The Tokyo High Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling to cease late-night and early-morning flights by Maritime Self-Defence Force aircraft at the Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture. Within a series of noise pollution-related lawsuits involving SDF and US bases across Japan, this marks the first time that a high court has ordered a suspension of flights.
The case is the fourth lawsuit seeking compensation and suspension of flights near Atsugi Air Base. The high court also ordered the government to pay residents about ¥9.4 billion (S$104 million) in damages for past noise pollution, as well as for any future exposure to a Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level (WECPNL) (see below) of 75 or higher. Where as a previous ruling by the Yokohama District Court concluded that the government must pay ¥7 billion in compensation for past levels of aircraft noise, Thursday's ruling set a precedent by making arrangements for future damages.
Most of the roughly 6,900 plaintiffs are residents who live in the vicinity of the base. Presiding Judge Takashi Saito recognised that such residents suffer from severe sleep deprivation and concluded that "damages alone will not suffice as compensation."
The plaintiffs also demanded a halt to flights by US military aircraft, but were denied. Backing the lower court's earlier decision, the high court judged that US flights were "not subject to Japan's administrative authority."
The ruling to uphold the district court's decision to halt flights could have a negative effect on SDF activities in response to emergencies. As such, both the residents and the state are expected to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The court ruling bans takeoffs and landings by MSDF aircraft from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following day. Due to the SDF's self-imposed restrictions on flying during that period, only a few dozen such takeoffs and landings take place each year.
The Atsugi Air Base is jointly used by the MSDF and the US Navy. The noise pollution is believed to primarily come from US planes flying in the area. The court ruling said the flight suspension would be terminated by the end of 2016, as the US Navy is set to relocate to Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture by around 2017.
According to the ruling, flights must be suspended when noise-related damages are incurred, except in cases when the defence minister has deemed such air traffic absolutely necessary. The court said: "Not all [late-night and early-morning] flights are in response to emergencies. Therefore, the sleep disturbance suffered by the residents should not be taken lightly."
Local residents who are exposed to a WECPNL of 75 or higher are eligible to receive subsidies for soundproofing. Each individual was awarded a monthly sum of up to ¥20,000, for about ¥8.2 billion in total compensation. An additional ¥1.2 billion was set aside for future damages until the end of 2016, making the grand total about ¥2.4 billion higher than the amount granted in the lower court.
Similar lawsuits are under way involving five other bases, including Yokota Air Base in Tokyo and Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.
Nakatani: Ban 'unacceptable'
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed disappointment with the ruling handed down by the Tokyo High Court in Thursday morning's press conference, saying the state's claims were not heard and the ruling was "extremely harsh." Defence Minister Gen Nakatani, speaking to reporters inside the Diet building on Thursday, called the suspension of MSDF flights "unacceptable" and added he was considering whether the state should appeal to the Supreme Court.
An international metric for measuring aircraft noise. The figure is calculated by multiplying the volume of noise coming from the aircraft by weighted parameters such as frequency of air traffic and flight duration. Around the Atsugi Air Base, a total about 240,000 families across eight municipalities - including Yamato, Ayase, Sagamihara and Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture and Machida, Tokyo - are in areas where the WECPNL reaches 75 or higher.