TIME FOR NONPARTISAN EFFORTS TO BLOCK CHINA’S LAND-BUYING SPREE
Last month, when a Chinese woman claimed to have purchased Yonaha Island, an uninhabited island north of the Okinawa main island, 99% of respondents to a poll by Fuji Television replied that land sales to non-Japanese buyers should be regulated. The staggering number constitutes a strong public protest against the government having for decades ignored an alarming situation in which our land has been sold non-restrictively to foreign buyers.
About a month after the poll, my friend Koko Kato uncovered more disturbing cases while investigating the controversial operation of solar power plants by Shanghai Electric Group elsewhere in Japan. Explained Kato, a former special advisor to the cabinet who was instrumental in getting the locations from Japan’s Meiji Era industrial revolution registered as World Heritage Sites:
“Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Honshu embraces several facilities that are critical to the nation’s energy security. A nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho Village is in operation and an interim spent nuclear fuel storage facility is under construction in Mutsu City. This time around, I came across the fact that a large tract of land right in front of the facility has fallen into the hands of Shanghai Electric. The Chinese utility has gained permission to construct a wind power plant there and develop it under the so-called ‘FIT (feed-in tariff)’ protocol.”
In Japan, when a renewable energy producer wins approval to sell power on that system, whether wind-powered or solar-powered, it is entitled to have electric utilities buy industrial power at fixed prices that are comparatively high for 20 years. These utilities then tack on all costs to household electricity bills as additional charges needed to sustain the renewable energy business. They pay for the new energy, but all expenses are ultimately passed on to consumers while the renewable energy suppliers are guaranteed high profits over the set period.
Around the interim storage facility in Mutsu wilderness spreads as far as the eye can see with no buildings in sight. While the land was registered under a Japanese woman’s name, the application for the wind power generation business was made by, and granted to, SMW Tohoku, a limited liability company (LLC). But the firm’s land registration shows the same address as Shanghai Electric.
Kato had this to say about SMW Tohoku:
“Its application for business development was also made by the same person who applied on behalf of Shanghai Electric. I have checked this with documents available at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.”
Interim storage facilities are a critical pillar of the nation’s nuclear energy industry. Spent nuclear fuel ordinarily would be sent to the reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, where uranium and plutonium would be recovered for reuse. Processing a ton of spent fuel leaves 30 kilograms (66 lbs) of nuclear waste, which is melted with glass and solidified before being buried underground.
Farmland and Forests Most Vulnerable
Sadly, completion of the reprocessing facility is far behind schedule. As a result, spent fuel that keeps piling up is currently crammed into metallic casks, which are then stored inside reactor buildings at each nuclear power station. The interim storage facility under construction in Mutsu will be its ultimate collection site.
The government has taken all possible safety measures in handling spent fuel. Drop tests and resistant tests in fires of 800 degrees Centigrade (1,472 F) have been conducted to ensure against radioactive leaks. Exclusive roads have been built and security personnel trained to protect the casks against terrorist attacks en route to the facility after being unloaded at Mutsu Bay. Despite these security measures, however, the government has ended up allowing Shanghai Electric to own a vast stretch of land adjoining the facility. Why has the government been overlooking this utter nonsense? Kato opined:
“To call a spade a spade, such a horrible case is not limited to Mutsu City. Across the bay from Mutsu City is the Ominato Naval Base of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF). Not too far from the base is the city’s Jogasawa district with a busy fishing port and a large lumber shop. The entire land around there is virtually in the same predicament as the case involving the interim storage facility in Mutsu.”
The corporate registry identifies the owner of this land as a Japanese national, but the business license is again granted to the same SMW Tohoku for wind power generation operated under the FIT system. Its corporate address is the same as Shanghai Electric—as is the case in Mutsu. Kato interviewed citizens who live in the neighborhood.
“Those with the Ominato Fishery Cooperative told me they had never heard of Shanghai Electric or Chinese investment money before. The owner of the large lumber shop told me he was approached by the Michinoku Bank about becoming a renewable energy supplier. As you may know, Michinoku is one of the leading banks in the area.”
Enthused, the lumber merchant decided to take advantage of the FIT system in starting a wind power business utilizing a wide expanse of land he owns in the area. But his project did not see the light of day, as he failed to obtain authorization.
There is a forest of windmills for wind power generation around the nuclear facility and other facilities related to the JMSDF base. But Kato said she saw “only one of the windmills” working because there was very little wind during her stay there. The government in essence is spending trillions of yen to compel consumers to pay surcharges and have land taken by China in the bargain. How long does the government intend to continue this foolish policy?
Keiro Kitagami, a member of the parliamentary group “Yushi no Kai” comprising concerned lawmakers, stated at a January 31 session of the Lower House Budget Committee that farmland and forests are the most vulnerable targets for foreign capital, namely Chinese money.
Is This Politician Really a Minister?
The Chinese start by first renting plots of land. After developing agriculture or renewable energy projects on the rented plots, they then go on to buy up the land. This is what has happened with the cases in Aomori Prefecture, where the landowner is listed as Japanese while the LLC listed as doing business on the land has an opaque corporate identity. Digging further, one ultimately finds that authorization for the business has been given under the name of Shanghai Electric. At some point in the future, Shanghai Electric will take full ownership of the land.
The nation needs to develop laws to block a string of crafty and premeditated Chinese schemes to buy up land across Japan, but our politicians and bureaucrats are disappointingly slow to react. In point of fact, Agricultural Minister Tetsuro Nomura had this to say in answering Kitagami’s question during Diet deliberations:
“The Chinese have bought up vast chunks of our land centering around Hokkaido. It would be difficult to regulate what has already happened.”
Is this a statement one expects from a responsible politician? Is Nomura really a minister in charge of overseeing affairs involving farmland? If existing laws are useless, isn’t it the responsibility of lawmakers to make new laws to resolve this issue? After all, making laws is law makers’ business. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the reason politicians cite to claim there is nothing Japan can do to prevent China’s land-buying spree in Japan. They assert that Japan is not entitled to prevent it now because we made no reservations on land transactions when we joined WTO in 1995.
Noting that France and the UK, which also became WTO members without making the reservations on land transactions, are facing up to the issue satisfactorily, Kitagami stated:
“France employs a pre-approval system for the conservation, safety, and procurement of water sources and the production, processing, and distribution of agricultural products as seen fit by the president, who also has the power to reject such applications. Meanwhile, the UK government, which monitors the entire nation constantly, has the power to summon parties concerned, investigate them, and block or nullify contracts whenever the authorities have any questions about national security concerning their corporate activities.”
There is no reason why Japan cannot emulate France and the UK in the same area. After so much of our land has been bought up, we should never allow our politicians to get away by claiming it is difficult to “regulate what already has happened.” We don’t need politicians without mettle. It’s time for nonpartisan politicians with heart to take the lead in stopping China’s buying spree of our land as fast as possible.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” in the April 13, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)