Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1988, Thursday

COLUMN ONE 

Coral Reef Imperiled
Airport Row Splits People of Idyllic Isle

By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer

SHIRAHO, Japan -- The men from the local post office put up a good fight, but they were no match for the fishermen's wives paddling furiously across the finish line to the frenzied beat of gongs and drums.

It was the first time in village history that a women's team had ever competed in haarii, or the dragon boat races, traditionally held during the annual Sea God Festival in the southern Ryukyu Islands. But nobody seemed to mind the unorthodox twist, shrugging off an ancient taboo that once kept women out of boats. Nor did it seem out of line when the festival assumed the shrill tone of a political rally.

"Crush the new airport!" several of the women rowers screamed into a microphone as they stepped forward to accept prizes of rice and salad oil. "Never give up!"
 
Would Fill In a Lagoon

In this small village on Ishigaki Island, about 275 miles southwest of the principal Ryukyu island of Okinawa and 150 miles east of Taiwan, celebrating the sea has become synonymous with attacking the government's proposal to build a landfill airport in a nearby lagoon.

What started nine years ago as a knee-jerk reaction to nuisance and noise gradually became a contentious environmental battle that has split Shiraho into two feuding factions and drawn outrage from conservationists around the world.

The new airport has come to symbolize the showdown between environmental protection and development in Japan, a country with a rich aesthetic tradition of appreciating nature but an impoverished concept of reconciling public works with fragile ecosystems.

In Japan's drive for state-of-the-art civilization, forests are flattened, rivers are paved and entire coastlines are sealed off behind concrete seawalls.

Nowhere is the problem more urgent, critics say, than in the Ryukyu Islands, where intense development is ruining the subtropical paradise that government planners count on to draw more tourists and help the economy.

Opponents of the Ishigaki airport say construction will destroy the coral reef that keeps these waters jumping with fish and provides an essential pillar of village life.

"There's no place like that lagoon for fish," said Matsu Miyara, 87, a dairy and sugar-cane farmer and part-time fisherman who recalls the old days when villagers used primitive stone fences to trap fish in the receding tides. "Even if you don't have any money, you can make a living by going out in the sea to gather fish or seaweed."

Miyara sat on a folding chair among about 500 other spectators under a long row of white tents on the coral beach, shaded from the intense morning sun. The villagers sipped awamori, Okinawa's pungent rice whiskey, and nibbled on broiled horse meat as they cheered for the dragon boat teams.

The horse meat was another unusual touch in the Sea God Festival.

"Ordinarily, we'd offer something from the sea," said Toshio Shimoji, No. 2 man in the Shiraho Fishery Assn. "But everybody was too busy fighting the airport this year to make preparations."
 
Fear Militarization

The protesters allege that the development is linked to secret plans to militarize this 86-square-mile island, and they say the runway at the existing airport could easily be extended to accommodate more tourists on larger passenger jets.

But their most effective weapon has been a rare colony of blue coral, or heliopora coerulea, which has thrived on the reef for hundreds of years and has become a cause celebre for conservationists.

The Geneva-based International Union for Conservation of Nature is the most recent organization to get involved, following the lead of the Cousteau Society and the World Wildlife Fund. The International Union studied the reef and the blue coral late last year and has since urged the Japanese government to halt the $241-million project, saying it would endanger marine life without offering real benefits to the islanders.

Shiraho's coral reef is especially precious because it has been spared -- some say miraculously -- the devastating effects of soil erosion and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation that has killed an estimated 90% of the coral reefs in Okinawa prefecture, or state.
 
An 'International Shame'

"In the beginning, the airport was an issue of local egoism," said Jun Ui, an ecologist at Okinawa University and long-time adversary of industrial pollution in Japan. "But gradually it became a matter of national importance -- and international shame."

Last month, the fight at Shiraho reached a turning point when officials of Okinawa prefecture finished collecting information for an environmental assessment that will determine the fate of the reef.

The 43,000 residents of Ishigaki Island had their last opportunity to attach opinions to the report on June 13. Altogether, 427 people submitted statements against and 197 in favor of building the airport, which officials say must be built in Shiraho lagoon because of the lack of a suitable alternative site on the island. The prefecture received another 3,718 negative comments from people outside Ishigaki.

