Look southwest from the top of Mount Takao on clear winter mornings. Mount Fuji soars above its surroundings, white and massive in the royal blue sky. Except for a few pylons in the distance, the view is timeless.

A 12-way interchange between the Chuo Expressway and the new Ken’odo will obliterate historic Mount Takao, the ruins of Hachioji Castle and vital habitat for several endangered species.

To the west and north lies a quilt of small mountains, precipitous and tree-covered, stretching far into the haze of distant peaks. On a mountain just north of Takao sit the remains of Hachioji Castle. Local people still call it Shiroyama, or Castle Mountain.

Hojo Ujiteru, one of Japan’s last independent warlords, began building the castle in 1584. He never finished, however, due to attacks by the forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who sought to reunify the nation. Hideyoshi finally took the castle June 23, 1590, in a battle so bloody it is said the rivers of Shiroyama ran red. Ujiteru was defending his main castle in Odawara and escaped death, but not for long. On July 2, Hideyoshi’s besieging army stormed Odawara and took the castle. Ujiteru took his own life.

For hundreds of years, people stayed away from Shiroyama, fearful of angry spirits. In 1951, the castle and its surroundings were made a quasi-national park.

Today, a new battle is being fought for Shiroyama. This time, the confrontation is not over the castle but over its very foundations. Construction workers are drilling into the north slope, cutting a tunnel to the south. The project is part of a ring road, the Ken’odo, that officials hope will one day circle Tokyo. Concerned citizens and conservationists from across Japan are in court to stop the work.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is spearheading the grandiose plan, a 270-km highway that will circle through Chiba, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefectures. Planning has been underway for more than 30 years, in various guises, but finally surfaced as the present-day Ken’odo in 1984. So far, less than 20 km has been finished, from Saitama to Ome City, Tokyo.

Plans calls for the highway to carve south from Ome, burrow under Hachioji Castle, then surface to link up with the Chuo Expressway on the north flank of Mount Takao, also a quasinational park. This junction will require an interchange that weaves together at least 12 separate access and connecting ramps.

Construction has already begun on the north side of the Chuo junction, and is expected to connect with the Ken’odo where it exits Shiroyama. When this will happen is uncertain: Tunneling under Hachioji Castle has been slowed by groundwater inundation.

On the south side of the Chuo junction, the Ken’odo calls for two more tunnels to be drilled through the north face of Mount Takao. The tunnels will exit on the south and intersect with Route 20 in another tangle of access roads.

Even Pandora would recognize the ills of the Ken’odo: First the construction, then the hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that will pass by and through Mount Takao and Shiroyama each year. Humans, plants, animals and historic structures will all suffer noise, vibration, and serious air pollution for decades to come. Perhaps most harmful, and unpredictable, will be tunneling through delicate mountain groundwater and drainage systems.

On a cold, clear morning this past January, over 100 people gathered at the Hachioji District Court for opening arguments in a lawsuit to stop the Ken’odo. Ten lawyers, backed by over 130 more, have brought suits on behalf of 1,061 individuals, six conservation groups and five other unusual plaintiffs: Mount Takao, Hachioji Castle, the Takao beech trees, the flying squirrel and the endangered goshawk.

At the second hearing in March, the judges dismissed the nonhumans’ suit without comment. Their case has been appealed. The human plaintiffs remain in district court.

“We are seeking an injunction to stop the construction, to protect the mountain. Our first purpose is to protect Mount Takao,” says Yoshihiro Hashimoto, leader of the conservation movement.

Mount Takao’s forests are an Eden of biodiversity: Thousands of species of insects, over 1,300 kinds of plants, 137 species of birds and 30 different mammals, including fox, wild boar, badger, raccoon and Japanese mink, inhabit its woods. The potential environmental destruction is appalling, says Hashimoto.

“Under the U.S. environmental assessment process,” he notes, “if a project will have a significant impact on the environment, there is always the option of not doing it. In Japan, there is no thought of not following through with a proposed project. It is a zero-option process, so the authorities reduce the estimated impacts in order to justify the project and ensure that it is undertaken.”

Until recently in Japan, he explains, “the Construction Ministry established the assessment standards, then did the assessments and approved the projects, which it then undertook. This is like students making a test, then taking the test and marking it, and deciding they have done well.”