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Japanese townsfolk take on a Goliath. US Navy under fire from locals for military housing plan

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 1988

Zushi, Japan

JUST 30 miles south of Tokyo there is a 716-acre tangle of unnavigable wooded hills, dusty roads, crumbling storage buildings, and World War II-vintage caves. It is one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate in Japan.

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The area, called Ikego Forest and situated on the edge of town here, has been the subject of signature campaigns, local referenda and snap elections, and multimedia news coverage through Japan for five years. Zushi Mayor Kiichiro Tomino and about 70 citizens even traveled to the United States last month to stage a demonstration in front of the White House and seek support from US lawmakers and environmental groups.

They want the Japanese government to scrap its plan to build 854 homes for US Navy families on about 210 acres of an undeveloped ecosystem that, they say, is becoming unique to the ever more-populated Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area.

But Ikego is more than an environmental story. It is about how ordinary people view their national government and its ties with the Americans. It is also about how Zushi's people are dealing with their once-quiet town's rapid politicization and the group - largely women - that is fighting to keep the antihousing struggle alive.

``We will never give up,'' said Mitsuyo Sawa, a Zushi city councilwoman and antihousing activist.

When the drilling for soil tests began in 1982, Zushi homemakers noticed this unusual activity going on on the other side of Ikego's chain-link fence.

The plan was to build the housing facility and fence off the remaining 500 acres, reportedly because of tunnels and caves. Townspeople would be permitted anywhere in the housing development and would have access to most of the sports facilities in the complex.

``We were surprised, since there had been no activity in there for so long. We gathered at the fence to see what was going on and got worried that something terrible would happen to Zushi,'' said Rakue Okubo, one of Zushi's activists. Informal gatherings at the fence led to more organized gatherings of a new group the women formed: Mamoru-Kai, or Citizens' Association for the Protection of Greenery and Children.

Since then, Mamoru-Kai has grown speedily in sophistication and political clout. They and their supporters put Zushi on the national - some say international - political map. They have collected tens of thousands of signatures for petitions and letters to Japanese and US officials; won enough support for a referendum to dissolve a city council (Japan's first such referendum); and succeeded in recalling a mayor who supported the housing project and getting their own candidate, Mayor Tomino, elected.

The members of Mamoru-Kai, however, are up against some formidable foes. One is the Japanese government, which says construction is going ahead virtually on schedule, despite all the political developments within the town itself.

``It is the central government's business what goes on in Ikego. This provision for housing is an important promise between our government and the US. Mayor Tomino does not have the authority to change the government's plan,'' said Hisayoshi Nishida, planning division director at the Japanese Defense Facility Administration Agency (DFAA). The ``promise'' is a 1960 US-Japan agreement providing Japanese land for US military use.

But the DFAA says it has gone through all the proper procedures to prepare the way for construction: 14 public hearings held in Zushi and nearby cities to air views; an environmental assessment that took several years to research; and a government compromise that reduced the area to be developed and the number of housing units from 1,100 to 854.