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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

Injunction process hopeless; fate of Bullfrog Pond sealed


The fate of Bullfrog Pond now rests in the hands of a Tokyo District Court judge, but the wheels of justice turn slowly in Japan. The court has yet to grant a crucial injunction, and hearings have dragged into their third month. Meantime, the pond in Tokyo's Minato Ward, known as Gama-ike, is being destroyed.

Several groups of residents living around Gama-ike have filed for injunctions, requesting that the court stop Sunwood Corp., a subsidiary of Mori Building Corp., from erecting a six-story apartment complex on land adjoining the pond. The construction requires sinking structural supports deep into the pond's fragile clay substrata and filling in much of the pond. Sunwood began digging at the end of July (see June 14 column).

Gama-ike is listed as a Cultural Treasure of Minato Ward. The pond is all that remains of the estate of an elite samurai who served the shogun during the Edo Period. Nestled in the hilly residential area of Moto-Azabu, about 1 km south of Roppongi Crossing, it covers a mere 660 sq. meters, but it is spring-fed and plays a role in the greater Azabu plateau water system. As a wildlife habitat, Gama-ike is priceless, home to many species of plants and animals, including unusual medaka fish and migratory birds.

At a hearing June 24, one observer recalls, the judge voiced concern that subsidence and water disruption from the construction might damage neighboring property. Lawyers for the residents asked the judge to suspend the work, to allow for clarification of the local hydrology and the potential risk to species in the pond. The judge, however, simply scheduled the next hearing for Aug. 31, and asked the parties to prepare further information regarding soil conditions.

The pilings needed to shore up the Sunwood complex would not only destroy the pond, but also upset the wider hydrology of the area, according to Norihiko Dan, a local architect who heads the Committee for the Protection of the Azabu Plateau Water System. Dan explains that the same underground water vein that feeds Gama-ike also supplies Arisugawa Park, Miyamura Park, Juban Onsen, and Shura Park.

With construction two weeks advanced and the next hearing weeks away, locals are bitter. Residents had hoped that the court might offer a fair chance of protecting Gama-ike. Now those hopes are fading as the builder's pile drivers daily move closer to the pond's edge. "Work is continuing," one resident says. "A substantial part of the pond has already been drained. We are losing the battle."

In the United States a similar preliminary-injunction proceeding might last a day -- a week or two at most. It is understood that timing is essential. Judges move quickly to decide whether there is sufficient reason to halt an activity that could cause irreparable damage to either people or the environment.

In Japan, injunction proceedings can take months. The Gama-ike legal action began in June and the judge has yet to order even a temporary halt to construction. For now, work is continuing six days a week, morning till evening, as workers race to ensure that any court-ordered work stoppage will be meaningless. By the next court date, Gama-ike could already be dead.

Despite its neighborhood character, the fight to save Gama-ike has drawn support worldwide. David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of the "Sibley Guide to Birds" published by the National Audubon Society (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000), wrote to encourage residents, stressing the need to protect habitats such as Gama-ike.

"It is extremely important to save any habitat, for many different reasons," Sibley wrote. "Even very small natural areas can have significant effects for resident plants and animals, as well as migrating species passing through. The animals displaced by the loss of habitat cannot simply 'move' to a new area. If they find suitable habitat nearby, it will already be occupied by others of their own species.

"Development is rarely reversible," he added. "Something that has taken nature thousands of years to create can be destroyed forever in a matter of days."

In early June, Dan and other residents met with Minato Ward Mayor Keimi Harada and submitted a petition for the preservation of Gama-ike. More than 10,000 people had signed the document, 360 of them from overseas. Harada assured Dan he would "take the lead in resolving the situation," and examine the alternatives of buying the pond or swapping the land for another plot in Minato Ward.

Last month, however, Harada's tone changed abruptly. When Dan came, the mayor's staff conveyed a message that he had "done his bit" to save the pond. Apparently, Sunwood would not accept a swap, and the price they had demanded was "ridiculous." Sunwood wanted 2 billion yen, despite having paid only about 1 billion yen a year or two ago. The mayor decided he was done with trying to save Gama-ike.

The irony is striking. Elsewhere in the world, though individual rights are vaunted, nature conservation for the benefit of all in society often takes precedence. In Japan, where courts generally rule against the individual in favor of the greatest good for the community as a whole, individual landowners are free to develop their property however they choose, even to the detriment of the community.

It appears, then, that the Japanese injunction process is a mere travesty, offering the appearance of a legal remedy, but giving land developers free rein to use and abuse the environment. Sunwood will build, sell and move on, its own bottom line enriched, but the natural heritage of Minato Ward -- and Tokyo -- irreparably impoverished.

Worldwide, water is increasingly causing conflict. The Canadian Embassy in Tokyo will host "Aquarius 21 -- Water Quest Tokyo," featuring film, personal stories, and dance by Canadian and Japanese artists to inform the public of the global water crisis, from 1:30-4:30 p.m. Aug. 31. A video of the event will be distributed to Japanese high schools to raise student awareness of international water issues. Special guests will include Gregory Clark, president of Tama University and a Japan Times columnist. The forum is free.

For more information, e-mail bigfoot@smile.ocn.ne.jp or fax (0470) 87-8650. Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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