National

Futenma relocation panel experts admit taking payments from contractors

Kyodo

Two members of a governmental panel monitoring the environmental impact of the Futenma base relocation within Okinawa Prefecture have admitted to accepting donations from contractors involved.

Kyoto University professor Nobuaki Arai and University of Tokyo professor Hajime Kayane said separately they have accepted donations totaling ¥10.5 million from contractors in Tokyo since 2014.

Both men denied, however, that the payments influenced their actions during panel meetings.

The companies that made the payments have central government contracts to carry out environmental assessments and other work.

The panel was launched by the Okinawa office of the Defense Ministry in April 2014. Members have since discussed what impact building a new air base in the Henoko coastal area of Nago may have on the endangered dugong population and coral reefs in the area.

Arai, who specializes in marine biology and environmental science, has accepted ¥8 million from environmental consulting firm Idea Consultants Inc. He said the donations date from before he was appointed to the panel.

“Accepting donations isn’t inappropriate in and of itself, nor am I thinking about returning the money,” Arai said.

Kayane, an expert on coral reef studies, admitted to receiving ¥2 million from Penta-Ocean Construction Co. and ¥500,000 from construction consulting firm Ecoh Corp.

He said the donations were intended for research and had “nothing to do” with the planned relocation of the Futenma base from the city of Ginowan. “On the panel, I’m carefully scrutinizing (the project),” he said.

Meanwhile, a third panel member has acknowledged being on the payroll of a nonprofit organization headed by the president of Idea, an environmental consulting firm. Takeshi Hara, who is also director of the Japan Fisheries Science and Technology Association, said that although he has received about ¥2 million annually since 2008, “my opinion as a panel member won’t be swayed by the compensation.”

The panel has met five times so far. A source at the Okinawa Regional Defense Bureau said panel members were selected based on their expertise and other factors, but that the bureau did not try beforehand to identify conflicts of interest with contractors.

Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University who is knowledgeable about issues relating to U.S. bases in Okinawa, said the case calls into question the panel members’ ethics.

“Even if research funds are in short supply, they should carefully handle (such donations),” he said.

On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that members of the governmental panel “should avoid doing anything that could raise suspicions among the public about collusion.”

He said the Defense Ministry is looking into the case, but discussions by the panel are being conducted in an “open and fair manner” because their reports are published on the Internet and are therefore accessible to the public.