Okinawa Plaintiffs Testify in Class Action on U.S. Military Aircraft Noise


DECEMBER 13, 2003
OKINAWA CITY

Three judges with the Naha District Court branch here heard testimony Thursday from 19 people who claim they suffer from health problems caused by jet aircraft noise on Kadena Air Base. In an unusual setting for a civil case in Japan, the judges held simultaneous hearings in three separate courtrooms, to get through the list of 31 people chosen from 5,542 people named as plaintiffs. Sessions also are scheduled for Dec. 12 and Dec. 18.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in March 2000, seeks cessation of all flight operations on the base between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and $59.5 million in compensation for physical and mental suffering. The lawsuit is the second to be brought by Okinawans living near the sprawling air base in central Okinawa. In 1998, after 16 years of litigation, the Fukuoka High Court branch in Naha ordered the Japanese government to pay about $10.3 million to 867 residents. A demand to halt night flights was dismissed.

In the latest case Japanese government attorneys are arguing that 129 people named in the suit moved into neighborhoods near the air base knowing about the high noise level. Of the 129, 31 are to testify this month.

The parties agreed not to make public identities of those testifying but some of those taking the stand Thursday claimed they had no idea the engine noise would be so bad in their new neighborhoods. “I knew that jet noise over Sunabe was bad, but I didn’t know that the noise was also bad in Mihama until we moved in,” said a 46-year-old resident of Chatan’s Mihama district, just southwest of the base.

Asked whether he’d checked the noise before buying a home there, he replied, “I visited the site a couple times, but only on the weekends when I was off from the work. There were no aircraft flying. It was after we moved in that we discovered that aircraft fly only on the week days. “Before I moved in to our new home, we used to live in Urasoe, where helicopters from Futenma air station routinely fly overhead,” he said. “I never thought that there was a worse place than that. It was only after we moved into our new home that we discovered the jets fly right above our roof with a gigantic roar.”

A 66-year-old man who moved into Miyagi district of Chatan from Ginowan testified, “I knew about the noise to a certain extent. But I did not think that it would be this bad.” He said the noise often drowns out phone conversations and the television.

A 33-year-old resident said no place in Chatan is free from aircraft noise. “Were you not aware that you were getting closer to Kadena Air Base?” a government lawyer asked. “I was born and grew up in Chatan, and I had no intention of moving out of my hometown,” the witness said. "I just moved into an apartment that had more space” and was more convenient.

In the 1998 ruling the Fukuoka High Court rejected the government’s argument that residents who knowingly moved into a high-risk area should not be compensated. “The government should not have resurrected that argument in this suit,” Hidekatsu Shimabukuro, one of the lawyers representing the residents, contended during a recess. “They should give consideration to Okinawa’s special situation. “How can people on Okinawa find places far enough from military bases?” he asked. “That argument might be applicable to Yokota or other areas in the mainland but not here on Okinawa.”

In the first Kadena noise suit the court ruled that U.S. military operations, governed by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, were outside Japanese courts’ jurisdiction. However, U.S. forces on Okinawa voluntarily have adopted some of the noise reduction measures demanded in that suit. Most flights have been stopped from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and other noise-reduction measures have been made, including repositioning some aircraft and building “hush houses” for engine testing. Also, Japan paid $814 million to install soundproofing in about 59,000 homes near Kadena Air Base and the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station.

Increased operational tempo in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist bombings in the United States has increased noise levels in the communities hosting the Okinawa bases, local officials claim. Kadena town statistics show aircraft noise exceeded 70 decibels 23,418 times between April 2001 and March 2002. During the same period the previous year, the level was exceeded 19,334 times. The spikes averaged 23 minutes and eight seconds per day.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates 70 decibels as the level of noise experienced on a busy urban street corner or inside a car on a freeway.

Critics of the air bases contend that aircraft noise has a different psychological impact.

Source: Stars and Stripes, Pacific edition