Conservationists opposing the plan have challenged the scientific integrity of the assessment, saying it contradicts itself in describing the undersea habitat, undercounts the number of coral species and fish and inadequately examines the effects of changed currents and siltation on the 1.8-mile reef.
 
Effect on Coral Uncertain

Too little is known, the opponents say, about the effects of construction on the unique blue coral colonies, which the International Union describes as the oldest and largest of their kind in the world. The blue coral stands a few thousand feet from the southern perimeter of the proposed airstrip, beneath the path of a string of landing lights.

Unless the central government's environmental agency intervenes, the prefecture will soon apply for and receive a landfill permit from the Construction Ministry. Work must begin by March to take advantage of government appropriations held over, for the third time, through the current budget year.

The environmental agency had reservations at first but was mollified by a decision last August to shorten the planned 8,250-foot runway by 1,650 feet, thus increasing its distance from the blue coral. Prefectural officials cannot recall when an environmental assessment resulted in the canceling of a major public works project.
 
Says Decision Made

"It's already been decided to build the airport -- we won't touch upon that premise," said Nobuo Oshiro, chief of the prefectural environmental protection section, which will prepare the final draft of the assessment for submission to the environmental agency later this month. "Our job is to recommend how to build it without harming the environment."

Masao Higashikabira, who retired as the principal of Shiraho Middle School in March and is next in line to become chief of the Shiraho Village Council, scoffs at the prefecture's purported aim of protecting the reef.

"Their assessment is a mere formality," he said. "Japanese are spiritually impoverished when it comes to the destruction of nature, and it shows up in our environmental protection laws."
 
Critics See Pork Barrel

To its critics, the project is pure pork barrel and unnecessary, because the runway at the existing airport in Ishigaki City could easily be extended to accommodate larger jets carrying tourists on direct flights from Tokyo. That option is not being considered, they say, because there would be far less money involved.

Public opinion within Shiraho is a tale of two villages. Airport opponents say they have about 90% of Shiraho's approximately 2,000 residents behind them. Ishigaki City officials, however, keep a colored map of Shiraho, with anti-airport households in pink and pro-airport homes in yellow; they say 85% of the village is in silent agreement with most of the rest of the island that the airport should be built, and soon.

Supporters of the proposed airport broke away from their militant neighbors three years ago to form a rival political body -- the Shiraho First Village Council, which centers on the Yonemori clan, owners of a nearby quarry and concrete company.
 
'We Have to Be Realistic'

"I think we should try to protect the coral, but we have to be realistic," said Hiroaki Yonemori, general affairs manager for Yonemori Construction Materials Co. and nephew of the pro-airport village chief.

"We're a poor island. There's no way we can catch up to the rest of Japan unless we develop our resources, and tourism is the only resource we have. The pineapple industry is depressed, and sugar-cane farming exists only because of government price supports," Yonemori said. "We have no choice but to compromise a little on the environment."

Yonemori concedes that his company stands to benefit from the project, but only deservingly.

"We'd better get a contract after what we've been through, all the sacrifices we've made," he said. "We have relatives on the anti-airport side, and family affairs have really been strained. There's a lot of unpleasantness in this."

A divided Shiraho has held two separate harvest festivals, the community's most important rite, every July since the "First" village council was established.
 
A Recent Tradition

The Sea God Festival, to which pro-airport villagers were not invited, is a relatively recent tradition in Shiraho. It has been observed here only intermittently over the last 30 years although it has a 400-year history on the main Ryukyu island of Okinawa, where it was introduced by Chinese immigrants.

Some villagers suggest the haarii races were brought to Shiraho after World War II by immigrants from other islands, particularly Miyako and Tarama, whose natives are sometimes subject to discrimination in Okinawan society. These same settlers make up the core of the Shiraho Fishery Assn., having turned to the sea for their livelihood here because they owned no land to till.

