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Editorial: Dispute resolution panel abandons duty with Okinawa appeal dismissal

The national and Okinawa prefectural governments are clashing head-on in court over the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.

    The prefectural government filed a lawsuit against the central government on Dec. 25 in a bid to block the relocation of the base to the Henoko district of Nago. Gov. Takeshi Onaga had initially sought to hamstring the replacement facility by revoking prefectural permission for land reclamation work for a new runway.

    Responding to a petition from the Okinawa Defense Bureau, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Keiichi Ishii suspended the governor's decision under the Administrative Appeal Act, prompting the prefecture to appeal to the Committee for Settling National-Local Disputes. The committee, however, dismissed the prefectural appeal, leading Okinawa to file the anti-relocation suit.

    The national government earlier filed a suit demanding that the governor retract his revocation of prefectural permission for the land reclamation.

    Questions have been raised over the Committee for Settling National-Local Disputes' dismissal of Okinawa's petition without substantive deliberations on the prefecture's assertions, even though the panel is supposed to arbitrate disputes between the state and local bodies. The decision has demonstrated the panel's failure to fulfill its role.

    It is extremely abnormal that the central and Okinawa prefectural governments are suing each other. Since the dispute settlement committee drew a conclusion earlier than expected, the Okinawa Prefectural Government brought forward its suit against the national government, which had been expected to be launched early next year.

    At a news conference, Onaga said the panel's decision "could undermine the panel's raison d'etre, and is indeed regrettable."

    The committee dismissed the petition by the prefecture on the grounds that such a case was not subject to review by the panel.

    "Generally speaking, the committee is not supposed to review decisions based on the Administrative Appeal Act," explained Mitsuo Kobayakawa, head of the panel.

    True, relevant legislation stipulates that decisions made in response to requests for administrative reviews are exempted from examination by the panel. However, the prefectural government pointed out in its appeal that it is extremely abnormal that the Okinawa Defense Bureau -- a national government body -- filed a petition demanding that the governor's decision be suspended, claiming that the petition is illegal.

    Kobayakawa concluded that there is no clear failure of logic in the petition, and refused to treat Okinawa's appeal as an exceptional case. Still, questions remain over the panel's refusal to even deliberate the appeal.

    The panel made the decision by majority vote because its members failed to reach agreement on the appeal even after a 6 1/2-hour debate. Although the contents of their discussions remain unclear, the committee should have fulfilled its responsibility by facing the prefecture's appeal squarely and holding substantive deliberations on it.

    The Committee for Settling National-Local Disputes, launched in 2000, is characterized as one of the systems to guarantee equal and cooperative relations between the national and local governments called for by the Omnibus Decentralization Act.

    However, since the panel is under the direct control of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, doubts have been raised over whether it can fulfill its role. In fact, there have only been three cases where local bodies filed petitions with the panel against the national government. The latest national-prefectural clash over U.S. bases was a litmus test for the panel.

    The conflict between the national government and Okinawa is only intensifying without an effective system to arbitrate disputes between the central and local governments. What the national government, including the committee, lacks is an attitude to listen to what Okinawa has to say and hold frank dialogue with the prefectural government.

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