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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 1999

Kobe airport foes mull last-ditch options


Staff writer

KOBE -- With construction of Kobe airport scheduled to begin next month, opponents are gearing up for a last-ditch campaign to stop the project by recalling the mayor and filing more lawsuits to halt construction.

But the lack of results so far is causing growing dissent among antiairport activists, and calls for a more confrontational approach, like physically blocking construction, are growing.

Late last week, citizens and municipal assembly members opposed to the airport met to discuss strategies for ousting Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama.

Sasayama, who has been pushing for the airport for nearly a decade, was re-elected in 1997 with the support of all major political parties except the Japanese Communist Party, whose candidate he defeated.

Antiairport activists have been discussing the possibility of recalling the mayor since November, when the assembly voted down a proposal to hold a plebiscite on the airport issue.

Over 300,000 eligible voters, nearly a third of the total, had signed a petition in favor of holding a plebiscite.

In the municipal assembly elections in April, the antiairport camp took some revenge, winning five seats.

However, of the 72-member assembly, 47 are in favor of the project, which was given the final green light by the Transport Ministry in June.

Following that, airport opponents decided to hold their own straw poll.

In late July and early August, over 300,000 people in and around Kobe were canvassed for their opinion on whether the airport should be built. Nearly 95 percent said no.

"Such support has given us confidence to move ahead and start a campaign to recall the mayor," said Tomizo Takata, a spokesman for the antiairport group Tsukuru-kai. "Unlike the plebiscite proposal, if we get the requisite number of signatures, the assembly has to recall the mayor."

Takata said the recall campaign would begin immediately, and, if successful, a new election could take place before the end of this year.

Other airport opponents are not as optimistic. In order to recall the mayor, nearly 380,000 signatures -- one-third of the city's registered voters -- will have to be gathered.

Three-hundred thousand voters joined the push for a plebiscite last year, and about 207,000 participated in the recent assembly election.

"It will be very difficult to get the necessary number of signatures, and, to be honest, I'm not too sure it will be successful," said Tomio Awahara, an assembly member opposed to the airport.

Aware that the chances of a recall are slim, airport opponents said they are also considering a series of lawsuits to try to stop the project.

But the courts have already ruled against airport protesters who tried to stop construction on financial and environmental grounds, leading some activists to doubt whether more suits will have any effect.

In addition, there is growing friction in the antiairport camp between those who advocate a go-slow approach and those who favor more bold measures.

"Opponents are starting to splinter into two groups," said one antiairport activist, who asked not be identified. "One group still believes that consensus among the people has to be built slowly. The other group feels the time for talking is over and want an approach that involves direct action, like physically blocking the construction site.

"As the airport moves closer to reality, tensions are likely to rise between both groups," the activist said.

Kobe officials expect to begin construction about six weeks after an artificial island for the one-runway domestic airport is built.

The airport, which has been nearly 30 years in the planning, is expected to cost 310 billion yen, most of which will come from locally issued bonds, and is scheduled to open in 2005.



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