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.
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.
The public meetings, says Mrs. Okubo, were, however, ``completely unilateral. There was no discussion. They just asked for our understanding.'' And Catharine Nagashima described the environmental assessment as ``a sort of justification for going ahead. No alternatives were suggested.''
But there is perhaps a tougher obstacle within the town itself: a split right down the middle of the Zushi City Council on whether or not to support the housing project. The town is by no means united behind Mayor Tomino and Mamoru-Kai.
One of the group's critics who is nevertheless emphatically against Navy housing in Ikego is Yoshifumi Yamato, a Zushi city councilman. He said, though the women's group is now sincere about its environmental concerns, its original intent was to protect the town from ``social problems that come from having US military people around - drugs, crime, AIDS - as well as nationality, cultural, and life-style differences.''
Back in 1984, Yamato said, ``Someone ... thought of taking up the environmental-protection issue. If they'd said they were against social crimes, people would think Zushi is arrogant or prejudiced, so they hid behind the environment issue.''
Some of the social concerns appear to remain, even within Mamoru-Kai. Members maintain that they fully support the US-Japan security treaty, and in fact some say the Navy families should be integrated into the community and live just as Zushi people do - the way some US families do in NATO countries. But they also admit to some concerns about that.
``There are some people who fear bad influences, but most people are worried about life-style and cultural differences,'' Okubo said. ``A few Americans coming would be fine,'' she added, ``but large numbers can change the town. I had American next-door neighbors once. We had very good conversations and I really liked them, but I don't really want to be surrounded by foreign people. I know it's a bad aspect of us Japanese - we have one language and one culture, so we don't really feel at ease living with other cultures.''
Though Mamoru-Kai members say that most of the town at least mildly objects to the Navy housing for environmental or social reasons, there is another school of thought as well, one that represents Japan's political mainstream. Some Zushi people are fatalistic: The government plan is going ahead, they say, so why fight it and thus tarnish the city's image?
Akira Odani is part of that camp. What the protesters are doing ``is not democracy at all,'' he said. Because two-thirds of the heads of Zushi households work elsewhere and are not full-time residents of the city, he said, their views are not represented by the environmental activists.
But one city council member, Mr. Yamato, who is neither a fatalist nor a environmentalist, says the most important reason to protest the housing project is Japan's national interests.
``I accept the [US-Japan] treaty, but the Japanese people's feeling has changed since it was signed,'' Yamato said. ``It's not really bilateral: The US makes requests, and Japan has to agree. But the Japanese people have made great progress since 1960, so it has to be more balanced.''
All this controversy, however, is accomplishing some notable things: a grass-roots political movement which is inspiring other local protests in Japan and which is also led by women; some environmental consciousness-raising in a country that lacks any national conservation laws; and high voter turnouts in a once-apolitical bedroom community.
``Ikego represents one of the most creative, dynamic grass-roots environmental movements we've seen in this country,'' said Tom Milliken of the World Wildlife Fund in Tokyo. ``They're testing a lot of systems here. And all this is being spearheaded primarily by women.''