Isle’s airport between reef and a hard place> Staff writer ISHIGAKI ISLAND, Okinawa Pref. — Passengers stare dreamily from the plane. Some crane their necks for a glimpse of the cobalt coastline and Ishigaki’s famed coral reefs. But all are jerked back to reality when the plane touches down and suddenly breaks to a halt. Welcome to Ishigaki Island. More than 400 km southwest of Okinawa Island, this peaceful isle is situated like one of the last stepping stones to Taiwan — only 277 km away. But despite this quaint island’s beautiful scenery, for 20 years the government and citizens have been at loggerheads over what to do about its airport and short runway. This conflict will come to a head in March, when a prefecture-appointed committee is slated to select one of four proposed sites for the island’s new airport. But while there is a consensus that the current airport is a problem, there promises to be resistance to the new plan regardless of which site is selected. The prefecture has been itching to build an airport with a longer landing strip slightly removed from the island’s southern urban center since before 1979. The current runway is only 1,500 meters long and not designed for the jets that buzz in and out. Located at the southern end and urban heart of the island — where around 80 percent of Ishigaki’s 44,000 residents live — the current facility also brings noise pollution. Built in 1952, the airport became a noise nuisance and safety concern in the late 1960s when jets started roaring in and out. The prefecture told islanders that the airport and noise pollution would be temporary and set about searching for a new site. In 1979, the prefecture decided to build a 2,500-meter-runway airport off the Shiraho reef smack atop internationally significant coral colonies. The local fishing cooperative backed the plan after pocketing subsidies, but other residents raised hell and Okinawa scrapped the idea. The prefecture then proposed an airport a few kilometers to the north off Karadake, but this wilted in the face of opposition as well. Then a third plan was approved to build the airport atop a small knoll full of fields in Miyara. But stiff resistance from farmers proved its undoing. Two decades later, and ostensibly sick of opposition and hoping to avoid more local backlash to one of its top-down decisions, the prefecture decided to pass the onus onto a committee. In 1999, it set up a 36-member panel, including local politicians, scholars, environmentalists, civil servants and local representatives, to make the final selection from among four sites. In mid-December, the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan, which is actively involved in Shiraho, condemned all four options on environmental grounds and called on the prefecture to consider extending the current runway. Takashi Kobayashi of the WWF agrees that the island needs a longer runway, but is unconvinced that a new airport is the answer. “From the perspective of the WWF, there is no visible reason to build a new airport. If one is built at any of the four proposed locations, it will have a huge impact on the environment,” said the WWF’s Takashi Kobayashi, who lives in Shiraho and is heading up a new coral research center that opens in April. But extending the current runway is not an option, according to Toshio Ueto, head of the Ishigaki branch office in charge of the project. There are too many people on the south side of the facility to consider resettling them and the discovery of ancient artifacts to the north of the runway makes construction there impossible, he said. “There is no site that clears all of the requirements. This is a small island and no matter which site is selected, there will be nature and noise issues.” In addition, if it is to improve safety and make the island more accessible for jets, Ueto contends that a new airport will also boost tourism and the export of the island’s goods — especially agricultural. “One of the biggest bottlenecks for this island is the airport.” The current airport can handle a maximum 1.4 million visitors a year. With tourists increasing, an estimated 1.39 million people passed through the facility in 1999. The airport said it is likely to top capacity this year, nearly doubling the number of visitors since 1986, Ueto said. The airport shuttles in tourists and their money — a major pillar of the island’s economy — and flies out island- produced goods. Ueto is convinced that expanding the link to the outside world would be a boon to the island’s economy. Tourist numbers may be up and rising, but Kobayashi counters that this is a seasonal issue, and that during the off-season, flights are empty. Only during certain times of the year are extra flights necessary, he says. Which of the four sites will be selected is anybody’s guess. But it is not likely to be a place where opposition has killed the plan before, said Ueto with just the hint of a grin. This would rule out the Miyara proposal or the coastal Karadake east-side plan, which would probably impact the coral reef. That leaves the Karadake land plan, slightly inland from the coast, and the Fusakino plan, on a stubby peninsula on the island’s southeastern coast. But environmentalists say both would threaten coastal ecosystems because of the soil runoff accompanying construction, threatening the coral reef in Karadake’s case and a wetland of international importance in Fusakino’s. The current dilemma has dragged on for two decades through decisions and revisions, proposals and opposition. If a site is picked in March, an airport won’t materialize for another decade or so — two or three years for construction to start and seven years to complete. Nothing is certain except that even if a site is selected, there will remain disaffected islanders and opposition for some time to come.Research hub to uphold Shiraho’s tie with coral> ISHIGAKI ISLAND, Okinawa Pref. — The drone of heavy machinery drowns out the sound of the wind and the waves here in the small seaside village of Shiraho. The mechanical din heralds the coming arrival of a coral research center set to open its doors in April. Celebrated for its vast and rich variety of coral, Shiraho will be the new home of the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan’s