Japanese Battle Public Project With Unaccustomed Fervor


Retired school principal Hachiro Yamaguchi doesn't need to spend time mopping his brow and collecting signatures in an unairconditioned storefront office. But like environmentalists all over the world, he realizes the time has come to turn armchair anger into citizen action.

On the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, along a coastline where craggy, forested hills descend into bays and inlets, Japan's government has embarked on a plan to take from the sea more than 1,290 acres in one fell swoop. That's an area the size of Mt. Rushmore National Park.

The reclamation of Isahaya Bay is a grand scheme even in Japan, a country loaded with massive public-works projects. Conceived more than 40 years ago, the project is costing more than $2 billion. Nearly half the reclaimed area will be turned into farmland and the rest will become a freshwater pond fed by the rivers that used to run into the sea. The only problem is that Isahaya is fast becoming a symbol for what the Japanese government does wrong: massive public spending on projects that favor companies and politicians more than citizens.

Opposition politicians are lining up against the plan, international environmental groups are protesting, and activists are gathering signatures and holding rallies to "save Isahaya Bay."

"This project," says Mr. Yamaguchi, as he picks his way among the cracking cakes of drying mud on a walk through the reclaimed area, "is destroying the wetlands." The retired principal and other local residents have formed a group called the Isahaya Tidelands Emergency Relief Headquarters to oppose the government's plan.

The controversy over Isahaya is in part an environmental dispute of the spotted-owl variety. In this case the activists' mascot is a slimy, skittish fish called a mudskipper that lives in wetland areas the reclamation is destroying. During mating season, mudskippers do a little flip in the air that, to the Japanese eye, seems irresistibly cute and nicely illustrates TV news reports.

Not much citizen protest

But at a deeper level, the outcry is on the order of Peter Finch's rant in the movie "Network": "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore." "Network" was made in 1976, it is true, but the Japanese have little experience with citizen protest and are just starting to get the hang of it.

In opposing the Isahaya project and what it stands for, says Tadatoshi Akiba, a Social Democrat member of parliament, "We are, in a sense, democratizing Japanese politics in the process."

Isahaya is a good example of the "iron triangle" - the linkages between big businesses, ruling-party politicians, and powerful bureaucrats - that has been at the heart of the Japanese establishment for the past 50 years. Huge public-works projects are indispensable to this arrangement. Politicians win support from voters and donors in big business by funneling spending programs to their districts. Big businesses need the work afforded by the projects and are happy to make political contributions. Bureaucrats, who decide which projects get built, use this power to exercise leverage.

The result is a country where the government decides "what's good for you and what's bad for you," says Mr. Akiba. "It's a very condescending system."

The value of a particular project is often secondary and Japan is dotted with expensive, taxpayer-funded facilities that get little or no use (see story above).

When people have protested against public-works projects in the past, says Takayoshi Igarashi, a public administration professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, they have failed. But with Isahaya, a number of factors are putting the government on the defensive:

The government has appeared to find new reasons to pursue the project as old ones became obsolete. The initial reason was to create rice paddies, but officials emphasized flood-and-tide control when it became clear that Japan's problem was too much rice, not too little.

Many people all across Japan were shocked by a scene on April 14, when a final section of the new wall dividing the sea from the reclaimed area was put in place with guillotine-like finality. There has been widespread concern about the fate of the wetlands in the area.

Top leaders, such as Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, are under pressure to follow through on plans to cut Japan's deficit and reform government administration in a way that makes the bureaucracy less powerful. This political climate makes defending the Isahaya project more difficult, although Mr. Hashimoto has stood by it so far.

Kenji Maeda, an Isahaya-based official of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, calmly works his way through these points, explaining that the government has always made clear that flood-and-tide control was a goal and that there are plenty of wetlands around to sustain the region's wildlife.

"Some people complain that once a public-works project is started, there is no review.... But actually we have revised and reviewed this project from the beginning," he adds, pointing out that the original concept was to reclaim more.

Call to let seawater in

Akiba heads a group of parliamentarians pushing the government to allow seawater back into the reclaimed area for three months to preserve the threatened wetlands while a review is conducted. Opponents also worry about the lack of any sewerage system in the area.

In order to get the government to change its mind about the project Akiba says, "we need some huge help." That could come in the form of a loud international outcry.

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