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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005
3.25 billion yen awarded in Yokota base noise suit
By MASAMI ITO
The Tokyo High Court ordered the government Wednesday to pay a record 3.25 billion yen in noise pollution damages to an estimated 6,000 residents living near the U.S. Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo.
The high court also upheld a lower court decision rejecting the plaintiffs' demand for future damages and for a suspension of early-morning and late-night flights.
Presiding Judge Hiromu Emi meanwhile criticized the government for neglecting to take measures to compensate residents for the noise pollution despite a previous Supreme Court ruling on earlier suits stating that aircraft noise from the base is above legal limits.
"The fact that (the residents) were forced to file this lawsuit again to seek relief measures is an abnormal situation for a nation under the rule of law," Emi said, stressing the residents should not have had to file the additional suit.
The judge also accepted the plaintiffs' compensation claim for the period up to Wednesday but rejected their demand for future redress.
Suits targeting noise pollution from U.S. air bases have been filed nationwide, including in Okinawa, Tokyo and for the air station jointly used by the U.S. Navy and the Maritime Self-Defense Force in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. Generally, the bases preceded the presence of the crowded communities that grew around them.
The lower court reduced the amount of damages to be paid to residents who moved near the Yokota base after 1966, ruling they knowingly moved to the noise-polluted area. But the high court overturned this, stating that it cannot acknowledge there were residents who moved to the area knowing they would be subjected to the noise pollution.
According to attorneys, the total damages awarded Wednesday -- 3.25 billion yen -- is unprecedented in similar lawsuits.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs expressed mixed feelings at the ruling.
They acknowledged that most of the plaintiffs' demands were accepted by the high court, while expressing disappointment that an estimated 10 percent of the plaintiffs were excluded from receiving damages because the area said to be affected by the noise pollution was narrowed by the court.
"I have been involved in lawsuits regarding the Yokota Air Base for almost 30 years and I believe today's ruling was significant," attorney Nobuyuki Enomoto told reporters. "I believe the judge understood the feelings of the victims."
The plaintiffs and their lawyers said they will discuss whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Residents of western Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture filed the lawsuit between 1996 and 1998, arguing that they suffered from insomnia and mental strain due to the U.S. aircraft noise.
In May 2002, the Tokyo District Court's Hachioji branch ordered the government to pay some 2.4 billion yen in damages but said the decision on whether to suspend flights was beyond its jurisdiction.
Both the plaintiffs and the government appealed the district court ruling.
The high court as well as the lower court ruled that residents living in areas suffering more than 75 on the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level -- an international index for aircraft noise pollution -- qualify for compensation.
"I believe that this ruling will give encouragement to the estimated 20,000 plaintiffs (in lawsuits involving U.S. bases)," plaintiff Yoshikazu Ono said. "The ruling firmly pointed out the government's negligence of ignoring (past) judicial rulings and I think this ruling will act as a springboard for our future activities."
Ono, a 66-year old resident of Akishima, Tokyo, however, also told the media he was disappointed that the court did not order the suspension of night flights.
Plaintiffs and their lawyers said in a written statement their main aim in the lawsuit was to regain quiet nights.