The government will proceed with plans to build a dam across the Yoshino River in Shikoku even though a local plebiscite Sunday found over 90 percent of those who voted oppose the project, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said Monday. In Tokushima, Gov. Toshio Endo also said the prefecture will continue to promote the contentious dam project. However, Construction Minister Masaaki Nakayama indicated later in the day that his ministry is ready to review the project through further talks with the parties involved — a shift from his formerly rigid position. Nakayama told a news conference that he will be “flexible as a lawmaker if there are better ways of flood control” other than the current dam project. “I will talk with the Tokushima governor, mayor and residents and express my opinion (to the public) later,” Nakayama added. Before the plebiscite, Nakayama said the government will go ahead with the dam project regardless of the outcome of the plebiscite, saying flood control “requires a highly expert judgment.” According to official election results, 102,759 people opposed the 100 billion yen national project, calling it “bad for the environment” and “a waste of taxpayers’ money.” Those who supported the plan numbered 9,367. The number of opposing votes accounted for nearly half the 207,284 eligible voters in the city of Tokushima. There were 1,863 invalid votes. Voter turnout in Japan’s first direct ballot on a major central government public works project reached 102,934, or 55 percent, at the close of voting at 8 p.m., meeting the condition allowing the ballots to be counted. “While we should accept the ballot results without argument, it does not change the necessity of the dam for the prefectural government,” Gov. Endo said Monday after receiving a formal report of the outcome from Tokushima Mayor Masakatsu Koike. Koike, who had avoided taking a stance on the issue, announced upon learning the outcome Sunday that the city will make its stance clear to the central government and oppose the dam to reflect the will of the people. Endo said in promoting the project that there is need for dialogue with those residents who will be affected, saying “we are not talking about pushing the plan through in disregard of the will of the people.” However, the governor stopped short of elaborating on concrete steps to be taken for consensus-building. “We need to consult with the Construction Ministry. Please give us some time to think about (the steps),” he said. Endo attributed the results of Sunday’s vote to the failure of officials to reach out to the public. “We lacked the ability to explain in plain terms the nature of the project, which is very technical.” In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said the Construction Ministry is now responsible for explaining the significance of the project to win the support of Tokushima residents. “I believe it is a significant project to secure the safety of the river basin area,” Aoki told a regular news conference. “The Construction Ministry should make further efforts to gain local citizens’ understanding,” he said. Meanwhile, Yukio Hatoyama, president of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, criticized the government’s reaction to the plebiscite result, insisting that Tokyo immediately freeze the project. “Plebiscites are almost like democracy’s starting point,” Hatoyama told reporters inside the Diet building, calling on the national and Tokushima governments to pay more respect to Sunday’s vote. “A country does not exist for the sake of its government or the construction ministry. It exists for the sake of its people.” Because neither the prefecture nor the ministry seem willing to drop the project, the citizens’ group that was pivotal in having the vote held said Monday that it would soon hold a meeting to discuss what course of action to take. Under the ministry’s plan, an existing dam of piled stones some 250-years-old will be demolished and replaced with a movable weir-highway bridge. The ministry says the current dam would be of little help in the event of a major flood. However, opponents of the project maintain that it will destroy the river’s ecosystem. The plebiscite was proposed last January by a civic group opposed to the project after it collected signatures from about 100,000 people. The city assembly, however, rejected the proposal in February 1999. But after the municipal assembly election in April gave supporters of the plebiscite a majority, it enacted an ordinance last June to hold the plebiscite. The movement against the dam project was initiated by a small group of local anglers seven years ago who could not accept the ministry’s plan.
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