first domestic coral reef conservation research center. Coral and the village of Shiraho village go way, way back. Coral, coral and more coral. On the beach, in the shops and even in the walls that line the streets. “Half of this island exists because it was created by the coral,” said WWF Japan’s Takashi Kobayashi, who lives in Shiraho and will head the new center. The facility will conduct research to better grasp the complexities of Shiraho’s reef, home to the largest and oldest colonies of blue coral in the Northern Hemisphere. It will also survey the effects of soil runoff from farms that threatens the coral. Shiraho’s reef has long supported the village. Marine resources — from coral for construction to seaweed and marine life for food — are abundant and helped locals fend off starvation during the war. Walking the shore at low tide, Kobayashi points to half a dozen crouching women gathering seaweed to take home. And though the bond between the people and the reef is strong, the new center aims to strengthen it even more by acquainting people with the reef in different ways while advocating the sustainable use of the marine area. Internationally, coral has long been recognized as a breeding ground for fish and a safe haven for small fish. More recently, it has gained attention from a climate change perspective — scientists guess that it may be a potentially significant source of carbon absorption. But more than climate change and biodiversity, it comes down to culture, Kobayashi said. “The coral reef is an integral part of the culture in Shiraho. Through our activities, we hope pass that culture on to the next generation.” (M.C.) Nago’s giving heliport a second thought>NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — It is hard to imagine how a sleepy rural fishing hamlet such as Henoko could make headlines. But the spotlight hit this nondescript area just over the hill and 25 minutes from central Nago on Okinawa Prefecture’s east coast again in late December. It was, in fact, these particulars of the district — a quiet seaside location and small population — that convinced the governor this is the place for Okinawa’s next U.S. military facility. And when Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto agreed to “conditionally” accept the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps heliport now at the Futenma Air Station from Ginowan, the decision was met with a mixture of approbation, resignation and outright opposition. The prefectural and central governments shed a collective sigh of relief. Some Okinawans and locals accepted it as in the national interest. Others vehemently condemned the move and vowed to resist more U.S. military facilities to the end. This is an emotional issue, and its history is complex. In the wake of an agreement by the Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa in 1995 to reorganize and reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, it was agreed the Futenma base would be returned to Okinawa if a suitable substitute was found. The large population surrounding the Futenma facility — more than 50,000 in Ginowan — and the noise pollution that haunts the local residents and more than 15 schools around the base were major factors in the decision to search for a substitute. And one was found — Nago’s Henoko district. But resistance and a plebiscite in Nago in December 1997 that resoundingly rejected the idea temporarily dampened prospects for the relocation. In late 1998, however, Keiichi Inamine was elected governor and pledged to move the Futenma heliport elsewhere in the prefecture. Last March, he set up an office to deliberate the merits of seven sites, and in December he bestowed the distinction of most suitable site, again, upon Henoko. Kishimoto’s endorsement of his choice put the ball in the government’s court. But why Henoko? “If a helicopter crashed in the highly populated area of Ginowan, scores of people could become casualties,” said Yoshihiro Hosaka, deputy councilor of Okinawa Prefecture’s Futenma Air Station and Naha Port Reversion Affairs Office. This is a major reason for the move and a big factor in the selection of Henoko, whose population is less than 1,500, he said. The proposed facility at Henoko is expected to be a joint military-civilian airport. One option being considered, which would be offshore, would reduce noise pollution for islanders as well as decrease the civilian casualty risk in the event of a crash, Hosaka said. The prefecture has found a replacement site for the air station, now it is up to the government to fill in the details. The structure, area and exact location for the new facility are still undecided. But its size would be less than the 480 hectares of the Futenma base, thus reducing the area of the island of Okinawa occupied by U.S. military forces from the current nearly 19 percent. Worries about the environmental impact of an offshore facility base remain unassuaged. (Numerous sightings of endangered dugong have been reported up and down the coast centering around Henoko.) Likewise, concerns about citizens’ safety have not been addressed. Despite Kishimoto’s endorsement, signs dot the highway from Nago to Henoko urging no more bases. And some people, like Zenko Nakamura of the Council for Opposing Offshore Base Construction, term the plan a farce. Though the governor has set a list of conditions for accepting the base — citizen safety, a 15-year limit on the U.S. military’s use and shared use with the private sector among them — these are all hot air, Nakamura said, because they are nonbinding. “What are conditions if they are not absolute conditions?” he asked. Nakamura also slammed the idea that moving the base to Henoko will enhance public safety. If anything, it will give pilots a license to be reckless, he said. And even if the area of U.S. military control shrinks, he argued this will likely be offset because a new base will further ensconce U.S. forces in Okinawa. He also questioned why the governor fingered Henoko. “There is no explanation why Henoko is the best of the seven sites. Even looking at the documents put out by the prefecture and the words of the governor, it is impossible to find a reason why Henoko is