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Environment : Golf Takes a Slice of Japan Family's Dream : A natural setting just an hour from Tokyo seemed an ideal place for a better life. But that was before the environmental controls were lifted and the golf courses were built.

June 05, 1990|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANNO, Japan — Suzuko Ishizaki and her family moved from the center of Tokyo to this rural town of 70,000, an hour's train ride from the capital, three years ago, searching for a better junior high school for her son.

She wanted a school in a natural setting, where the education would be more free-spirited than the Japanese urban norm, with its stress on cramming for next-level entrance exams. "My whole family was so happy when we got out of Tokyo and moved to Hanno because we thought we could finally live in an environment full of beautiful nature," she said.

But Ishizaki failed to consider the impact that Japan's golf craze would have on her dream.

At about the time that her family moved, a new law to promote resorts, sponsored by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), eased environmental regulations and provided tax advantages and low-interest loans for developers, who went on a golf course building spree.

There are now 1,694 golf courses in Japan, with 321 more under construction and 785 others awaiting permits.

In mountainous Hanno, there are six country clubs, two more are under construction and still another is planned. And if all goes according to developers' wishes, the nine golf courses, when completed, will occupy 6% of the region's land area.

They also will have destroyed much of Hanno's natural environment and polluted drinking water and a local river with pesticides and chemicals used to keep the courses in shape, according to Ishizuka, the leader of a group of residents who have filed an administrative appeal for arbitration against one of the clubs.

The Hanno suit was the first such official complaint. But at least 200 groups of local residents have launched campaigns throughout the country against pollution and destruction of nature by golf course developers. And the media have taken up the issue in campaign-style coverage.

Developers have been forced to scrap plans for 10 golf courses, and in February, Kumamoto prefecture (state) stopped accepting new applications for building permits for country clubs. Two months later, Chiba prefecture, which is Tokyo's neighbor to the east and the area of the country with the densest concentration of golf courses, banned the use of chemicals and pesticides on new links. It also "strongly requested" that existing courses cut their use of chemicals by 30%.

On June 1, the national Environmental Agency issued guidelines to force golf course builders to preserve nature and wildlife. They take effect July 1. Hideki Minamikawa, of the agency's planning coordination section, said the guidelines provide for fines and criminal penalties for violators.

"It takes 100 hectares to build a golf course, about half of which is lawn (greens and fairways)," Minamikawa said. "With 100 new courses going into operation every year, that means 5,000 hectares of forest are being destroyed--at the same time Japan is urging developing nations to preserve their forestry."

After initially contending that chemicals were not endangering human life, the agency set limits for the discharge of 21 chemicals from country clubs. It promised to give "guidance" to country clubs that exceed any of the limits but fixed no fines or criminal penalties.

Yoko Nakamura, an agricultural chemicals expert at the Environmental Agency, said that after the resort promotion law went into effect in 1987, developers started constructing golf courses on mountaintops and plateaus--above sources of water. Before then, most golf courses had been built in lowlands, where runoff was not as great a problem.

Debate continues over how serious the problem may be.

"Developers are destroying nature and creating concerns of water pollution," said Nakamura. But she added that a survey the agency asked prefectural governments to conduct in 1988 showed no evidence that water pollution threatens humans.

"If a chemical is registered with the Agriculture Ministry, there is no danger in its use by golf courses," Toshiaki Hosoda, the agency's agricultural chemicals section chief, said.

Whether based on fear or fact, citizens groups such as Ishizaki's dispute this contention. And their protests parallel a rising consumer movement against the use of agricultural chemicals on farm products.

Toshie Hanaoka, an active member of the Hanno protesters' group, said one of her acquaintances discovered that "the water in her well suddenly turned white" after construction began on a golf course near her home. The well later dried up, she said.

In 1988, people in Nara prefecture discovered a poisonous chemical in water flowing from a drainage pipe at one golf course. NHK, the semi-governmental radio and TV network, reported that golf course chemicals had killed fish in Hokkaido. Some golf courses, the network said, use 1.5 tons of chemicals and pesticides a year.

Despite the problems, Japan's anti-golf course environmentalists are taking on a difficult issue.

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