Bureaucracy Kept Reins on Japanese End of Project

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more centuries than she can count, 81-year-old Saku Ishikawa's family has tilled its 25-acre farm in the gold and green valley of Ibaraki. Every spring, rice planting. Every fall, harvesting. Before the full moon, offerings of thanksgiving for an abundant crop. Except for the occasional typhoon or earthquake, the rhythm of life varied little.

Until one day this year, when Ishikawa looked out the window of her wooden farmhouse and saw a foreigner standing in the middle of her land.

He called himself Christo, and through an interpreter he told her he was an American artist and wanted to put giant umbrellas on her rice paddies.

"We didn't understand the meaning of it at all," Ishikawa confessed. "But it sounded interesting, and we wanted to cooperate, so why not?"

Christo calls his umbrella project, which is set to bloom in California and Japan on Tuesday, a contrast of cultures, communities and landscapes. Many of the differences are starkly evident in Jinba, a village of 3,000 at the northernmost point of the 12-mile valley through which Christo plans to open 1,340 blue umbrellas at dawn.

In California, Christo found in the Tejon Pass a dry golden vastness for a canvas, ranchers as landlords, legal contracts required as guarantees and a relaxed government bureaucracy.

But in Jinba and the rest of the Japanese site, the inland valley is green and varied. Christo's canvas here is crowded with fields, roads and wooden homes topped with charcoal gray tiles. The landowners are farmers--people such as Ishikawa, who say the countryside spirit of communal trust and cooperation is more important than legal guarantees.

And the Japanese bureaucracy is so formidable that it took four years, and an almost incomprehensible decision-making process that bounced from local to regional to national government and finally a committee of academics, before Christo could obtain all the permits. Indeed, the final permit was granted just weeks ago--after Christo had already invested millions of dollars on research, material and labor.

"We started off with a grand philosophical statement that this was a project of comparisons between Japan and California and that was what was interesting," said Henry Scott-Stokes, the project director in Japan. "But it almost got too interesting. In a way, it looked to Christo that he was being drawn into a maze in which there was no exit."

For his Japanese site, the Bulgarian-born artist chose an economically depressed rural valley 75 miles north of Tokyo. Farm income is dwindling. A growing number of young people are fleeing to major cities. The local income in the region is just 40% of Ibaraki prefecture's average.

But what the valley lacks in industry it offers in a rich and varied terrain. Although not spectacularly beautiful--Christo wanted a typical valley, not a tourist hot spot--the Ibaraki site is a mixture of emerald-forested hills, mountain rivers and streams, crisscrossing rural roads and a checkerboard of rice and wheat, vegetable and fruit fields.

Jinba is the most densely packed part of the route, with 80 umbrellas planted up a hill of tiny rice paddies and bright red blooms, stalls of cows and roosters.

On a recent Sunday, farmers in straw hats and rubber boots hustled to harvest their rice, hanging the shoots to dry on wooden racks. There was reason for the rush: Most of the umbrellas are to be planted in rice fields, and until the crop is harvested, Christo agreed not to proceed with the project.

For Christo, winning the farmers' cooperation was the easy part.

Unfettered by the fences that block off the California land, Christo was able to plunge a stake into the spots he wanted and approach the farmers directly. That straightforward, person-to-person appeal won him early trust from the farmers--and 451 of the 452 who were approached agreed to cooperate.

Most of the farmers are used to government dictates from the top down, and Christo's appeal from the bottom up impressed them, said Kanji Okoshi, 33, owner of the nearby Umakaro restaurant.

Christo himself said the Japanese were able to grasp the idea of his environmental art more easily than the Californians.

"To the Japanese mind, art is not only a painting on a wall, or a bronze sculpture, but also a flower arrangement and stones in a garden," Christo said during a recent trip to Japan where he strode the fields overseeing the installation of the towering poles wrapped in blue heavy-duty bags. "This is not the same with the cowboys in the West. The Japanese sensitivity to beauty and art is much broader."

To be sure, there was some initial grumbling among the villagers. Christo proposed planting steel bases in their fields a year in advance, and some farmers were worried that it would interfere with their planting and harvesting.

Others muttered that the meiwakuryo, or nuisance money that Christo paid (about $37 per base, in addition to the $75 per umbrella up to 10) was too small. And a few said they simply did not want to cooperate with a stranger, especially a foreigner, said Ishikawa's son, 52-year-old Takeshi.

But as Christo repeatedly returned, he eventually convinced most farmers of his sincerity.

"He's always smiling," said Ishikawa's wife, Noriko. "He has no sponsor, and he doesn't want to take any money, so what is the purpose? Eighty percent of us have no idea what this is about, but it makes us want to cooperate.

The bureaucrats, however, were another story. Scott-Stokes, who commanded the effort to obtain the permits, called the process a "torture of the damned."

The governor of Ibaraki gave his support to the project as early as June, 1987, and the prefectural office introduced Christo to a contractor and office staff. From that point, however, began what Christo's team perceived as nit-picking and untoward delays. From dithering over Christo's plan to use aluminum for poles, a material not covered in the local building codes, to an inability to get appointments with the right people, the team sensed it was being frozen out.

Using the time-honored tradition of personal relationships, the team hired a consultant who had attended the same university as a key prefectural official. But then the entire project was referred to Tokyo, where it bounced from the Ministry of Construction to the affiliated Building Center to a committee of three university professors to pass judgment on the safety of the design.

Eventually, the team had to agree to subject the umbrellas to a wind tunnel test to prove that they would withstand winds of 100 m.p.h. After NASA turned them down--the space agency's wind tunnels were booked solid--the team finally found an available wind tunnel in Ottawa, Canada.

The wind tunnel test proved their perseverance and good faith as much as their project's safety, and the Japanese Ministry of Construction issued the critical permit last October, three years after the overall process began.

For their part, local officials say they are unprepared for a project this size. The biggest event in the history of Satomi village, at the northern end of the site, was a local product fair that drew 15,000 people over three days. The umbrellas, however, may attract 800,000 tourists over three weeks.

Only a one-lane road meanders through the site, and the traffic control plan amounts to a shuttle bus and rentals of 100 bicycles. The city of Hitachiota also built 900 new parking spots and 100 portable toilets. But that won't even begin to absorb the 38,000 visitors per day who are expected.

Yoji Nemoto, a Hitachiota city official, said he is preparing for the worst, including criticism over what may be perceived as country-bumpkin planning. But, he sighed, "there is only so much we can do for a private project in a non-tourist area."

Still, the project is providing jobs to 500 temporary workers to open the umbrellas at dawn, plus others who have worked on the construction project from the beginning.

Partly in an effort to pinch pennies, however, Christo's Japanese contractor has hired women for about half of his work force and pays them 50% of what he pays the men for doing the same job--$60 per day for women, $120 per day for men. Asked about the discrepancy, the contractor smiled and said, "This is Japan."

Chiaki Kitada, research assistant in The Times' Tokyo bureau, contributed to this report.

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