the most suitable. On the contrary, from environmental and public safety perspectives, Henoko’s conditions would make the area a bad choice.” Nakamura said his group’s next move will be to try to recall the mayor. At the other end of the spectrum is Jisei Asato, a Henoko resident. This 80-year-old fully favors relocating the base near Henoko in hopes that it will translate into income and development. Others, like Kenyu Shimabukuro, Henoko’s representative to the Nago Municipal Assembly, accepts the selection of Henoko as a matter of course, as a move needed for Japan’s national security. “Things are much quieter here than two years ago,” Shimabukuro said, contrasting today’s atmosphere with the time when a majority of Nago citizens voted against a base. But Shimabukuro said that opponents are dwindling and no longer hold the majority — that the many opposition placards around the area are the work of a small segment of resistance to the base. Nakamura and others would dispute this, but one thing they would surely concur with is Shimabukuro’s take on the issue’s effect on the people of Okinawa. “There is no question that the people are very divided on this issue.” (M.C.)U.S. servicemen buck boredom with bull riding> GUSHIKAWA, Okinawa Pref. — Okinawan cowboys. It sounds like a ridiculous contradiction, akin to Philippine snowmen. But a trip to this town and a chat with the Okinawa Bull Riding Association’s motley gang of bull riders will quickly lay to rest any doubts that bronco busters complete with cowboy hats, weighty belt-buckles and spurs are practicing their trade in this prefecture. “I have been around rodeo since I was knee-high,” said 22-year-old Matt “Sally” Grenz. Before joining the U.S. Marine Corps, Grenz was on the rodeo circuit, and since being stationed in Okinawa about 18 months ago he has satisfied his bull-riding urges with OBRA. On Saturdays, Grenz, OBRA business director Ken “Jay” Johnson and other rodeo junkies haul the club’s two bulls out to a homemade arena near U.S. Marines Camp Courtney, where they are stationed. Here they bring the 15-meter-in-diameter arena in rural Okinawa to life with a piece of Western American culture. OBRA’s roughly 40 members are a mixed bag. While some, such as Grenz and Johnson, who have 30 years riding experience between them, know their way around a bull, about half of the association’s members had never straddled a bull before coming to Okinawa. Members include people from all four branches of the U.S. military plus one from the Maritime Self-Defense Force — one of six Japanese who come to ride. Some even make the trip from the main Japanese archipelago. Homesick for life on the bull, in July 1997 a group of servicemen hatched a plan. They bought a bull retired from traditional Okinawan bullfighting — where two bulls go head to head and the first to flinch, fall or retreat is the loser — and found a space to ride. Five bulls later, OBRA is going strong. The most notorious bull is Jailbreak. The first time in the arena he hopped a 1.5-meter fence and ran until he got bogged down in a rice paddy. Jailbreak came from Kyushu, where he was let go after he pinned and killed one of his handlers. “After he killed his handler, nobody wanted him,” Johnson said. OBRA’s other bull, Chuter’s Run, is from Okinawa and simply wasn’t winning any matches, Johnson said. But in Asia, bull riders are a lonely breed. “We are all there is in Japan,” he lamented. “There are a group of military folks in (South) Korea trying to start up something similar, but we are it in Japan.” Getting the organization off the ground and keeping it there has been far from easy. The group is strictly nonprofit. Far from making money, riding constantly lightens members’ wallets and Johnson said he is in the hole for a few hundred dollars. And keeping bulls is expensive. The cheapest feed available comes from the United States but, at $40 to $50 per bale, it is nearly 10 times the price in the States. A local farmer charges $300 monthly to look after OBRA’s two bulls. “There is no infrastructure here,” Johnson said. “There are no arenas, no stock contractors … we don’t have that availability over here.” This makes old-fashioned cowboy elbow grease and do-it-yourself ingenuity all the more important. “Here we can’t go out and buy portable fences, so we built the arena and benches ourselves (out of scaffolding).” Johnson said he stopped riding eight years ago as part of a bargain with his wife — who fears for his safety. In return, she agreed he could keep sparring with bulls as a clown. Veteran riders Johnson and Grenz give advice to beginners and regularly put on funny, colorful clothes, transforming themselves into what the uninitiated would call clowns. But Johnson is quick to correct the misconception. “I don’t have any balloons, floppy feet or a big red nose — I am not a clown,” Johnson said. “I am a bullfighter.” The clown-clad bullfighter’s role is critical to preventing injuries, he said. “Originally, clowns came out between events to keep the crowd entertained and take up the slow period. But now they have evolved to fill two roles: to entertain and to fight bulls.” The bullfighter’s job includes distracting the bull after the rider dismounts or is thrown, so the animal won’t go after the rider. “We are out there to take a shot for the rider,” Johnson said. The group puts a premium on safety, at times invoking superstition. “Overall, we have been pretty lucky because we have been pretty careful,” Johnson said. Protective vests made of kevlar are mandatory for riders and help to “keep you from getting your guts stomped out,” said OBRA’s Carson Zumalt. But Grenz still keeps an ace of spades tucked into the rim of his hat and always dons his blinding orange shirt for luck when he clowns. OBRA put on three events last year, two as sort of a sideshow to traditional local bullfights and one independently — the “Wild East Rodeo,” which drew around 800 people. Rodeo enjoyed a boom in the U.S. throughout the 1990s. What used to be a Western sport has spread as far as New England, Johnson said. If OBRA’s collective enthusiasm is any indication, the boom will spread even further east to, say, Okinawa. (M.C.)
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.