Once ‘golf course heaven,’ Hyogo now at opposite extreme

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — Hyogo Prefecture, with the largest number of golf courses on Honshu, has a reputation as the country’s golf heaven.

But with golf courses nationwide going bankrupt and residents in nearby Osaka angry about environmental damage caused by Hyogo courses, golf heaven is fast turning into golf hell.

Back during the bubble economy days of the 1980s, laws regarding land development in Japan were changed to make it easier to develop resorts, theme parks and golf courses.

The result was a golf course development boom throughout Japan. Local governments, eager to attract new businesses, and local politicians, eager to befriend the golf companies that were awash with cash, went out of their way to ensure land was available for links construction. At the time, golf courses seemed like an investment that would appreciate over the years as land prices rose.

No local government pursued the development of golf courses more eagerly than Hyogo Prefecture. As of last year, there were an estimated 145 golf courses in the prefecture.

While most Hyogo courses are privately run, many of the newer ones built within the past 20 years are concentrated around areas that the prefectural government had hoped to develop as new urban centers.

For example, the Sanda area, about 15 km northeast of Kobe and near the Osaka border, has 34 golf courses, all built with the expectation that the prefectural-led effort to lure businesses to the area would also bring in golfers.

That has not occurred. As a result, many of the Sanda golf courses are losing money, and some are believed by local economists and antigolf course activists to be bankrupt.

The problems of golf course development are not new. But a new corporate rehabilitation law, which took effect in April, has made it easier for financially troubled courses to apply for court protection.

This, combined with mounting local government debts, is bringing the problem into sharper public focus. A total of 12 golf-related companies nationwide have since applied for court protection under the law. Two of the 12 — Hoshida Golf, a golf club, and Hakuei, a course construction company — are based in Hyogo Prefecture. The two organizations have accumulated debts of about 40 billion yen.

Citizens’ groups that have opposed golf courses in the past warn that more bad news is on the way and predict many more bankruptcies will follow. Worries are mounting that the companies will then turn to the prefectural government to bail them out. The prefecture insists there will be no such bailout.

While Hyogo officials are concerned about the financial situation of their golf heaven, residents in neighboring Osaka Prefecture have more down-to-earth concerns — like contamination by rainwater tainted with golf-course chemicals.

“The Sanda area contains a large number of golf courses, and the chemicals used to treat the greens and fairways are running off into streams and rivers that flow into Osaka Prefecture, especially through the Takarazuka hot springs area,” said Yaeko Nakazawa, who lives just north of Takarazuka near the Mukogawa River.

The Construction Ministry wants to build a dam near Takarazuka, ostensibly to control flooding, but those who oppose the dam say the real problem is runoff from the excessive number of golf courses in Sanda.

“The easiest way to control the flooding is for Hyogo Prefecture to close down some of the Sanda golf courses,” Nakazawa said.