National

Near air base, referendum finds majority backs air conditioners for schools

Kyodo

A majority of residents near an Air Self-Defense Force base in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on Sunday voted in favor of putting air conditioners in schoolrooms. They convened a local referendum on the matter because the green-minded mayor opposes the idea.

The movement emerged among parents in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, who believe their children would be disturbed by noise if they open the windows during the hot summer. But Mayor Masato Fujimoto, 53, himself a former teacher, opposes using air conditioners in classrooms, and instead advocates living more “in harmony with nature.”

He can ignore the outcome of the referendum because it is not legally binding. Also, fewer than one in three eligible voters cast a ballot, which the mayor had set as the threshold for withdrawing his opposition. Only 31.54 percent voted.

“I will analyze the outcome, but it is regrettable that voter turnout was not high compared with local referendums conducted in other areas in the country,” he said in a statement.

In the referendum, 56,921 people voted for air conditioners, and 30,047 voted against. The total number of eligible voters stood at 278,248.

During a news conference on Monday, Fujimoto stopped short of declaring whether he would accept the referendum’s outcome. He said only he would carefully consider what steps to take.

The Tokorozawa Municipal Government initially decided in 2006 to equip all its public elementary and junior high schools with air conditioners with Defense Ministry subsidies to deal with noise.

But only one school was fitted with them before Fujimoto won election in 2011 and retracted the decision on air conditioners the following year, saying: “Let’s shift to a lifestyle in harmony with nature in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.”

The quake and tsunami in March 2011 resulted in a sharp reduction in power generation. The nation’s fleet of nuclear reactors was taken offline in the wake of a triple meltdown at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 plant that was spurred by the natural disaster.

Parents of the students in the city, meanwhile, have said air conditioners in this case are “not for comfort, but to deal with noise troubles.”

They argue that the mayor is violating the right to an education.

A total of 29 city-run elementary and junior high schools have soundproof windows or have taken other measures to deal with noise. But, for example, students in one school about 2 km from the Iruma Air Base complain that their schoolrooms “get so humid they do not feel like fans are working.”

But if they open the windows, they say they would be troubled by noise every 10 minutes and cannot properly hear what the teacher is saying.

The parents have repeatedly called on the city government to take heed of the noise problem. But Fujimoto showed no signs of compromise and the parents decided to request a referendum, spending four weeks or so last autumn collecting signatures. They got about 8,400 names in support of holding a vote.

Fujimoto has told reporters that he became a politician “to improve education” and that he has “not used air conditioners” since 2012 at his home, the mayor’s room or in the public car he uses.

When Fujimoto was elected as mayor in 2011, he garnered 38,655 votes. Voter turnout was 34.68 percent.

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