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Editorial: Abe’s strong-arm tactics in Henoko project threaten local autonomy

The dispute between the Okinawa prefectural government and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration over the construction of a new U.S. military facility off the Henoko district in the Okinawan city of Nago is headed for court again.


The prefectural assembly on July 11 approved Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki’s plan to file a lawsuit against the land reclamation work to build the facility to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in a more densely packed city in the prefecture.


In August last year, the prefectural government revoked the permit granted by a former governor to reclaim land off Henoko to build the Futenma replacement facility, citing new related developments and findings. It has been found, for example, that the seafloor in some parts of the reclamation area is “as soft as mayonnaise” to a depth of dozens of meters.


The Defense Ministry responded to the move by filing a formal request to Keiichi Ishii, the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, to invalidate Okinawa’s decision, invoking the administrative complaint review law.


Ishii ruled in favor of the Defense Ministry under the legal procedure to handle cases in which the rights of citizens have been violated by administrative acts.


The prefectural government’s new lawsuit will revolve around Ishii’s ruling.


What is especially regrettable is that the independent expert panel to deal with disputes between the central and local governments, headed by Kazuhiro Tomikoshi, former chief judge of the Tokyo High Court, completely failed to perform its expected function.


The panel heard the case before the prefectural government’s legal action, focusing on two key issues.


The first question is whether the Defense Ministry is eligible to file a request to the infrastructure minister under the administrative complaint review law, which only allows “private” individuals and businesses to take the action. The second issue is whether the minister, a member of the Cabinet, can be expected to render a fair decision in response to a request from a government body.


Last month, the panel endorsed the administration’s move in its verdict. It said the defense authority’s position concerning this matter is the same as that of a private citizen. It also said the infrastructure minister’s ruling cannot be deemed biased given the fact that administrative work is highly fractionalized, with each organization involved properly carrying out its tasks.


The panel’s conclusion is totally unacceptable.


The public water body reclamation law, which defines requirements for land reclamation, clearly distinguishes the state from the private individual and treats the two differently.


There cannot be a “private individual” who is allowed to carry out land reclamation for the purpose of building a military base.


The panel’s view concerning the second issue, which sounds like praise for the nation’s compartmentalized bureaucracy, is quite ridiculous.


The reclamation work is based on a formal Cabinet decision, which makes it impossible for the infrastructure minister to take a stance toward the issue that differs from that of the defense authority.


The panel should be criticized for its nonsensical verdict, which is based on distorted logic and ignores the real issue.


The same panel examined a similar Henoko-related case four years ago. While it rejected the prefectural government’s case, it also raised questions about the central government’s argument.


This time, however, the panel, led by a new chairman, clearly sided with the central government, possibly because it has succumbed to pressure from the administration, which has been seeking to establish fait accompli to solidify its position.


The prefectural government is weighing legal action against the panel’s verdict.


The Abe administration has been using extreme strong-arm tactics in pushing through the Henoko base plan.


Despite the availability of a formal procedure to settle disputes between the central and local governments, the administration has taken a highly questionable step of resorting to the system based on the administrative complaint review law to protect the rights of the people from possible threats posed by government actions.


It is obvious that the administration has used this option because it allows it to forge ahead with the work by dealing quickly with the matter through a process that only involves actors on its side.


If the administration ignores local public opinion, unabashedly uses dubious means to sidestep legitimate procedures while the dispute settlement panel fails to perform its role, there is no way for local governments to avoid subordinating themselves to the central government.


This is not only an issue for Okinawa. This is a situation that could shake the very foundation of local autonomy.


–The Asahi Shimbun, July 12

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