NAGANOHARA, Gunma Pref. — Leading a new life without a dam is an idea that people in this small mountain town in Gunma Prefecture had never thought of before, and many appear unable to think of it even after land minister Seiji Maehara suggested it during his visit there last Wednesday.
The visit only highlighted the gaping division between the new government’s no-dam policy and residents waiting to get a fresh start alongside the almost 60-year-old Yamba Dam project.
“I still can’t believe that the dam might really fall through,” said a woman in one of the five relocation sites for affected residents the day after Maehara, who had became land minister only a week earlier, reiterated the project will be canceled at a meeting with local leaders.
Kenji Kubota, 75, who runs an inn in the Kawarayu hot spring resort area, said he would welcome it if compensation is offered and the planned resettlement continues, but he is still suspicious, calling the prospect “wishful thinking” that would take time even if realized.
During his visit to the town of Naganohara, Maehara said he intends to continue building roads and other related infrastructure even after the dam project is canceled, while considering ways to compensate the affected people and redevelop the area, hopefully together with them.
Calling the residents “absolute victims” of and apologizing for the policy change by the new administration, Maehara told the local leaders seeking to maintain the dam project that the Democratic Party of Japan-led government aims to basically do away with dam projects.
Although the ¥460 billion plan to build a multipurpose dam by fiscal 2015 on the Agatsuma River, an upstream arm of the Tone River running through the Kanto region, is 70 percent complete, construction of the dam’s main structure has yet to start.
The project has until now centered on buying land, diverting road and railway sections and removing houses from areas that would be flooded, plus developing relocation sites. Building the 116-meter-high dam itself had been planned to start in October.
Maehara also clarified in a news conference that the Yamba and the Kawabe River Dam in Kumamoto Prefecture are not the only projects the administration aims to scrap, but another 143 dam and other water-diversion projects across Japan will be reviewed.
The minister also visited Kumamoto on Saturday, where the local Itsuki village has protested the policy turn. Gov. Ikuo Kabashima sought the project cancellation last September, causing the central and local governments to start considering alternative flood-control measures.
The policy to cancel the dam project, however, met strong objections in Naganohara, with all local leaders expressing anger and residents boycotting a planned session to exchange opinions with Maehara as he refused their request to discuss the matter afresh.
“We are raising an outcry not because we are ill-natured, but because we have really suppressed ourselves all the while, not just once or twice, giving in to the government ever since we have come to approve (the project), though it has not kept its word for years,” said Shozo Hida, 45, a key member of the residents’ committee that decided on the boycott.
Local residents, who had staged intense opposition since the project was announced in 1952, finally came to accept it in 1992, but the construction schedule has since been prolonged with the initially planned completion in fiscal 2006 extended twice to run through 2015.
As a younger member of the rural community, his generation cannot undermine the posture of promoting the dam project, said Hida, head of a rejuvenated Kawarayu tourism guild, while also worrying that the residents would be isolated from people in other areas of Japan if their opposition is prolonged and taken to be unconvincing.
“There must be the aspect that (the seniors at the center of the opposition) want to submerge all the dark and agonizing sides of the nearly 60 years of struggle to the bottom of the dam,” he said. “Unless they see the dam, their feelings will not be settled.”
Residents are also worried that their communities might stay divided with a halt of the project, as 16 families have already moved to the relocation sites in the final stage of work for completion by next March, with 118 others waiting to follow.
“I have moved in on the premise the dam will be made,” said the woman in the new site for the Kawarayu community where Maehara visited to take a look before meeting with the local leaders. “I don’t feel at ease, living up on the mountain like this by only five houses.”
The basic idea of the resettlement is to move the communities in the five affected districts several hundred meters up the slope as they are, including the hardest-hit Kawarayu district that would have been wholly submerged and has sought to be re-established with a new source of hot spring water.
Of the 470 households affected — 340 in areas to be submerged and the rest for related infrastructure — only 134 have opted to relocate to the alternate sites, meaning the others have abandoned the communities and moved elsewhere, a ministry official said.
“We, the residents, have been in no way monolithic, and it has been so tough to work out ways to coexist and prosper (alongside the dam) with every member of varying interests making concessions,” Hida said.
Although Maehara pledged that the government will fully support the residents in rebuilding their lives by hearing their opinions, Hida said the stance could be taken to prod them to think up an idea for themselves.
The current resettlement plan was first proposed in 1980 with the Gunma Prefectural Government acting as a mediator but took until 1992 to be agreed on, following years of publicity efforts and dialogue to meet local demands, a town official said.
“If we are asked to do that again from zero, differences would come out again,” Hida said, citing as an example the lack of time for inn operators who have refrained largely from repairing their facilities before what would be an imminent relocation and the time company employees would be able to take off in dealing with the new government policy.
A fourth-generation operator of another inn in Kawarayu said, “I’m already 70. I married into here at 24, and it would have been good to change life had I been that young. . . . I might annoy others if I say this, but I’d rather end up here.”
As the dam would submerge the hot spring resort that boasts an 800-year history, affecting 201 families, Kawarayu had spearheaded the local opposition against the dam project.
But members dropped out one by one due in part to their wooden facilities getting creaky after half a century of being exposed to steam from the hot spring, the 75-year-old Kubota said, who was himself opposed but was persuaded by his son to budge for the sake of future generations.
On the land owned by five or six families running large inns, many tenants had no choice but to leave the community after being refused their lease rights, he said, adding that he has represented them with his inn built on land partially leased.
“Many commercial services — the soba restaurant, pub and souvenir shop — have disappeared from the neighborhood. We would not appeal to tourists even if they come,” Kubota said.
In Kawarayu, 18 inns and 44 commercial facilities were operating as of 1979, but the figures have fallen to seven and six, according to the town and the local tourism guild.
A total of 799 people have moved out of the five affected districts since details for compensating evicted residents were worked out in 2001, causing Naganohara to lose 840 people. The population was 6,392 as of the end of July, the town office said.