Kobe mayor targeted after city hall stomps plebiscite push

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KOBE — Now that the municipal government has rejected demands for a plebiscite on the proposed Kobe airport, opponents are preparing for early next year when they will launch another petition drive, this time to recall the 1997 mayoral election, in which Kazutoshi Sasayama won a third term.

Those opposed to the airport admit the task will be difficult. A total of 380,000 votes, or 33 percent of Kobe’s 1.1 million registered voters, will be needed and must be collected over a one-month signature drive starting in late December or early January.

The city’s rejection of the plebiscite, which was supported by 350,000 residents, shocked those who had organized the effort. A large number of project opponents protest the additional financial burden it would impose on top of the lingering financial strains from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. They also point to the fact that two large airports are already within an hour of the city.

Airport supporters, including Sasayama and the Kobe Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as other industry groups, however, breathed a sigh of relief, because they feared that most of those who signed the petition to hold the plebiscite were against the project.

The mayor was particularly defiant immediately after the council’s rejection Wednesday and had no comment on the recall campaign.

But in response to questions regarding allegations that there was a lack of public information on the project, he said those who charged that the city held back information on the airport never bothered to educate themselves. “There was information about the airport reported in the media. But we have to ask whether or not those complaining actually read what was available,” he said.

Sasayama’s direct involvement in the airport dates to 1989, when he became mayor after his predecessor, Tetsuo Miyazaki, stepped down. Miyazaki, who had been mayor for nearly 20 years, first proposed building a new international airport near Kobe in the mid-1960s.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kobe lobbied the Transport Ministry to locate a new Kansai international airport off Port Island.

By the mid-1970s, when a ministry report recommended southern Osaka for the site of the new airport, it was clear Kobe was out of the running. But Miyazaki and the Kobe Chamber of Commerce, despite an earlier council resolution opposing the airport, began forming study groups in hopes that they could eventually get a domestic hub built.

1982 was the pivotal year. Kobe officially lost Kansai International Airport to Osaka, and Tokyo officials indicated that if Kobe wanted an airport, it would have to pay for it with local bonds.