A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan.
In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan's recent, and chronic, crises -- from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema. He is the first to give a full report on the nation's endangered environment -- its seashores lined with concrete, its roads leading to nowhere in the mountains -- as well as its "monument frenzy," the destruction of old cities such as Kyoto and construction of drab new ones, and the attendant collapse of its tourist industry. Kerr writes with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story. Millions of Japanese feel as heartbroken at what is going on as I do. My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this -- for us.'"
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Alex Kerr, educated at Yale, Oxford, and Keio Universities, is the author of many monographs and articles in both Japanese and English. He now lives in Bangkok.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dogs and Demons
I The Land The Construction State Our country, as a special mark of favor from the heavenly gods, was begotten by them, and there is thus so immense a difference between Japan and all the other countries of the world as to defy comparison. Ours is a splendid and blessed country, the Land of the Gods beyond any doubt. --HIRATA ATSUTANE (1776-1843)
Writers on Japan today mostly concern themselves with its banks and export manufacturing. But in the greater scheme of things, for a wealthy nation does it really matter so much if its GNP drops a few percentage points or the banks falter for a few years? The Tang dynasty poet Du Fu wrote, "Though the nation perishes, the mountains and rivers remain." Long before Japan had banks, there existed a green archipelago of a thousand islands, where clear mountain springs tumbled over mossy stones and waves crashed along coves and peninsulas lined with fantastic rocks. Such were the themes treasured in haiku, bonsai and flower arrangements, screen paintings, tea ceremony, and Zen--that is, everything that defined Japan's traditional culture. Reverence for the land lies at the very core of Shintoism, thenative religion, which holds that Japan's mountains, rivers, and trees are sacred, the dwelling place of gods. So in taking stock of where Japan is today, it is good to set economics aside for a moment and take a look at the land itself. When we do, we see this: Japan has become arguably the world's ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto's temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assertion. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste. Similar observations can be made about many other modern nations, of course. But what is happening in Japan far surpasses anything attempted in the rest of the world. We are seeing something genuinely different here. The nation prospers, but the mountains and rivers are in mortal danger, and in their fate lies a story--one that heretofore has been almost entirely passed over by the foreign media.
H. P. Lovecraft, describing a creepy New England hamlet doomed to be the setting for one of his horror stories, would say, "On viewing such a scene, who can resist an unutterable thrill of ghastliness?" For a modern traveler seeking something of that Lovecraftian thrill, nothing would do better than a trip to Japan's countryside. During the past fifty-five years of its great economic growth, Japan has drastically altered its natural environment in ways that are almost unimaginable to someone who has not traveled here. In the spring of 1996, the Japan Society invited Robert MacNeil, the retired co-anchor of The MacNeil/Lehrer News-Hour,for a month's stay in Japan. Later, in a speech presented at the Japan Society in New York, MacNeil said that he was "confused" about what he saw, "dismayed by the unrelieved banality of the [800-kilometer] stretch from Hiroshima to Tokyo ... the formless, brutal, utilitarian jumble, unplanned, with tunnels easier on the eyes." Across the nation, men and women are at work reshaping the landscape. Work crews transform tiny streams just a meter across into deep chutes slicing through slabs of concrete ten meters wide and more. Builders of small mountain roads dynamite entire hillsides. Civil engineers channel rivers into U-shaped concrete casings that do away not only with the rivers' banks but with their beds. The River Bureau has dammed or diverted all but three of Japan's 113 major rivers. The contrast with other advanced industrial nations is stark. Aware of the high environmental cost, the United States has decided in principle not to build any more dams, and has even started removing many that the Army Corps of Engineers constructed years ago. Since 1990 more than 70 major dams have fallen across America, and dozens more are scheduled to be dismantled. Meanwhile, Japan's Construction Ministry plans to add 500 new dams to the more than 2,800 that have already been built. To see at close hand how the construction frenzy affects one small mountain village, let us take a short journey to Iya Valley, a picturesque fastness of canyons and peaks in the center of the southern island of Shikoku. When I bought an old thatch-roofed farmhouse in Iya in 1971, people considered this region so remote that they called it the Tibet of Japan. Villagers subsisted on crops such as buckwheat and tobacco, as well as forestry. Over the next