Peasant challenges Japanese tycoon over site of 1998 Olympics

July 03, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

NAGANO, Japan -- For more than a decade, Masao Ezawa stuck to his loom, one of a dwindling band of tenacious artisans scratching out a Spartan existence in his traditional craft.

But for the past three years, the hill-country weaver has devoted his tenacity to a struggle against the fondest dream of Yoshiaki Tsutsumi -- the Tokyo multibillionaire widely regarded as the driving force behind bringing the 1998 Winter Olympics to Nagano.

While Mr. Tsutsumi invested millions of dollars and years of his life to bringing the 1998 Winter Games to this mountain-ringed provincial city, Mr. Ezawa has scraped together yen from neighbors and environmental groups and dedicated himself to seeing that it never happens.

Once described by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest man in the world, Mr. Tsutsumi won a critical round June 16 when the International Olympic Committee met in Birmingham, England, and awarded the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano on its first bid.

That victory was won much the way Japanese businessmen have won other international competitions: with lots of money -- $11.8 million, the best-bankrolled bid in the history of the Winter Games -- and with an attention to detail that included at least one visit to every one of the IOC's 92 members and at least one lavish visit to Nagano for 68 of them.

Now, Japanese newspapers and magazines say, the Winter Olympics will give Mr. Tsutsumi a long-awaited opportunity to expand the Nagano-area hotel, travel and recreation-related operations within his multibillion-dollar business empire.

Last week, the railroad station and other buildings in the city center were festooned with huge banners congratulating the Nagano Winter Olympics Bidding Committee, of which Mr. Tsutsumi is honorary chairman.

Amid the celebratory hoopla, Mr. Ezawa insists that the battle has just begun.

"The reality is that Nagano's application was approved the very first time the city bid, which is a bit unusual, and there had not been time to prepare most of the plans beyond an extremely vague and underdeveloped stage," Mr. Ezawa said last week.

"The Olympics organizers haven't yet told the people [of Nagano] how much it will be on their tax bills, and what the full effect on the town's lifestyle and environment will be," he added.

Mr. Ezawa is not alone in his criticism.

Two dozen small national and local citizens groups, ranging from taxpayer leagues worried about the drain on Nagano's revenues to environmentalists determined to preserve one of the few relatively unspoiled areas within a day trip of Tokyo, have declared that they will go on fighting despite the IOC's vote.

Some are preparing petition drives to force critical funding orland-taking issues onto referendum ballots. Others point to a variety of government rules and regulations that they say are already being bent to speed Olympics-related construction, and they promise lawsuits to get the rules enforced.

Questions and critical comments about the Olympics also crop up with steadily increasing frequency in sports pages, newspaper columns, editorials, magazine articles and TV commentaries.

"This isn't the Nagano Olympics, it's the Tsutsumi Olympics," the magazine Weekly Hoseki remarked in its current issue.

The magazine reported that Mr. Tsutsumi meets secretly with Juan Antonio Samaranch every time the IOC chief comes to Japan, that the IOC's Tokyo meeting place was Mr. Tsutsumi's )) Takanawa Prince Hotel and that five of the 34 on the staff of the Japan Olympic Committee are employees of Mr. Tsutsumi's group of companies.

Only the committed few, such as Mr. Ezawa, were willing to predict last week that the Nagano Olympics might in fact be blocked.

The mounting undertone of anti-Olympics sentiment suggests that Japan's third round as the Games' host may have an atmosphere very different from the national coming-out parties that were the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and the Sapporo Winter Olympics of 1972.

"In Tokyo and Sapporo, our country was just emerging from the destruction of World War II, and the Japanese people were eager for the celebration and recognition that came with the Olympics," said Juichiro Imai, head of a Nagano group opposed to using the town as an Olympic site.

"This time, Japan already knows its own place in the world. Even the organizers are promoting the Nagano Winter Olympics strictly as a business proposition, not as a national spiritual event. They see it as a quick fix to make Nagano over into a big-time recreation center," he said.

Despite the Olympic organizers' big win in Birmingham, the small bands of citizens groups fighting the Nagano Winter Games have demonstrated an ability to make points with emphasis, and sometimes to win a critical round.

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