Final Destination: The Kansai International Airport [part 1]

The new Kansai International Airport, first mooted in the late Sixties, was initially estimated to cost 1 trillion yen. Beset from the start by political problems and technical delays, it is now said to be costing a further 430 billion yen and is finally due to be opened by summer 1994, 15 months behind schedule. Brian Covert, an independent journalist who has followed the controversial Kansai Airport story closely for the last four years, brings us up to date with current problems and progress on the project.

From dream to reality

On March 12 of this year, with the landfilling of the island still underway, the Kansai International Airport Co. (KIAC) announced the start of construction on the new airport’s control tower and a government complex on the man-made island, 5km offshore in southeast Osaka Bay.

That step was a milestone of sorts, after years of haggling over foreign participation, negotiations over regional fishing rights and local protests over the airport’s environmental impact. But, just like the foreign and domestic protests, the Kansai International Airport project goes on.

The project has long been a controversial one, but the year 1987 found the domestic and foreign heat over the airport plans reaching a new high.

It was then that Dr. Eberhard F. Baumann, German consul general in Kobe and head of the Kansai foreign diplomatic corps, aptly expressed the frustration that many in overseas business and government were feeling about the airport: that it was slamming the door in the face of international participation.

“They have offered consulting contracts to a few airport companies to calm us down a little,” he said in a July 1987
Japan Times interview. “It’s all politics — and the Japanese way of thinking.”

Baumann dismissed as “nonsense” the claims that foreign companies lacked the hands-on experience to join the Kansai Airport project.

Much has changed since then, and yet some would say nothing has changed at all.

Perhaps the toughest obstacle the airport faces now is actually living up to the reputation that precedes it. The airport is being promoted in Kansai business circles as the one project that will keep the region and the nation apace with the rest of the world in the 21st century. Kansai business and government leaders like to boast that the Kansai’s regional gross national product is about 1-2 percent of the Free World’s GNP, the economic power of an industrialized nation in itself. So clearly the Kansai region, traditionally the center of business in Japan long before Tokyo’s dominance, can support such a mammoth project.

But the truth is that the overall economy of the Kansai has been lagging recently, and local leaders are tired of playing a game of catch-up with the nation’s capital. When officials first pursued the idea for the airport in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Kansai International Airport was envisaged as the savior to boost the region’s economy by transforming the area into a hub of transportation and development.

Even now supporters foresee the Kansai Airport as meeting those expectations and much more when it opens for 24-hour-a-day service: clearing out the bottleneck of domestic and international air travel that centers around Tokyo; strengthening the Kansai region’s traditional ties with nearby Asian countries; spurring development in Osaka’s southern Senshu area and, by extension, the entire Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Nara region; and providing an alternative to the noise pollution problem plaguing Osaka’s residentially based Itami Airport.

“This project is fantastic. It’s something almost out of a dream,” says Okabe Noriaki, architect and president of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Japan that designed the airport’s futuristic terminal building.

The airport is still in the first of the two main stages as it rushes to completion by summer 1994, about 15 months behind schedule. This first stage consists of a 511-hectare airport island built in water about 18 meters deep, with one 3,500-meter-long runway and all the modern airport infrastructure that goes along with it. A 3.8km bridge from the airport will link train and motor vehicle transportation to the mainland. Once all that is finished, Stage Two will get underway to expand the airport to include two additional 4,000-meter-long runways.

The Kansai Airport is touted as being different from other such projects in Japan since it is operated and funded essentially as a private enterprise (although national, prefectural and local monies are also invested). The Kansai International Airport Co. Ltd. was set up in 1984 as the overseer of the plans. The man chosen to lead the project was Dr. Takeuchi Yoshio, a former Ministry of Transportation official with decades of experience in his field.

The company also claims to be unique in that, unlike other government-sponsored airports in Japan, such as Tokyo’s Narita, a consensus for the Kansai Airport was first sought and achieved among concerned parties. An initial 11 billion yen environmental impact study sponsored by the prefectural and national governments was conducted early on, in part to allay the economic and environmental fears among the cities directly inland from the airport. By December 1986, the last three cities to hold out their approval — Izumisano, Sennan and Tajiri — accepted the environmental study and the airport plans. Construction of the airport island began soon afterwards in January 1987, already 10 months behind the original schedule.

Right away the airport was beset with problems. A grass-roots organization called the
Kansai Shin-Kuko Zettai Hantai Senshu Shimin no Kai (Coalition of Senshu Residents Absolutely Opposed to the New Kansai Airport) and the underground Chu-kaku-ha leftist group protested loudly against the airport as a potential environmental disaster and a cover for possible military use — charges to which, the groups claim, KIAC has yet to satisfactorily respond.

In spring 1986 the 150-member coalition put up an anti-airport candidate for the city council of Kishiwada, one of the cities inland from the airport. The candidate, Kokuga Yoshiji, was elected and is now in his second term.

“We don’t see any advantages at all in the Kansai Airport,” Kokuga said recently. “We are protesting for the residents’ right to live. Conditional negotiations are out of the question.”

One of the group’s most active members is the Rev. Morita Tsunekazu of the United Church of Christ in nearby Kumeda. He says that the coalition of housewives, laborers, teachers, civil servants and others is under tight police surveillance (including telephone-bugging) due to the support the coalition receives from the Chu-kaku-ha leftist group.

