Japan's need for recreation sites clashes with concern for the environment

May 19, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Along this island nation's abundant but busy shorelines, recreation and environmental protection -- two parts of life that the hard-working Japanese often find in short supply -- have begun to do battle with each other.

From the megalopolises that line Tokyo, Osaka and Ise bays to pearl-farming villages nestled between the sea and steep mountains, the battle is being intensified by a 4-year-old nationwide drive to develop more recreation sites.

That plan is one facet of Japan's response to U.S. pressure to diversify its economy and give more leisure time to this country's workers, who put in the longest hours in the industrialized world.

The thinking in Washington is that more leisure time will encourage the now-prosperous Japanese to become not only world-class workers and savers but also First World consumers.

Washington sees increased Japanese consumption as a potentially powerful tool to help redress their country's lopsided and controversial trade surpluses with the United States.

The 1987 plan calls for hundreds of new hotels, restaurants and amusement parks, and a wide range of fishing, swimming, boating, skiing, golfing and other recreational facilities.

But now, as the program takes shape in engineers' designs and some initial construction work, it is leading to environmental disputes in many places. The fights take the form of skirmishes like these:

* More than 4,400 people in Ashiya -- a third of the Kyushu Island town's citizenry -- petitioned in January to force a referendum on the city fathers' plan to build a seaside resort that some residents say will wipe out the local ecosystem. A week earlier, eight of the 16 members of the town council, facing a March deadline for $2 million in aid under the tourist program, had rammed the plan through on an 8-7 vote, taking advantage of an opponent's absence from a meeting.

* On mountain-bound Ago Bay, birthplace of the Japanese cultured pearls that are the envy of the industry, oyster farmers already are conceding defeat in their battle with pollution from hotels and villas in an area that accounted for 70 percent of the country's salt-water pearl production a decade ago. The Mikimoto family, whose ancestors perfected the culture process nearby waters and gave their name to one of the world's most treasured brands, has rented its water rights to others and moved elsewhere. A regional plan, the Mie Sun Belt project, calls for 25 million tourists a year in the area by 1998.

* In Awaji, near Osaka, environmentalists have begun to protest the probable elimination of rare oceanic plants by a multibillion-dollar hotel and recreation area. But they acknowledge they have an uphill struggle because bankers have estimated that the complex will create hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new economic activity. Many residents are eager for the jobs and profits it will bring.

"Economics favors the recreation projects in most of these cases," Akira Urakami, a biology professor and Tokyo environmental activist, said last week.

"But the environmentalist side is slowly making headway," he added.

Some of that headway is the work of Ishimatsu Kitagawa, who became chief of the government's Environmental Protection Agency in February 1990 and is widely regarded as the most activist leader ever to hold the job.

One of Mr. Kitagawa's key victories has been to prod the turf-jealous bureaucrats of the Construction Ministry into promising to do environmental impact studies -- and for the first time to start making them public -- before building projects like dams and bridges.

That promise was produced by a battle over the Construction Ministry's plan to forge ahead with a hotly controversial dam that had been delayed for 30 years.

Newspapers reported that Mr. Kitagawa gave way on the dam but extracted the promise about future projects after challenging the ministry to produce an environmental study, which it claims was completed but which has never been made public.

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