MATSUE, Shimane Pref.– After an independent panel of experts failed in late March to decide whether to resume draining part of Lake Nakaumi to create 1,470 hectares of farmland, the project’s fate now rests with Shimane Gov. Nobuyoshi Sumita.

The project, which has been steeped in controversy for decades, is considered to be typical of the inflexibility and inefficiency of Japanese public works projects carried out regardless of changes in social conditions and without listening to local residents’ opinions.

Sumita, who called for a resumption of the project in March 1996, will now have to decide on the matter in light of the prefecture’s current fiscal problems and fluid political situation. His may reach a decision as early as June, when the prefectural assembly convenes.

The project dates back to 1963, when the central and local governments embarked on a plan to turn five areas of Lake Nakaumi into 2,540 hectares of farmland by draining water from three of the areas and filling in another two with land. The plan also called for the desalination of brackish lakes Nakaumi and Shinji to secure fresh water for the area.

Work at four of the areas was finished by 1989. However, drainage of the last section — known as the Honjo area and the largest of the five, as well as the desalination plans — were suspended in 1988 due to strong opposition. Local residents, especially fishermen, feared the scheme would damage the quality of water in the lakes, which are home to a variety of fish and shellfish.

In March 1996, however, Sumita urged the central government to resume the project as a temporary freeze on the prefecture’s debt payments for the scheme was about to end.

After a year of debate, the expert panel issued a final report that put forward three options — creating farmland in the Honjo area, leaving the water untouched and promoting fishing instead, and creating farmland in just one part of the area.

Former Shimane University President Ichiro Yamada, who chaired the panel, told reporters after the group’s final meeting that its failure to reach a single conclusion was inevitable because panel members were too divided on the matter.

Takehiko Hobo, a professor of finance at Shimane University and a leading opponent of the proposal to drain the area, criticized the panel for not doing its job, but added — with a touch of irony — that at least it did not agree to go ahead with the project even though many panel members are close to the governor.

“The fact that even those members could not agree to go ahead with the project shows how problematic it is,” Lake Nakaumi project creates more controversy than farmland, Hobo maintained.

The panel, which was made up of 11 experts in such fields as finance, agriculture and fish resource management, began deliberations in March 1999 after spending two years studying the local environment and fishing industry.

The panel’s creation was in line with an August 1996 agreement by the then coalition government of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake following the request by the Shimane governor.

The SDP and Sakigake, which both opposed the Nakaumi project, persuaded the LDP to jointly propose to the prefecture and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry a new option — further promoting fishing in the Honjo district and Lake Shinji.

“We thought the independent panel would make it easier for the governor to reverse his decision” on the resumption of draining, said Atsushi Nishikori, a former Sakigake Diet member who played a key role in creating the tripartite agreement. “But the Agriculture Ministry intervened in the selection of the panel members. When I saw the list of members, I knew the panel would not be able to do anything.”

One of the project’s debated issues was whether farming on the new land would have an impact on the quality of the water in the lake. A hydraulic simulation test that is referred to in the panel’s final report showed that any impact would be almost zero.

Environmental groups, however, argue that the panel’s simulation was merely based on the situation as it is now. They emphasize that they should have compared models of completion scenarios for the project and the one where fisheries are promoted.

Panel member Kenya Mizuguchi, an associate professor of fish resource management at Tokyo University of Fisheries, also insisted during the panel’s discussions that it should take into account the water’s purification capability. However, other members said there was no established tool to measure this.

Another major issue is the question of whether people would even come to the district to farm if the land is created. While the ministry and the local government say it will not be a problem because they plan to attract individuals and agribusinesses from across the country to operate large-scale farms, many question this, saying the two districts nearby that have already been reclaimed are still short of farmers.

“If there are many people who want to farm there, I would not oppose the plan,” said retired farmer Yoshihiro Matsumoto, 73, who lives near the Honjo district. “But at a time when most farmers are in their 60s and don’t want their sons to follow in their footsteps, I don’t see any need to create such a large area of farmland.”

A former high-ranking prefectural official also admitted the project no longer matches current local needs.

With so many arguments undermining the credibility of the project, it is surprising that it has not been scrapped altogether.

Agriculture Ministry officials stick to their position that creating farmland is important to secure domestically grown food and reduce Japan’s dependency on imports.

Many experts, including Hobo and Takayoshi Igarashi, a Hosei University professor whose specialty is public works projects, maintain that the main reason the Nakaumi project still lives is because of Japan’s bureaucracy, under which the Agriculture Ministry has to promote the project to hold on to its share of public works allocations.

While the Fisheries Agency is also part of the ministry, Mizuguchi said a high-ranking agency official told him that it has little control over the project, which is run by the ministry’s powerful Agricultural Structure Improvement Bureau.

But the situation surrounding the project has changed over the last few years. One factor in this change is Shimane’s fiscal difficulties. Like many other local governments, the prefecture is struggling financially, with its outstanding bond issues at the end of fiscal 1999 totaling over 800 billion yen.

In fact, Sumita’s softening of his stance regarding the Honjo project in August is believed to be attributable to the increased financial burden the local government will have to bear to complete it.

Sumita said he was “considering all options” in preparation for receiving the panel’s report, stepping back from his earlier position of sticking to the project no matter what.

While the land reclamation project was initially expected to cost an additional 27 billion yen, the Agriculture Ministry made it clear in October that the figure is expected to rise to 52 billion yen, of which the prefecture will have to bear 5 billion yen. Some 50.8 billion yen has already been spent.

The additional cost of not draining the water and promoting the fishing industry, on the other hand, would be 8 billion yen, of which the local government would have to shoulder between 3.5 billion yen and 7 billion yen. Many opponents of reclamation, however, say this would be more profitable in the end because there is a greater chance that reclaimed land will remain unused.

Some political changes may also have influenced Sumita’s position. Although the Liberal Democratic Party, which has a majority in the prefectural assembly, had been backing the project, many LDP members changed their stance after three LDP assembly members lost their seats in a local election last April.

Because a Lower House election may be held as early as June, the issue may well be on the election agenda. Nishikori, who plans to run for the Lower House from Shimane’s No. 2 constituency, is criticizing the project as a symbol of the pork-barrel politics that former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, his main opponent, has embraced.

Because Takeshita has been absent from the political scene since April 1999, reportedly due to a back injury, his supporters, who are concerned he will lose his Diet seat, are said to have spread word that the LDP heavyweight is thinking of suspending the project.

In fact, it was Takeshita’s remark as prime minister that suggested that change in the public’s needs cannot be ignored. This helped suspend the project in 1988.

Meanwhile, citizens’ groups are preparing to launch a new drive to have an ordinance drawn up to protect the environment in the area of Lake Nakaumi and Lake Shinji.

Shimane University’s Hobo, who leads this drive, said it is high time local residents took the initiative to protect the environment and the local community, and not leave the matter to government officials and politicians.

He added that environmental protection does not necessarily mean lack of economic progress.

“We would like to draw up an ordinance and map out the future of the prefecture where protecting the environment also contributes to the development and well-being of the local community.”