twenty-five years, young people fled Iya for the prosperous cities, and local agriculture collapsed. With itsdramatic landscape and a romantic history going back to the civil wars of the twelfth century, Iya had a golden opportunity to revive its local economy with tourism and resorts in the 1980s. Yet in a pattern that repeats itself in countless regions across Japan, Iya failed to develop this potential. The reason was that the village suddenly found itself awash with cash: money that flowed from building dams and roads, paid for by a national policy to prop up rural economies by subsidizing civil-engineering works. Beginning in the 1960s, a tidal wave of construction money crashed over Iya, sweeping away every other industry. By 1997, my neighbors had all become construction workers. Most foreigners and even many Japanese harbor a pleasing fantasy of life in the Japanese village. While driving past quaint farmhouses or perusing lovely photographs of rice paddies, it's tempting to imagine what bucolic country life must be: oneness with the seasons, the yearly round of planting and harvesting, and so forth. However, when you actually live in the countryside you soon learn that the uniform of the Japanese farmer is no longer a straw raincoat and a hoe but a hard hat and a cement shovel. In 1972, for example, my neighbor Mrs. Omo farmed tea, potatoes, corn, cucumbers, and mulberry for silkworms. In 2000, her fields lie fallow as she dons her hard hat every day to commute by van to construction sites, where her job is to scrape aluminum molds for concrete used to build retaining walls. In Iya Valley, it makes no sense to ask someone, "What line of work are you in?" Everyone lives off doboku, "construction." More than 90 percent of all the money flowing into Iya now comes from road- and dam-building projects funded by the Construction, Transport, and Agriculture ministries. This means that no environmental initiative can possibly make headway, forIya has become addicted to dams and roads. Stop building them, and Mrs. Omo and most of the other villagers are out of work. Without the daily pouring of concrete, the village dies. The most remarkable paradox is that Iya doesn't need these roads and dams; it builds them only because it must spend the construction subsidies or lose the money. After decades of building to no particular purpose, the legacy is visible everywhere, with hardly a single hillside standing free of giant slabs of cement built to prevent "landslide damage," even though many of these are located miles from any human habitation. Forestry roads honeycomb the mountains, though the forestry industry collapsed thirty years ago. Concrete embankments line Iya River and most of its tributaries, whose beds run dry a large part of the year because of the numerous dams siphoning water to electric power plants. The future? Although traffic is so sparse in Iya that in some places spiderwebs grow across the roads, the prefectural government devoted the 1990s to blasting a highway right through the cliffs lining the upper half of the valley, concreting over the few scenic corners that are left. If this is what happened to the "Tibet of Japan," one can well imagine the fate that has befallen more accessible rural areas. To support the construction industry, the government annually pours hundreds of billions of dollars into civil-engineering projects--dams, seashore- and river-erosion control, flood control, road building, and the like. Dozens of government agencies owe their existence solely to thinking up new ways of sculpting the earth. Planned spending on public works for the decade 1995-2005 will come to an astronomical ¥630 trillion (about $6.2 trillion), three to four times more than what the United States, with twenty times the land area and more than double the population, will spend on public construction in thesame period. In this respect, Japan has become a huge social-welfare state, channeling hundreds of billions of dollars through public works to low-skilled workers every year. It is not only the rivers and valleys that have suffered. The seaside reveals the greatest tragedy: by 1993, 55 percent of the entire coast of Japan had been lined with cement slabs and giant concrete tetrapods. An article in a December 1994 issue of the popular weekly Shukan Post illustrated a ravaged coastline in Okinawa, commenting, "The seashore has hardened into concrete, and the scenery of unending gray tetrapods piled on top of one another is what you can see everywhere in Japan. It has changed into something irritating and ordinary. When you look at this seashore, you can't tell whether it is the coast of Shonan, the coast of Chiba, or the coast of Okinawa." Tetrapods may be an unfamiliar word to readers who have not visited Japan and seen them lined up by the hundreds along bays and beaches. They look like oversize jacks with four concrete legs, some weighing as much as fifty tons. Tetrapods, which are supposed to retard beach erosion, are big business. So profitable are they to bureaucrats that three different ministries--of Transport, of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and of Construction--annually spend ¥500 billion each, sprinkling tetrapods along the coast, like three giants throwing jacks, with the shore as their playing board. These projects are mostly unnecessary or worse than unnecessary. It turns out that wave action on tetrapods wears the sand