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Japan discovers the power of grass-roots movements

December 29, 1996

MITAKE, Japan (AP) _ Like other out-of-the-way, easy-going places in Japan, Mitake rarely saw its 20,000 residents challenge authority.

But that was before its outspoken mayor tried to keep an industrial waste disposal facility out of the former mining town, and he was nearly murdered by thugs in his apartment building.

No arrests have been made, but police suspect organized crime in the Oct. 30 bludgeoning of Mayor Yoshiro Yanagawa, including gangs who stood to profit from the waste plant.

The crime prompted Mitake to take an unusual step: to schedule a referendum giving voters a chance to demand that the state government reverse its approval of the facility.

``We never believed they would resort to this,″ Takako Okamoto, 42, a housewife, said of the ambush on Yanagawa. ``But now my determination is stronger than ever.″

Mitake, 170 miles west of Tokyo, is one of several communities in Japan that are turning to referendums to present their demands to the government.

Although the referendums aren’t binding, they are winning praise nationwide as striking examples of grass-roots action in the face of a political system that tends to demand respectful compliance from citizens.

Earlier this year, residents of the northwestern town of Maki voted ``No″ to a planned nuclear power plant. Okinawans used a referendum to demand a reduction of the U.S. military bases on their southern islands.

``What frightened me was that no one would be able to speak up after the mayor got attacked,″ said Tamotsu Tanaka, 59, a businessman who pushed for the Mitake referendum. ``This may be a hick town. But the flame of democracy hasn’t died here yet.″

Within a week of the assault, Tanaka and other volunteers had collected 1,151 signatures, far more than the 303 required by law for the referendum. It must be held before June, and it will ask whether the village residents want the facility.

``There is no other way they can have their voice heard,″ said Jun-Ichi Kyogoku, honorary professor of political science at Tokyo University.

Yanagawa, 63, the mayor, is also sticking to his stand. Hospitalized for 40 days, he returned to work Dec. 9. Surgical scars still show on his head, and his arm is delicately bandaged in a sling.

``To try to defeat someone through violence is unforgivable,″ Yanagawa said in an apartment he is using as an office as he recuperates. ``I may have been hurt physically, but they haven’t done a bit of harm to my spirit.″

Ganpachi Suzuki, spokesman for Toshiwa Kogyo, the company proposing the plant, denied any involvement in the attack.

Planned for construction by a river that provides drinking water to several million people, the plant will collect rubber, plastic, wood scraps and other industrial waste from major manufacturers across the nation.

Opponents fear it will cause air and water pollution.

Since 1991, Toshiwa Kogyo has invested millions of dollars to move a dozen homes from the site. The company has also promised Mitake $31 million _ about half Mitake’s annual budget _ over 15 years in compensation.

Trouble for the project began after Yanagawa, a former TV journalist, was elected mayor in Mitake last year on a platform of open government.

He ended the secrecy that traditionally surrounded the town assembly. What surfaced were records showing that the previous administration had secretly given its support to the waste project.

The project became the top issue in a local election that sent 12 new members, all of whom questioned the plan, to the 18-member village assembly.

Subsequently, several newsletters published by right-wing extremists began running articles accusing Yanagawa of foolishly banning a profitable project.

Thugs began showing up at residents’ meetings, and a rabbit’s severed foot was left at the gate of a Buddhist temple where residents had met.

Some people received silent phone calls. By the end of August, a recording of conversations Yanagawa had on his home phone turned up. An acquaintance found a wiretapping bug on his line.

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