• Chugoku Shimbun

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March will mark the end of a tumultuous decadeslong development project in the city of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, that has sowed local opposition to the U.S. military presence after flip-flopping from an initial plan to create a “dream town” for the city’s residents.

The initiative originally sought to level the city’s Mount Atago with a view toward creating a massive housing complex for Iwakuni residents, only to hit a major snag along the way due to a botched estimate of profitability. In a drastic change of course, officials eventually gave up on the housing scheme altogether, and instead set about transforming the excavated site into facilities catering to the U.S. military personnel stationed nearby.

Today, facilities in the area include a sports gym and a hospital. As much as it thrives on a steady influx of visitors, local residents confess to mixed feelings about how the project turned out.

The project will end in a few months with the completion of a park, which will be fashioned with playground equipment designed by the city, 23 years after the construction started.

Located about 3.5 kilometers southwest of the center of Iwakuni, the whole development region comprises around 100 hectares of hilly terrain, part of which is now undergoing construction that involves the busy comings-and-goings of heavy machinery.

It’s the 3.7-hectare park that now sits in the middle of this last phase of the construction, already furnished with a roofed square and an outdoors concert stage and pending only the completion of a grass-covered area of ground and playground equipment, such as a roller slide.

According to the city’s urban renewal division, the park is expected to serve as a playground for local children in normal times, but play a critical role in facilitating the evacuation of residents in the event of a natural disaster.

At the initiative of the city of Iwakuni and Yamaguchi Prefecture, the development project kicked off in 1998 with big ambitions. At the heart of it was the much-hyped plan to create a housing complex capable of accommodating 1,500 households, along with an elementary school and a park nearby. Under the plan, the envisioned new community would have become a “dream town,” home to a population of about 5,600.

In addition to the construction of this new little town, the project — including the leveling of Mount Atago — was also designed to secure enough soil to relocate part of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni offshore.

But once the soil was transferred in 2007, things took a drastic turn.

By that time, land prices for the leveled area had plummeted, with demand for new housing faltering. Faced with the prospect of massive red ink, the prefecture and municipality were forced to discontinue the housing complex initiative altogether, selling three quarters of the development region to the central government in a bid to offset an expected deficit.

The government in turn decided to repurpose the newly acquired plot of land as a housing complex for additional U.S. military personnel that were needed following a transfer of U.S. carrier-based aircraft to the Iwakuni base. Authorities also took advantage of the acquisition to build a sports facility that has since been run jointly by the U.S. military and the city of Iwakuni.

The remaining quarter of the original plot was transformed by the city into something of a hub for medicine and disaster prevention, with the establishment of entities such as the National Hospital Organization Iwakuni Clinical Center and a center for firefighting and disaster prevention efforts.

The sports facility, named Atago Sports Complex, now plays a central role in fostering communication between the U.S. military and local Iwakuni residents, with athletic events and festivals organized almost every weekend. Families can enjoy the playground and older people can take a walk there.

Looking back on a complicated path the development project has taken, Yoshihiko Fukuda, mayor of Iwakuni, is determined to make it an asset for the city’s future.

“After overcoming numerous challenges, we’re finally seeing an end to this project. I hope this area will further thrive as a center of communication between Japan and the U.S., inspiring hope for our children,” he said.

During a visit with three current officials from Atago Shrine, Morio Yamanaka, former head of the shrine, looked over the development area pensively.

“The area looks completely different now,” mumbled Yamanaka, 88, who spent a good part of his life in proximity to the now-demolished mountain.

His shrine, which used to sit near the summit of the 120-meter-high mountain, is now located atop a hill that is the result of the excavation work and half the height of the original mountain.

Yamanaka recalls how Mount Atago was frequented by residents for community activities before the development project changed everything.

“There would be 30 or 40 food stalls lining up every time the shrine hosted a spring festival. We would also host sumo matches in our ring, and that was huge fun,” Yamanaka said as he reminisced about the joviality of the 1960s.

The mountain, he said, would also become awash with an exuberance of plants such as bamboo shoots and bracken in spring, and matsutake mushrooms in fall.

Subsequent years saw the skirts of the mountain undergo development and become a residential area. When the “dream town” project was first floated, along with the relocation of the Iwakuni Air Station’s runway, few residents raised objections, Yamanaka said.

“We were told the plan would include the construction of a new elementary school, which was something we’d always wanted,” he said. “We all thought the project was a good thing for our community.”

It was in July 2008 that 77-year-old Hiroshi Okamura — Yamanaka’s successor — founded a civic group calling for the preservation of Mount Atago.

The group has since organized a gathering three times a month outside the shrine, protesting over how the development project led to the establishment of facilities for the U.S. military personnel that weren’t in the original blueprint at all.

While the sports facility, for example, thrives on a clientele composed mostly of American servicemen, the shrine is nowhere near as prosperous, hit hard by the cancellation last spring of sumo matches — one of its most popular traditional events — due to the dwindling number of children eligible to participate.

“Mount Atago was not only a sacred religious place but also a hub of communication among residents. The whole area has to remain a place that caters to local residents first,” a resolute Okamura said ahead of the completion of the development work.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Dec. 15.

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