It was these men who made a profession of fishing, which had previously been a part-time occupation aimed at supplementing the diet. At first the trade remained tied to a local barter economy, but during the last 16 years, fishing on the Shiraho reef has generated cash, with refrigerated products going to market in Ishigaki City. One fisherman said he now takes home about $1,400 in a good month.
 
Coral Impressed American

The local fishermen were not the first to raise concerns about the environment. That was Katherine Muzik, an American marine biologist who went for a dive on the Shiraho reef in 1982 and was stunned by the abundance and diversity of coral species, including an extraordinarily healthy colony of blue coral.

Protesters credit Muzik with first alerting them to the scientific treasures of the reef. Others blame her for dredging up coral as a political weapon to fight the airport.

"We told her to stay out of politics, that the airport was a political problem that has nothing to do with coral," said Shohei Shirai, a self-proclaimed authority on coral who operates a marine laboratory and tropical museum on the north shore of Ishigaki Island. "She wouldn't listen."

Muzik eventually became one of the most outspoken critics of the airport plan, attracting the attention of other foreign scientists.
 
Ecologist Studied Reef

In 1984, Richard Murphy, marine ecologist for the Cousteau Society, studied the reef and gained widespread publicity with a report urging that further research be done before the project go forward. Several conservation-minded members of the Japanese Parliament came to Shiraho later that year to see for themselves, and an environmental controversy was born.

Ishigaki Mayor Eiro Uchihara soon got into the act, hiring Shirai and two foreign ecologists in 1985 to study the reef environments all around the island, apparently with the aim of showing that the coral at Shiraho was not all that special. The two, an Australian and an East German, later repudiated the study after an acrimonious falling out with their Japanese hosts.
 
Credentials Questioned

Questions have arisen, meanwhile, about Shirai's scientific credentials, which could reflect on the reliability of the government's environmental assessment.

The latest draft of the report is largely based on data gathered by a Tokyo marine consulting company in 1984 and 1987. But Shirai's disputed 1985 reef study, along with unpublished research on the Shiraho blue coral that he conducted for the prefecture in 1986, also have been incorporated in the report, officials confirmed.

Shirai identifies himself as a "doctor of science" based on a degree he obtained in 1978 from Pacific Western University, a correspondence college in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The school is state-authorized but not accredited by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

"If I'm a phony it's because I got my degree at a phony university -- and it's the California law that approved them that's to blame," Shirai, author of 51 books on marine animals, pearls and Okinawan orchids, said in an interview at his Institute for Development of Pacific Natural Resources. "I've never identified myself as a scholar."
 
Thinks Reef Can Survive

Shirai has concluded that the reef at Shiraho is "extremely unique and should be protected" but that construction of the airport will not totally destroy it. He suggests using cranes to transplant the micro-atolls -- tiny islets of coral -- that would be paved over by landfill and tarmac.

"I can't say definitely how much (coral) will survive," he said, "but based on my experience, I'd say it won't be a total loss."

Muzik, the American marine biologist, says Shirai and government officials are distorting the truth.

"I'm not saying they're right or wrong; I'm just saying there isn't adequate research to go ahead with this kind of development," she said. "It's not just an airport on one last reef; it's the whole process of blitzing their natural resources beyond repair."
 
Way of Life an Issue

The issue is also about a disappearing way of island life -- conservative, slow and traditional -- that airport protesters hope to salvage from the inexorable push of civilization.

"The Shiraho problem is the problem of how coral fits into our lives and what our obligations are to preserve its role," said Setsuko Yamazato, 50, an Ishigaki textile artist who moved to the village to help lead the anti-airport movement.

"We're losing something with all the conveniences and pressures of contemporary society," Yamazato said. "We're forgetting about the pure things, the real things."

GRAPHIC: Photo, Trouble in paradise -- A proposal to build a landfill airport on the Japanese island of Ishigaki has stirred environmental opposition. Rare blue coral, shown above in underwater photo, would face destruction. ; Photo, R.C. MURPHY / Cousteau Society ; Photo, At right, Setsuko Yamazato, a leader of the opponents of the airfield. ; Photo, KARL SCHOENBERGER / Los Angeles Times ; Map, Japanese Island of Ishigaki, MICHELEEN GARRETT / Los Angeles Times