The Multinational Monitor

November 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 11

J A P A N  T H E   N E X T  E M P I R E


By Ellen Hosmer MIYAKEJIMA, Japan

At 3:33 on the afternoon of October 3, 1983, the island villagers of Miyakejima felt the earth rumble. By the time the sky darkened, a few moments later, they knew that their island paradise, built on a volatile volcano, was in jeopardy. When the smoke cleared, 12 million tons of lava had spewed forth, 330 houses had simply disappeared under the fiery mass, and more than 800 people were left homeless. Nearly 700 hectares of farmland were paved over. A spring-fed lake, some 50 meters deep, vanished in a puff of steam, leaving a vacant crater in its place.

The eruption changed forever the landscape of the tiny island, but today the islanders fear their way of life is being threatened by a force potentially more dangerous than the mighty volcano. "The future of Miyakejima is at stake," says village chief Haruo Terasawa. Only some 180 kilometers from Tokyo, Miyakejima is targeted as the site for a night-landing practice airfield for U.S. Navy planes. The issue has politicized the island and thrust its 4,000 citizens into a confrontation with the national government. Along the road encircling the island are hand-painted signs that tell of the dangers of night landing practice (NLP). "NLP is more dangerous than another eruption," warns one sign. "Keep the island where you wake up with the sound of the birds singing," advises another. "You don't know the power of the island man and woman," says still another.

But slowly, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita is beginning to realize just how powerful a force local groups can be in delaying, if not changing, national policy.

Night landing practice by the U.S. Navy has long aroused bitter controversy in Japan. Residents near Atsugi Air Base in the Kanagawa Prefecture, just 50 kilometers from Tokyo, have complained about night landing practice since it began in the early 1980s. Atsugi Air Base has spawned dozens of demonstrations, petition campaigns and lawsuits. Residents claim the continuous deafening roar of the planes during night landing practice exercises makes life unbearable. They cite a litany of problems that NLP has produced, including hearing loss, miscarriages and a general disruption of their lives. The U.S. Navy uses night landing practice to train its pilots to land their jets at sea on aircraft carriers. Atsugi is used by pilots from the U.S. aircraft carrier Midway when it is docked at nearby Yokosuka Naval Station. To simulate actual conditions the runway is short and the landing strip dark. If the pilot does not perform a perfect landing, the pilot must immediately shoot back up into the air and repeat the landing.

Both the U.S. Navy and the Japanese government agree that NLP in a densely populated area is not wise. In fact, the area around Atsugi is especially troublesome since the houses and streets of the nearby towns light up the landing strip. The United States has requested that another location be found almost since the NLP began in Japan. What was needed was an area that was flat, lightly populated and near Tokyo Bay.

Miyakejima fit the bill almost perfectly. In the chaos following the 1983 volcanic eruption, the village council of Miyakejima voted 13 to 2 to accept a seemingly non- descript resolution calling for the construction of a larger airport that would be used jointly by the state and commercial companies, but which in essence asked the government to bring NLP to the island. To sweeten the deal, the Japanese government promised to throw in a 70 to 100 billion yen subsidy for the local government. The money would be used to build a town hall, a sea port and a golf course--projects designed to revitalize the island's stagnant economy. But when the islanders understood what they were going to have to give in return, they revolted against the village council members who had acted without their support.

In February of 1984 the opponents of NLP on Miyakejima won 13 of the 14 council seats. More than three-fourths of the island's population signed a petition against the resolution asking the government to bring the NLP airport to the island. The airstrip would pave over 60 houses and 2 million square meters of parkland. Environmentalists all over the world have joined the islanders in their efforts to fight the plan.

(balance of this article omitted here; unscannable)