Local Politico Keeps Heat on New Airport

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

IZUMISANO, Osaka — Despite the widespread promotion of the Kansai International Airport as the savior of the regional economy, Yoshiji Kokuga finds little about the airport’s long-term effects to rejoice over.

He is not alone: Local citizens voted him into the city assembly here for the last two terms, and he is confident that he will be back a third time as one of the few dissenting voices on the subject of the airport at the governmental level in Kansai.

“I can’t say there is no merit at all to the airport,” Kokuga commented. “But as a city assembly member I do think it’s very important to protect the people who might be victimized by the demerits of the airport construction plans. That’s what I’m doing.”

The way he sees it, those demerits include pollution problems wrought upon local residents by the airport and its related facilities, degradation of the environment, and the possible military use of the airport in the future — claims all rebutted by the airport company overseeing the project.

But the most pressing concern, he says, is whether Izumisano — with its 89,500 population and chief industry of towel making — will be able to economically support the 1 trillion-yen, 24-hour airport via the city’s own “Rinku Town” development zone on the mainland.

At least 7 billion yen in tax revenues was originally projected for the city through 15 groups of companies expected to locate in the Rinku Town area, according to Kokuga. An additional 3 billion yen was expected from the airport, for a total of 10 billion yen.

But due to the ongoing economic recession in Japan, he said, eight groups of companies have already canceled their plans to move into Rinku Town, with only four groups so far having paid the
tetsuke-kin deposit money.

Kokuga adds that the city’s land sales of the Rinku Town commercial zone alone amount to 360 billion yen of the 550 billion yen total. But with few companies outside of distributors willing to set up shop in that commercial zone, “very serious damage” is done to the city’s projected income.

The city assemblyman estimates that with at least 90 percent of potential revenues from Rinku Town appearing lost at this stage, the financial burden of compensation is likely to fall on the sector least able to afford it: the common people of Izumisano.

“I’m worried that in the future, it may be the citizens themselves who will have the tax burden imposed on them to make up for the sharp drop in tax revenues from Rinku Town,” Kokuga says.

The city assemblyman faces formidable challenges in his staunch opposition to the airport plans. Besides Kokuga, the only representatives of the 27-member city assembly to oppose the airport are four Communist Party members.

But opposition to the airport could be interpreted as more of a personal crusade for Kokuga than for the others: One of the places considered early on as a possible site for the airport, he recalls, was the very mountainside beneath his house in his native Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture.

He has been fighting the airport plans ever since. In spring 1986, a 150-member grassroots coalition known as the
Kansai Shin-Kuko Zettai Hantai Senshu Shimin no Kai (Coalition of Senshu residents absolutely opposed to the new Kansai Airport) successfully put Kokuga up as an independent candidate in the city assembly race.

It was a hard-won victory for Kokuga, who sued the police for allegedly stealing ballots from the electoral committee in an attempt to identify his supporters. The Osaka District Court later ruled in Kokuga’s favor and voters later put him back in office for a second term.

After seven years in office, Kokuga still suspects police surveillance of the everyday activities of himself and his local grassroots supporters — “though there is no way to be sure,” he adds.

The passage of time, too, has played a role in the ebb and flow of opposition to the Kansai International Airport. With the airport set to open a year from now, many residents are feeling that any effort to protest it is in vain.

“True, there are decreasing numbers of people fighting the airport,” says Kokuga, whose term expires in May 1994. “But at the same time, many people realize that if there were no voice of opposition to the airport, the local and central governments would never take such things as the environment seriously.

“People realize that they need someone who opposes the airport,” Kokuga says self-assuredly, “so I have reason to believe I’ll be elected again.”