Staff writer

KOBE — Kobe voters will cast their ballots April 11 for a new assembly. All 72 seats are up for grabs in what local politicians, activists and the media predict will be a very contentious election, particularly over the city’s financial deficit and proposed airport.

In the last election, held just two months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995, anger over the city’s slow response to the needs of quake survivors led to election victories for several independents.

Four years later, much progress has been made in recovering from the damage. The main issue this time is the city’s future direction. This includes debate over how Kobe can compete economically with Osaka. The city’s answer is simple: build new facilities. An international convention center in central Kobe is scheduled to open soon and plans are on the drawing board for new high-tech buildings on Port Island.

The most controversial facility, however, remains the proposed Kobe airport. After more than 30 years of debate and planning, city officials are waiting on the Transport Ministry to grant final approval later this year. Construction could begin as early as July or August, said Kenji Kagawa, a city official involved in the project.

In December, the assembly voted down a resolution to hold a plebiscite on the airport despite signatures from more than 300,000 voters. Of the current 71 assembly members (one seat is vacant), 19 oppose the airport. Most of the established parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Japan, New Komeito and Social Democratic Party, have voiced support. Only the Japanese Communist Party and the independent politicians are opposed.

While City Hall is determined to go ahead with the project, not only a considerable number of Kobe citizens but also others outside of Kobe have begun to voice doubts about the wisdom of another airport in the Kansai region.

Kazuo Inamori, founder of Kyoto-based Kyocera Corp., recently declared it is not necessary to build the airport right away. Others in the Kansai business community say priority should be put on the second phase of construction at Kansai International Airport due to begin this spring.

There is also controversy over comments made by Kobe officials promoting the domestic-only-designed airport as a potential international airport. Kenzo Tanaka, an SDP assemblyman, even said Federal Express could, in the future, use the airport. “The mayor and airport supporters hope that someday, the Kobe airport will become an international airport, or at least offer regular international cargo flights,” said Tomio Awahara, an independent assemblyman and airport opponent.

But Naoko Masuda, a spokeswoman for Federal Express in Tokyo, said there is neither plans nor interest in using Kobe airport, because the carrier already operates a hub in Subic Bay, Philippines. Transport Ministry officials said the Kobe airport would not be granted regularly scheduled international flights.

Yet, despite the intense emotions the airport debate has generated, Kobe politicians and activist groups say it will not be the main issue in this year’s election. “The airport is an issue with many residents, but not top of the list. They are more concerned about continuing to recover from the quake and making Kobe economically competitive again,” Awahara said.

Yasushi Hirata, head of the Kobe Airport Plebiscite Committee, agrees. “While many people want a plebiscite, when it comes time to elect politicians, there will be other things they will think about as well,” he said. One of those other things is the city’s mounting debts.

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