away faster and causes greater erosion than would be the case if the beaches had been left alone. It took some decades for this lesson to sink in, but in the 1980s American states, beginning with Maine, began one by one to prohibit the hard stabilization of the shoreline; in 1988, South Carolina mandated not only a halt to new construction but removal of all existing armoring within forty years. InJapan, however, armoring of the seacoasts is increasing. It's a dynamic we shall observe in many different fields: destructive policies put in motion in the 1950s and 1960s are like unstoppable tanks, moving forward regardless of expense, damage, or need. By the end of the century, the 55 percent of shoreline that had been encased in concrete had risen to 60 percent or more. That means hundreds of miles more of shoreline destroyed. Nobody in their right mind can honestly believe that Japan's seacoasts began eroding so fast and so suddenly that the government needed to cement over 60 percent of them. Obviously, something has gone wrong. The ravaging of the Japanese countryside--what the writer Alan Booth has called "state-sponsored vandalism"--is not taking place because of mere neglect. "State-sponsored vandalism" is the inexorable result of a systemic addiction to construction. This dependence is one of Japan's separate realities, setting it apart from every other country on earth. At ¥80 trillion, the construction market in Japan is the largest in the world. Strange that in the dozens of books written about the Japanese economy in the past decades, it is hard to find even a paragraph pointing out the extent to which it depends on construction. And even fewer observers seem to have noticed the most interesting twist: that from an economic point of view the majority of the civil-engineering works do not address real needs. All those dams and bridges are built by the bureaucracy, for the bureaucracy, at public expense. Foreign experts may be fascinated by Sony and Mitsubishi, but construction is not a sexy topic for them, and they have largely ignored it. Here are the statistics: In the early 1990s, construction investment overall in Japan consumed 18.2 percent of the gross national product, versus 12.4 percent in the United Kingdom and only 8.5 percent in the United States. Japan spent about 8 percent of its GDP on public works (versus 2 percent in theUnited States--proportionally four times more). By 2000 it was estimated that Japan was spending about 9 percent of its GDP on public works (versus only 1 percent in the United States): in a decade, the share of GDP devoted to public works had risen to nearly ten times that of the United States. What these numbers tell us is that the construction market is drastically out of line with that of other developed countries. The situation is completely artificial, for government subsidy, not real infrastructure needs, has bloated the industry to its present size. The construction industry here is so powerful that Japanese commentators often describe their country as doken kokka, a "construction state." The colossal subsidies flowing to construction mean that the combined national budget devotes an astounding 40 percent of expenditures to public works (versus 8 to 10 percent in the United States and 4 to 6 percent in Britain and France). Public works have mushroomed in Japan because they are so profitable to the people in charge. Bid-rigging and handouts are standard practices that feed hundreds of millions of dollars to the major political parties. A good percentage (traditionally about 1 to 3 percent of the budget of each public project) goes to the politicians who arrange it. In 1993, when Kanemaru Shin, a leader of the Construction Ministry supporters in the National Diet, was arrested during a series of bribery scandals, investigators found that he had garnered nearly $50 million in contributions from construction firms. Construction Ministry bureaucrats share in the takings at various levels: in office, they skim profits through agencies they own, and to which they award lucrative contracts with no bidding; after retirement, they take up sinecures in private firms whose pay packages to ex-bureaucrats can amount to millions of dollars. The system works like this: the River Bureau of the Construction Ministry builds a dam, then hands its operationover to an agency called the Water Resources Public Corporation (WRPC), many of whose directors are retired officials of the River Bureau. The WRPC, in turn, with no open bidding, subcontracts the work to a company called Friends of the Rivers, a very profitable arrangement for the WRPC's directors, since they own 90 percent of the company's stock. Hence the ever-growing appetite at the River Bureau for more dam contracts. When it comes to road building, the four public corporations concerned with highways annually award 80 percent of all contracts to a small group of companies managed by bureaucrats who once worked in these corporations. Similar cozy arrangements exist in every other ministry. Thus, with the full force of politicians and bureaucracy behind it, the construction industry has grown and grown: by 1998 it employed 6.9 million people, more than 10 percent of Japan's workforce--and more than double the relative numbers in the United States and Europe. Experts estimate that as many as one in five jobs in Japan depends on con...
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