Twenty years after the floodgates in Isahaya Bay, Nagasaki Prefecture were closed in a project to reclaim part of the bay and create farmland, the national government remains stuck in a legal quagmire over the issue of whether the gates should be reopened. A new court ruling last Monday only confirmed the stalemate. The antagonism shows no sign of dissipating between nearby fishermen, who blame their declining catches on changes in sea currents since the gates were closed, and local farmers, who have settled in the reclaimed area and oppose reopening the gates out of fear that their crops would be damaged by saltwater.

The government, which took charge of the ¥253 billion reclamation project, bears the primary responsibility to resolve the impasse. It needs to make a political decision to settle the problem. Leaving the matter to the judiciary is unlikely to produce results that satisfy both the fishermen and the farmers.

In response to a request from Nagasaki Prefecture, the government made the decision to go ahead with the Isahaya reclamation in 1986 for the purposes of farmland development and reducing flood damage. Three years after the floodgates were closed in 1997, however, fishermen from neighboring Saga Prefecture operating in the Ariake Sea suffered a record poor harvest of seaweed as well as a sharp decrease in their shellfish catch due to frequent red tides. Claiming that the floodgates weakened the velocity of the sea current, causing the declining harvest and catch, the fishermen filed a lawsuit with the Saga District Court in 2002, calling for a court order to open the gates.

The land reclamation project was completed in 2008, creating some 670 hectares of farmland. But three months later, the Saga court ordered the government to keep the gates open for five years to evaluate the impact on fisheries. The Fukuoka High Court upheld that decision in 2010, accepting a cause-and-effect relationship between closing the gates and poor fishing hauls. The ruling was finalized as then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration did not appeal the decision.

However, the legal battle over the floodgates was far from over. In 2011, the farmers filed a suit with the Nagasaki District Court calling for a court order to prevent the government from opening the gates. The court issued a provisional injunction in 2013 ordering the government to halt its preparations to open the gates, saying that doing so would deprive the farmers of their livelihood. The Nagasaki court confirmed the decision on Monday by ruling to the same effect.

Thus the government remains caught in a bind between the two conflicting court decisions — one ordering it to open the floodgates and the other telling it to keep them closed. Six years after the 2010 Fukuoka court ruling, the Isahaya Bay gates remain closed, and the government keeps paying ¥900,000 a day to the fishermen as a fine for failing to honor the Fukuoka court order — with the total reaching ¥765 million so far. An earlier attempt by the Nagasaki court to urge a settlement — in which the government proposed creating a ¥10 billion fisheries promotion fund — ended in failure. Six other cases are pending in courts that involve the government, the fishermen and the farmers, making it likely that the court battles will go on.

If the government leaves a final resolution of the problem to the judiciary, it will be nothing other than an abdication of its responsibility. While the bureaucracy may be good at implementing what has been decided, it is not good at reviewing and altering a policy already in place. This is where elected lawmakers must step in to work out a political solution.

The government should consider whether there are means to revive the damaged fisheries grounds other than opening the floodgates, which the farmers would not accept. It should examine, for example, whether other factors like the construction of a new port facing the Ariake Sea and a dam on a river that empties into the sea are responsible for the changed sea environment. Such studies may lead to the discovery of a new way to revitalize it.

A political solution will require building trustful relationship with the parties involved. For that matter, farm minister Yuji Yamamoto has visited Isahaya only once — when he was tapped to the post last August. Instead of just repeating that the government will cope appropriately with the relevant lawsuits and make efforts to resolve the problem, he should sincerely listen to both the farmers and the fishermen to search for a mutually acceptable way out of the gridlock.

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.