Added to that clamor were the Kansai fishermen’s unions. But unlike the coalition, the unions were willing to settle for monetary compensation for what they saw as a very real threat to the survival of their members and the surrounding marine life.

Negotiations went on until 1986, when the unions finally compromised with KIAC for hefty sums: the Osaka Prefectural Fishermen’s Union settled for 25 billion yen, the Hyogo Prefectural Fishermen’s Union for 15.3 billion yen, and Wakayama fishermen for 3.9 billion yen.

Transparency in motion

However, it was overseas pressure, mainly from the U.S. government and Big Business, that soon became the dominant voice of protest against the airport.

Keith Bovetti, then commercial officer for the United States consulate in Osaka, had been focusing media attention on charges of ‘closedness’ by the airport company, and these began reaching the highest levels of the American and Japanese governments. (Bovetti’s efforts later helped earn him a promotion and transfer to the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, where he continues to monitor the airport situation.)

Charges of unfair bid-rigging
(dango) practices among Japanese building competitors, while hard to prove by the U.S. side, were reverberating throughout the halls of the U.S. Congress and the Japanese Diet. KIAC was under increasing pressure from all sides to do something quick in the form of ‘transparent’ procedures that would be more visible to the public.

One result was KIAC’s ‘Passenger Terminal Concept’ bid awarded in spring 1988. KIAC decided on a proposal by Aeroports de Paris (ADP), the French airport authority, for its concept of a three-tiered terminal building that was praised for its use of limited space on the man-made island. “My expertise is in architecture and airports, not in politics and diplomacy,” ADP chief architect Paul Andreu quipped in a
Japan Times interview.

The next — and most publicized — step was KIAC’s international design competition in which 15 architects were invited to submit an architectural design for ADP’s basic concept. In a dramatic December 1988 press conference that resembled the Academy Awards show, KIAC officials presented an envelope containing the judges’ choice. KIAC emphasized that the winning design was selected through assigned letter-codes and not by the architect’s actual identity, which was said to be unknown even to the panel of eight judges that included KIAC’s Dr. Takeuchi. Exhibition ‘L’, by Paris-based Italian architect Renzo Piano, took home the prize for its humanistic conception that was said to defy traditional air terminal design.

Taken on its own merits, the terminal appears impressive indeed, especially considering the careful attention given to the most minute of details. Architect Okabe, project leader of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, notes how the wave-like shape of the terminal’s roof is based on its aerodynamic function.

Within the terminal will be a ‘canyon’ of plant life 28 meters wide, 275 meters long and 22 meters high — Okabe calls it “a very big greenhouse” — where all vertical movement of passengers takes place via elevators and escalators. This canyon leads passengers to international departures on the top level, domestic flights on the middle level (directly connected to trains to the mainland), and international arrivals on the bottom level.

“You can see everything from this canyon,” says Okabe. “You can see through the length of the building. Quite transparent.”

With those two stages concluded, the political heat over the Kansai Airport subsided. The process had been opened up to foreigners just as the U.S. demanded, with KIAC selecting a terminal design that was to become ‘transparent’ in a way the Americans had not bargained for.

Things remains relatively quiet — for a while. But old fires were rekindled in the summer of 1990, when the U.S. firm AEG Westinghouse Transportation Systems challenged KIAC’s choice of the Japanese-owned Niigata Engineering Co. for the terminal’s ‘people-mover’ transport system, a contract valued at about 5 billion yen. The matter was taken all the way to the Japanese and American Cabinet levels, where it ended without a reopening of bids as Westinghouse had demanded.

That sinking feeling

Reclamation of the island continued as planned all during this time, with dirt from the mountains of nearby Wakayama Prefecture laid as the foundation for the island. The access bridge to the mainland was well on its way to completion. Things were looking bright once again for the Kansai International Airport.

By the end of 1990, however, airport officials apparently had the sinking feeling that something was not right, and that feeling turned out to be the soft alluvial clay layer used as the airport’s foundation: the offshore island was actually sliding back into the ocean at a slow but detectable rate. And that means even more dirt, more time and more money (pay increases to construction workers and higher material costs) to be poured into the project.

Suffering the brunt of those cost overruns may be the airport company’s pride and joy: its highly publicized terminal building. On March 30 of this year, KIAC managing director Inoue Haruo announced that the size of the terminal building might possibly have to be scaled down by about one-fourth to keep the construction costs within the 1.43 trillion yen budget. In real terms, the cuts mean that construction of 10 to 15 of the 33 planned boarding gates may have to be temporarily postponed, in which case passengers would be transported by bus between the terminal and planes.

Despite its present financial snags and past political hangups, the airport project continues to move ahead, still being promoted in regional business and government circles as the one thing that can save Kansai from itself.

Just like that official praise, the voices of domestic and international protest over the airport seem here to stay. Even Kenichi Ohmae, chairman of the multinational McKinsey & Co. consulting firm and one of the staunchest opposers of Japan-bashing, this March criticized the Kansai Airport as “totally lacking a grand design” that would meet consumers’ needs as a hub of Asia.

More than any other public works project in Japan, the Kansai International Airport has been displayed to the public as a model of both ‘closedness’ and ‘openness’ in Japanese society. In both senses, the airport seems to have grown into an overrated public relations symbol in ways that original planners could not have foreseen.

One thing is certain: in the end it will be the people of Kansai, not the overseas or Japanese politicians and businessmen, who ultimately decide if the Kansai International Airport ever really gets off the ground.