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Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009

Rural areas fear DPJ bid to ax big projects

Staff writer

AGATSUMA, Gunma Pref. — As media speculation mounts that the Democratic Party of Japan will win big in Sunday's Lower House election, Akiyoshi Toyoda, 44, is spending sleepless nights worrying about what may happen to his business if the opposition camp takes power.

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Tourism backwater: The quiet Kawarayu hot springs district in Agatsuma, Gunma Prefecture, will be submerged if a controversial dam is completed in 2015. NATSUKO FUKUE

Toyoda runs Takadaya, a traditional "onsen" hot springs inn that has been in business since 1795 in Agatsuma's Kawarayu onsen district, where a contentious project to build a dam has been pushed forward under the Liberal Democratic Party's long rule, promising him a chance to relocate from what has become a tourist backwater.

Last month, DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama unveiled his party's campaign platform, which calls for rethinking large-scale public projects, including the Yanba Dam in the northern part of the prefecture.

The dam has been a work in progress since 1952 but has yet to be built, even though prefectures downstream have helped fund the project with the hope of eventually getting water from the reservoir it would create. The reservoir would submerge the Kawarayu district.

The DPJ has indicated it wants to halt wasteful spending on projects it deems unnecessary to free up funds for more social-related outlays.

A main reason that has kept the Yanba Dam from being built yet has been local opposition, especially from Kawarayu residents who at first didn't want to be forced out of their district by the rising waters. But starting around 20 years ago, locals began to accept the project, and some moved away.

Holdouts, for various reasons, however, are not pleased with the DPJ plan to try to scrap the project.

"(Cancellation) doesn't make any sense to me," Toyoda said. "What will happen to those bridge pylons, highways and roads that are still under construction? What about the relocation (of local residents)?"

The fate of Agatsuma's residents may be considered an example of the impact Sunday's election is expected to have, when voters are likely to oust the LDP after more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted rule.

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Little to remember: This souvenir shop has closed up shop; only one remains in the onsen village.

Contrary to the trend where DPJ candidates are putting long-running LDP veteran lawmakers nationwide on the defensive, Agatsuma appears to be the exception. Locals believe they have come to the point where there is no turning back on ongoing major public works initiated by LDP governments. Cutting public works spending is a major goal of the DPJ if it takes power.

Gunma is home to four prime ministers, including Taro Aso's predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda. The LDP candidate running in the district that includes Agatsuma is Yuko Obuchi, daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Obuchi, the current state minister in charge of population and gender equality and who is expecting her second child in September, is promising locals she will keep the dam project on track.

The project was initiated in 1952 by the old Construction Ministry, which is now a component of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Ministry. Little progress was made at the outset because the water flowing in tributaries to the Agatsuma River was too acidic.

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Going under: Yamakikan, an onsen inn established in the 16th century, will truly become a part of history if the local dam is completed in 2015.

After the water quality was improved, the ministry restarted the project in 1967 and completion was expected in 2000. Various postponements, however, have pushed the completion year back to 2015.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc secured a ¥460 billion budget for the Yanba Dam. Construction of the dam itself is supposed to start this autumn, but 70 percent of the new roads and bridges connected with the project have already been built.

Over the years, many citizens in the town of Naganohara in Agatsuma, where Kawarayu onsen is located, sternly opposed the dam, but gradually they conceded after the prefecture and town agreed on the ministry's relocation support plan in 1985. But even then, locals were still divided.

"The conflict between people who agreed and disagreed was so fierce that children of opposing families went to school separately," said Kenichiro Orita, 61, director of Obuchi's campaign office. He grew up in Agatsuma.

"Neighbors had shaky relations (because of the project)" and many moved away to avoid more conflicts, he said. "Over the long battle, the community completely collapsed."

With the dam project gaining little momentum, the Kawarayu onsen district shrank by half. Where there once had been 17 inns, only nine and a small souvenir shop remain. The spa town's main street is quiet. The only traffic is the trucks plying a road nearby to and from the construction site.

"It's not pleasant scenery for tourists," Toyoda said.

Although nonprofit organizations, including Yanba Ashita no Kai (Association of Yanba's Tomorrow), based in the Gunma capital of Maehashi, still protest the dam project, Toyoda and like-minded locals feel cancellation now would mean their long struggle was in vain.

Toyoda is hoping to move as soon as possible to a site where 10 households have already relocated from the onsen district. But if the project is canceled, the district may not receive financial support to help him restart a new life with his former neighbors.

The DPJ in its platform is pledging to cut some ¥1.3 trillion out of the ¥7.9 trillion budget of fiscal 2009 by scaling back on public works projects.

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Lonely street: The only traffic that Agatsuma sees is the trucks traveling to and from the dam construction site.

If it scraps the Yanba Dam, the DPJ promises to draft a law to secure the livelihood of people in Naganohara.

But no specific support plan has been unveiled, Toyoda said.

"We've been planning the relocation for the past 20 years. The cancellation of the whole project is unimaginable," he said, adding he can wait no longer.

Toyoda's concern is echoed by another hot springs innkeeper, Yoji Hida, 62, who also is still in Kawarayu.

"Stop the nonsense, that's what I want to say (to the DPJ)," said Hida, who runs Yamakikan, an inn established around the 16th century. Although he was not a strong LDP supporter, Hida had a poster of Obuchi placed on the wall inside his office. It's the only party he can support now, he said.

"The DPJ says it will draft a law to support our livelihood, but what are we going to do in the meantime? In a few years, we may not be able to make ends meet," he said.

"I strongly feel (the party is) not listening to local people's opinions."

Toyoda and Hida are also irked that no DPJ candidate is running in the constituency. Instead of having its own candidate, the DPJ is backing Social Democratic Party candidate Tomihisa Tsuchiya as part of their agreement to cooperate in the campaign to take power.

"A DPJ candidate is not even running here. This means we cannot voice our concerns to them," Toyoda said.

Looking at the 586-meter line drawn on the hillside in front of the inn that signifies the high-water mark, Hida said he has decided not to think too much about what may happen after the election.

"My worries will not change things," he said. "If I think too much about it, I get too depressed."

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