It’s ‘Wait and See’ Time for the Kansai Int’l Airport [part 2]

Foreign participation

Despite all the optimism about the plans, the Kansai International Airport project is not without its share of global and domestic problems.

First and foremost is foreign participation in the design and construction of the airport, a subject on which the U.S. government and the European Community have voiced the strongest concerns.

In short, foreign governments say that the airport project remains relatively closed to foreign firms.

They say the consulting contracts awarded to American and European companies are just a small portion of the potential profit-making work going to Japanese companies.

Japanese doors need to be opened wider to foreign contracts, they say, if the Kansai project is to be a truly international airport. Besides, Japanese companies have been granted far better access into foreign construction projects than foreign companies trying to do business in Japan. A balance is now needed.

The KIAC and the Japanese government reply: Foreign firms have shown some interest in the Kansai Airport project, true. But the controversy of foreign participation has gone beyond the realm of normal business.

Rather, they say, the crux of the controversy this late in the airport’s plans stems from foreign governments that are using the Kansai Airport solely as a political issue to gain more leverage into the Japanese public works spectrum as a whole.

They add that most foreign firms still need to develop the necessary skills to overcome Japanese language/cultural barriers and other technical problems in connection with the project. That means foreign firms need to seriously think about joining forces with Japanese companies, i.e., joint ventures and other collaborations, if they really want more access into the Kansai Airport and other public works projects.

The arguments continue even now, with the foreign participation issue reaching almost fever pitch in the United States.

What began surfacing publicly in 1985 as general dissatisfaction by the local American consulate over Japan’s relatively closed construction industry has since snowballed into potential threats of U.S. government retaliation targeted directly at the Kansai International Airport.

Frank Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, has been the main advocate of such legislation.

On April 23 this year, Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 1086. The bill proposes calling on the Reagan administration to investigate whether American firms are being unfairly excluded from the Kansai Airport and other Japanese public works projects. Some kind of U.S. retaliation could follow under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 if exclusion of American companies was determined.

On May 28, Republican Helen Bentley of Maryland introduced a similar resolution in the House of Representatives.

Both proposals are attached to the Congress’ omnibus trade bill pending approval by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who has expressed concern about former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s pledges of greater American participation in Japan’s public works projects.

Financial Frankenstein?

Other domestic problems concerning the airport look small in comparison. Yet there are a few.

Recently, public objections were raised about extending the KIAC’s working hours beyond its existing sunrise-to-sunset schedule. The company wants to speed up construction by working until about 8 p.m.

Approval of the KIAC’s night-work request by the Osaka prefectural government is awaiting investigations into navigational safety and environmental concerns.

Fishermen and local environmentalists also oppose the construction because of pollution they say is killing native fish in the region.

In addition, two boats that were to be used in connection with the airport construction were recently set ablaze by explosions. One was docked in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture; the other was in Yokohama. Police say the arson cases may be the work of radical groups opposed to the airport.

Then there are the general skeptics who just don’t want to see a new local airport turn Osaka into another Tokyo-like congested megalopolis.

A financial Frankenstein or the Kansai’s best hope for a vibrant economy at last? How outsiders view the airport seems unimportant now. At this moment the airport construction is moving ahead as planned in the choppy waters of Osaka Bay.

And despite their differences, critics and ardent supporters of the Kansai International Airport do share one common trait.

Everybody will have to wait at least six more years to see if all the fuss has been worth it.