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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

HARD LANDING

Tokyo should re-open Haneda airport to international flights


TOO OFTEN, TOKYO MAKES a lousy first impression. It probably has to do with the way most people get introduced to it. Narita international airport is far from downtown. The traveler stumbles bleary-eyed into the crowded arrival hall, only to face another two- to four-hour journey either by bus or train (a taxi ride would bankrupt an Arab prince) into the city. If the visitor wants to make connections elsewhere in Japan, it is a 3-hour transit to Tokyo's domestic airport.

Remarkably, one of the world's key airports, which handles 25 million passengers a year, still has just one runway. More than 20 years after Narita opened, diehard farmers refuse to sell their tiny parcels of land, strategically sited across the proposed path for a second runway. Japan's weak eminent-domain laws discourage a government takeover. The country's leftist fringe has long championed the farmers, sometimes violently. That is why Narita sometimes resembles a fortress.

Tokyo should look to its other airport, Haneda, for a solution. Located only 20 minutes by monorail from downtown, the facility used to be Japan's main international airport - until transport authorities decided to build one in the countryside. Today Haneda handles domestic traffic, yet it could be reconverted for international flights. After all, it served that function well into the era of the jumbo jet, so there are no real physical constraints. It even has three runways.

More international-minded candidates raised the issue during Tokyo's recent gubernatorial election. One was former foreign minister Kakizawa Koji, who once organized a charter flight from Haneda to Hawaii to promote re-internationalization of the portal. That the issue did not catch fire with voters - most of whom do not worry much about international flights - does not negate the notion.

Tokyo's new governor, Ishihara Shintaro, has his own idea about easing airport congestion in the city. He wants the United States to return Yokota Air Force base in the far western suburbs or convert it to partial civilian use. But local residents worry about the noise that a busier civilian airport would produce. Nor would the idea hold much appeal for passengers wanting to get into Tokyo. Indeed, Yokota's remoteness and lack of adequate transportation links might even make travelers nostalgic for Narita.

Foreign aviation circles have been pushing to re-internationalize Haneda, with some success. Since March 1998, it has been open to private flights, though at present only a few international ones are allowed customs clearance. Others have to land at Narita, clear customs and then fly to Haneda. Talks are underway to establish full immigration and customs services. The next logical move would be to provide the same for commercial charters and then for regularly scheduled international flights.

In the modern age, a nation's airport is like its front parlor, giving visitors their first impressions. Japan, a key player in world affairs, should be more mindful of that. It also needs to make its airports more user-friendly and competitive, given the world-class facilities sprouting in the region. In 2002, Japan will co-host with South Korea the football World Cup. Seoul will have a new airport by then. An excellent goal would be to fully open Haneda to international flights too.


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