Staff writer

OSAKA — It’s hardly a populist revolution comparable to Eastern Europe’s in 1989. But, for some local activists’ groups in the Kansai region, the summer of 1998 may come to be remembered as the time when a politically apathetic public finally woke up and said “No!” to the plans of corporate and local government leaders.

The place is Kobe — where thousands still remain in temporary housing 3 1/2 years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and where the voices of ordinary people have been loudest against a plan many fear will bankrupt the city: Kobe airport.

More than 30 years after it was proposed, the controversial airport is close to becoming reality. Environmental studies are due to be completed this fall and the Kobe Municipal Assembly could give final approval as early as November. The domestic, single-runway airport is expected to open around 2005.

For the past three decades, the idea for an airport in Kobe met with stiff public opposition but has been kept alive by city officials and the local chamber of commerce.

In 1972, Kobe passed a resolution against construction of the airport, which seemed to spell its official official demise. But with Osaka International Airport in Itami, Osaka Prefecture, only 30 km from central Kobe, and Kansai International Airport, which opened in 1994, operating at far below full capacity, the majority of Kobe residents feels that another airport is a waste of money.

In addition, many said that City Hall should give priority to helping quake victims. But Kobe Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama, the airport’s staunchest supporter, seems to think differently.

In the early 1990s, the mayor resurrected the airport proposal and stepped up the campaign after the 1995 quake, arguing the airport is necessary in the event of a disaster.

When that argument failed to sway public opinion, the mayor began insisting it is necessary for Kobe’s economic future.

After the Transport Ministry and the Environmental Agency allowed the Kobe airport proposal to move forward earlier this year — despite repeated appeals to City Hall — local activists formed the Kobe Airport Plebiscite Committee earlier in summer, when local surveys show between 70 percent and 80 percent of residents oppose airport construction.

On Aug. 21, the committee began a one-month petition drive to force a plebiscite on the issue. Needing 22,000 signatures, or 2 percent of eligible voters, to introduce a bill on a plebiscite to the assembly, the committee collected 24,000 signatures in just four days.

“Because the assembly supports the airport 52-19, it doesn’t have to go through with a plebiscite even if a bill is introduced. But we feel about 300,000 signatures will send a strong message and ensure a plebiscite is held,” said Tomio Awahara, a city assembly member who ran on a platform opposing the airport.

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