Tokyo, Watch Out!

People of the Kansai region hope their sleek, new airport will deflate some of the capital's snobbery

TO itinerants arriving, departing, or changing planes at Kansai International Airport, it will be just another airport. More expensive and perhaps more intelligently designed than most, with an architectural sleekness that suggests civilization is finally catching up with the Jetsons, but still just an airport. A place where planes park, immigration officers take coffee breaks, and rumpled people wait.

But to the people of Kansai, the region in Japan this new facility serves, the opening of the airport on Sept. 4 has brought a giant pin a great deal closer to the balloon of insufferable arrogance that emanates from Tokyo. South and west of the capital, the area called Kansai includes Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, the cultural centers of Kyoto and Nara, and the busy port of Kobe. The 20 million people who live here produce an economic output greater than Canada's.

Many people in Kansai speak about the airport as a symbol of resurgence and revitalization, but what they really mean is that they are delighted that they now have one up on Tokyo. Ever since the middle of the 19th century, when Japan opened itself to the outside world and began to modernize, Tokyoites have progressively hoarded bureaucratic, political, and economic power. The process accelerated after World War II, when power was centralized in Tokyo in the name of efficiency and rapid reconstruction.

But the people of Kansai remember an earlier time, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Osaka was the country's economic capital and Kansai's ports dominated sea trade with Asia. Like other Japanese who do not live in the capital, the residents of Kansai decry the snobbery of Tokyoites, most of whom do nothing to dispel the notion that they run the country.

Kiyoshi Kuroda, the editor of an Osaka-based monthly magazine, anticipates some immediate economic benefits from the airport. Kansai is known for its small contractors, who have traditionally served big Japanese corporations. Kansai International, he says, will give smaller businesses ''a new chance to connect with the outside world'' by creating easier shipping routes for them.

He also says the Kansai airport will alter the world's stereotypical perceptions of the Japanese as indirect, vague, and diffident. ''Not Kansai people,'' he states. They ''show themselves as they are - directly.'' One example of the difference is the Kansai dialect of Japanese, particularly as it is spoken in Osaka, which is more familiar and casual than standard Japanese.

The splendid new airport, Mr. Kuroda says, will provide a way for the world to meet the Japanese of Kansai, who are known in Japan for business acumen and a quirky sort of innovation. Kansai is the birthplace of conveyor-belt sushi, the karaoke bar, and the ''capsule'' hotel, which offers businessmen tiny, rectangular cubicles for a night's rest.

''To Kansai people,'' adds Hiroyuki Kyohara, a Kobe-based journalist for the nationally distributed Sankei newspaper, ''this is not a mere international airport. They expect this airport to have a great impact on the flow of people, materials, and information.''

Koichi Otani, a professor of literature at Tezukayama Gakuin University in Osaka and the author of a best-selling book called ''Osaka Studies,'' agrees that expectations are high. But, he says, ''The future is not that rosy,'' because businesses and political leaders are so entrenched in Tokyo.

The airport reflects the regional Zeitgeist in not-so-flattering ways as well. Kansai residents are said to have a weakness for ostentation and for the expensive purchase. Their airport has been a notoriously costly endeavor, dramatically exceeding its budgets on the way to racking up a bottom line of some $15 billion.

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