Elementary and junior high schools in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, home to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, have been providing free school lunches since April 2018.
The budget for seven years through fiscal 2024, totaling ¥2.4 billion, is being paid for with the special defense grant from the central government given as a “present” in return for the municipality’s decision to accept dozens of the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based aircraft. It was none other than Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary, who played a role behind the scenes in approving the grant.
“I demand an answer on the free school meal proposal that citizens can understand,” a local city assembly member said to central government officials during the city council’s general assembly meeting on Jan. 27, 2017, which discussed the relocation of U.S. carrier-based aircraft from U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Hiroyuki Miyazawa, then-parliamentary vice minister for defense, assured the local assembly with the remark, “We will work hard so that we can implement it from fiscal 2018 at the latest.”
Nobuo Kishi, then-state foreign minister, whose local constituency includes Iwakuni, also backed the proposal, effectively formalizing government approval. Kishi now serves as defense minister.
“It was Suga who had given the green light,” said local assembly member Toshiyuki Kuwahara, 72, who served as the assembly’s speaker at the time, as he recounted how government approval came about behind the scenes.
Kuwahara says he has known Suga since around 2008. He went to Tokyo no less than 10 times a year and was able to lobby the then-chief Cabinet secretary directly.
During the second administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Suga had also served as minister in charge of mitigating the impact of the heavy concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture.
Kuwahara says they were both on the same page on the need for the mainland to share the burden of hosting U.S. forces. He had negotiated directly with Suga even before the city began weighing the free school meal plan in fiscal 2016.
After petitioning Suga for a second or third time, Suga told him that the matter would be taken up for consideration, Kuwahara said.
Before long, Iwankuni and the local Chugoku-Shikoku Defense Bureau started actively working on the free school meal program. It was like a voice from heaven, Kuwahara thought back then.
A week after the general assembly meeting, Suga came to Iwakuni and met Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda.
“As we’re putting a burden on the city, we will work appropriately to come up with measures to support the local area,” Suga told the mayor.
The U.S. military deployed 10 cutting-edge F-35B stealth fighter jets for the first time in Japan at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in January 2017.
A proposal to relocate about 60 of the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based aircraft in the latter half of 2017 was also floated, with local citizens increasingly worried about the possibility of worsening noise pollution.
“Iwakuni was making the biggest contribution across the country,” Kuwahara recounted. “In accepting the carrier-based aircraft, free school meals were a visible benefit for its residents.”
Then-city council member Jungen Tamura, 75, bristled at the way the government approval came, which could be interpreted as the reflection of the government’s carrot-and-stick approach.
“Since it is the city that provides the school meals, it doesn’t make sense for the Defense Ministry to say that they will provide free (school lunches),” Tamura said. “The city is treated preferentially only as a quid pro quo for the base.”
Former Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, 70, says that because the special grant can be used for financing not only infrastructure but also community events, more municipalities seem to be increasingly reliant on it.
“It is sort of addictive in that municipalities cannot easily pull away from their increasing reliance on the special grants,” he said. “Free school meals are not bad, but we have to understand what’s in the background. I find it quite odd that it’s clearly used as a means to suppress the opposition of residents for strengthening base functions.”
There are some mixed views on the grant in the city as well.
“When we think about noise pollution, surrounding municipalities also share the burden, so it’s peculiar that they fully subsidize only Iwakuni’s (school meals),” said a woman in her 70s who used to be an elementary school teacher.
The education ministry offers no subsidies to make free school meals possible, but 6.2% of local governments nonetheless offered free meal services at both elementary and junior high schools as of December 2019.
An official in charge of the program said: “I didn’t know about the Defense Ministry’s grant that made the program free. I’m not in a position to say if that’s good or bad.”
“We have no other choice but to use the special grant,” said an official at Iwakuni city office.
A thorny issue: Japan’s special defense ministry grants
The special defense ministry grant that was distributed to improve the lives of residents whose homes surround military bases became a thorny issue in past parliamentary deliberations, with concerns raised over the wide usage of subsidies that could be used as a sweetener for bolstering base functions.
Over the years, the special defense ministry grant has been used for various purposes in the southern Kyushu region to finance the purchase of new books for libraries, musical instruments, subsidies for day care fees or the provision of free medical care for high school students, among others.
During a Lower House committee meeting in 1974 on a bill that provides the basis for the special defense ministry grant, opposition party lawmakers expressed concerns that the legislation could lead to a series of vaguely defined grants given in a bundle to local residents.
The bill also attracted a lot of criticism at the Upper House as well, with some lawmakers saying it could lead to double administrative management or wider disparity between local governments that do not have defense facilities.
The special defense ministry grant was created on top of another government subsidy that makes soundproof work for houses or the streamlining of roads or parks possible in the areas that surround U.S. and Self-Defense Forces bases. The Defense Ministry argued at the time that the new grant would “complement” another government subsidy.
Then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka bulldozed the bill after testifying that “We cannot cause inconveniences to the surrounding residents. It’s better to overtreat them.”
The special grant, which grew to more than ¥13 billion in 2001, was subjected to a policy review after the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009. The finance ministry tried to halt the program saying it had no discernible merit. Based on those concerns, the government decided to revise the law to allow the funds to be used for a wide swath of services for local residents.
“Aren’t there worries that the revision would lead to an unfettered expansion of grants that are not directly linked to beefing up countermeasures to the bases?” questioned opposition’s Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Takeshi Iwaya in 2010 at a Lower House committee discussing the law revision. Iwaya later served as a defense minister.
But the defense ministry responded at the time that there would be certain limits placed on the unlimited expansion of grants as only areas that are suffering from severe damage can be eligible for the subsidy.
This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published Jan. 4.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.