KOBE — Despite calls for a plebiscite by more than 350,000 local residents, Kobe Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama remains committed to building an airport and argued before city council members Thursday that holding a public vote is unnecessary.
“It is important to gain the understanding of local residents, but it is not necessary to hold a plebiscite,” the mayor told a committee of Kobe Municipal Council members. The debate on whether to hold a plebiscite will take place at an extraordinary session of the full council in December.
The airport project has been the subject of controversy since Sasayama announced in 1990 that one would be built. In March 1990, Kobe City Hall passed a resolution supporting the project.
But after the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit in 1995, public opposition to the airport grew, as tens of thousands of quake survivors remained in temporary housing. However, the mayor, backed by the majority of municipal council and the Kobe Chamber of Commerce, said the airport is necessary to revitalize Kobe. Currently, of the 70 council members, 51 have voiced support for the project.
As of August, nearly 20,000 earthquake survivors were still living in temporary housing and Kobe faced the repayment of 3 trillion yen in bonds, many of which are short-term, high-yield bonds issued to pay for reconstruction. Kobe has the largest amount of debt per resident of any Japanese city larger than 100,000 people.
As a result of the city’s growing financial crisis, many who initially supported the airport became concerned that there was too little input from local citizens. In August and September, citizens’ groups gathered nearly 350,000 signatures calling for a plebiscite.