. "There's nothing illegal about the previous governor's approval and because of that, cancellation of it cannot be upheld."
The decision is a major resolution in a dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa that's persisted for two decades.
In 1996, a Defense Policy Review Initiative launched plans to build the replacement base at a man-made off-shore location in the Oura Bay district of Henoko in the Okinawan city of Nago. The plan called for the creation of an artificial reef in Oura Bay to handle Futenma's military air traffic -- a prospect opposed by most residents and environmental advocates.
In the years that followed, opposition to the plans remained strong and several Okinawa leaders balked at the project -- partly due to past incidents of misconduct by American servicemen on the Japanese island.
In the years since, U.S. and Japanese officials considered alternate sites, including the possibility of merging Futenma forces with the Pentagon's Kadena and Iwakuni installations on Okinawa, but ultimately settled on constructing new facilities at the original Oura Bay site in Henoko, not far from the Marine Corps' Camp Schwab.
After the relocation is completed, the agreement said the former Futenma site would be returned to the Japanese government.
In late 2013, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the landfill proposal to start building the new facilities. But his successor, Onaga, who doesn't want Futenma relocated anywhere on Okinawa, rejected that permit about two years later, citing legal and environmental reasons. He was ultimately sued by the central government in Tokyo.
Work at the relocation site has been dormant since March. It's unclear whether U.S. officials will try to restart construction until the supreme court acts on the matter.
Friday, Onaga voiced surprise at the court's decision.
"I am astonished by the one-sided ruling," he said. "The judgment gives far too much power to the central government. It will trigger further protests from the people of Okinawa."
Previously, Onaga said he would accept the court's decision -- but said Friday he will now take the fight to the Japanese Supreme Court.
"Appealing to the Supreme Court isn't going to solve the issue," Upper House member Yoichi Iha, who represents Okinawa, said after Friday's ruling. "There are various steps that can be taken with regard to Henoko and the surrounding areas. Okinawa and Nago have various ways they can use their local authority over the project."
A ruling from the supreme court, which would be the final say on the matter, could come early next year.