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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Looks Seaward for Airport Turf

NAGOYA, Japan -- In land-hungry Japan, this central city's airport quandary is all too familiar.

The existing airport can't be expanded; it's in the middle of crowded suburbs. A drained marsh area seems an obvious choice -- obviously wrong, that is, to nearby residents who fear the noise.

So the city, Japan's third-largest, has decided it wants a new airport in the middle of the sea, a project involving 50 million cubic meters of dirt and something like 800 billion yen ($7.5 billion).

Welcome to the club, Nagoya.

It may take decades, but Japan is dotting its seas with an archipelago of airport islands. Already Osaka, Japan's No. 2 city, has its 1.5 trillion yen airport on a man-made island, opened in September 1994.

Nagoya hopes to complete its island airport by 2005. The country's fourth-largest city, Fukuoka, is drawing up similar plans.

And in Tokyo, visionaries have floated the idea of a giant airport in Tokyo Bay that would solve the capital's airport problem once and for all.

"In Japan, there's no land. Airports in the sea are the only choice," says Natsuo Shirai, a researcher at the official foundation pushing for a new Nagoya airport.

The trend of building on water goes back to the disastrous experience of Tokyo's international airport. The capital's high density forced the government back in the 1960s to build the airport at Narita, a farming town 65 kilometers from the city center.

Local opponents staged violent protests and delayed the airport's opening until 1978, and even today, nearly 20 years later, a few holdout farmers have prevented the government from building a badly needed second runway. Getting to the airport takes a minimum of an hour by train, or a 20,000 yen taxi ride.

Other cities got the message loud and clear: if an airport site looks like trouble, forget it.

Problem is, airports still need to be built. Last year 15.5 million passengers departed Japan, and the figure is expected to rise to 20 million by 2000. In Asia, an international survey projects annual growth of 7 percent through 2010, boosted by new airports in South Korea and Hong Kong.

The airport that serves the Nagoya region, home to auto giant Toyota Motor Co., had 3.5 million international passengers last year, 10 times the figure a decade ago.

And Nagoya still needs more capacity. When Nagoya housewife Ritsuko Sugiura went on vacation in New York last year she had to fly from Tokyo, since Nagoya doesn't have any direct flights to New York -- which meant she had to spend three hours on two trains.

But building a airport on landfill in the sea is a daunting proposition. As Osaka can testify, the engineering problems have yet to be fully solved: The airport there was found to be in danger of sinking halfway through construction and had to be supported with a complex system of hydraulic jacks. (Nagoya insists the seabed at its Tokoname Bay site is firmer than Osaka Bay's.)

Then there's the cost. The Denver International Airport in the United States, opened in 1995, went way over budget but still cost $4.9 billion for five runways. Nagoya is building just one runway to start, at an estimated cost of 800 billion yen ($7.5 billion).

That could be a boon for companies in the United States and Europe, whose governments are already pushing Japan to ensure that foreigners get a fair chance at Nagoya airport contracts.

Japan's central government is less happy. While it is expected to foot only 20 percent of the bill -- local businesses and bank loans would cover the rest -- even that is a stretch at a time when the nation's budget deficit is ballooning.