Photo/IllutrationWater from heavy rainfall in a reclaimed area of Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture flows outside the floodgates on Sept. 5. (The Asahi Shimbun)

A longstanding court battle over the government-led Isahaya Bay land reclamation project in Nagasaki Prefecture is still not settled.

A court ruling that became final in 2010 sided with the claims of local fishermen and ordered Tokyo to open the floodgates, which keep the bay waters closed off, for a limited period.

The government, however, responded with a suit calling for another ruling that would relieve Tokyo of that obligation on the grounds of subsequent changes in circumstances.

The Fukuoka High Court approved the government’s claims in 2018, but the Second Petty Bench of the Supreme Court on Sept. 13 voided that decision. The case was sent back to the high court, which will re-examine whether there have really been “changes in circumstances” of the sort that would justify the claims.

The Fukuoka High Court’s decision was obviously unreasonable. It concluded the grounds for opening the floodgates had already been lost because fishing rights from the time the order was issued for opening them expired at the end of August 2013.

The top court denied the high court’s verdict, saying the order to open the floodgates presumed that rights of the same sort would be granted again. In fact, the fishermen had their licenses renewed seamlessly and have since continued fishing.

The Fukuoka High Court only added fuel to the turmoil by relying on a formal and superficial interpretation of law in siding with the government. It is not surprising that its decision was scrapped.

But that does not mean any pathway has been set for having the floodgates opened.

In separate trials over the reclamation of Isahaya Bay, the same Second Petty Bench in June upheld lower court rulings that said the floodgates should remain closed.

Chief Justice Hiroyuki Kanno wrote a concurring opinion to the Sept. 13 verdict to outline his belief that a stack of judicial decisions made after the order was finalized to open the floodgates should be taken into account in making any judgments on the “changes in circumstances.”

That view, however, is hardly acceptable. It amounts to sending a message to society that people have the option of disobeying any court decision they don’t agree with and can take a different approach to the issue at hand, thereby voiding any judicial decision made on the matter.

The attitude of the government throughout the process can hardly be described as sincere.

After the order became final and binding, farmers on reclaimed land plots sued the government, this time to call for not opening the floodgates. Tokyo made no active moves to argue back, earning it a decision that the gates should not be opened.

The government then said it was caught between two conflicting decisions and put off doing anything. The link between the bay’s closure and the damage to fishing operations, which lies at the root of the problem, remains unclear.

This illustrates that the government has only been interested in its role of a project operator eager at all costs to stop the opening of the floodgates, because doing so could amount to a denial of its longstanding goal of land reclamation.

In effect, the government abandoned its role and mission of a public player as it failed to close the gap between the fishermen and farmers, thereby deepening the rift.

Resolving the issue will not be easy. Even if the judicial system were to finally decide the floodgates should remain closed, that would offer no hope for healing community tensions.

Politicians have a duty to seek the best possible point of agreement between the two parties, either as part of the remanded court procedure or out of court.

Lawmakers who let the situation fester for this long have an obligation to orchestrate a solution.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 15