Letter bombs (4)
Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 14, 2010
THANKS TO RMILNER for sending another thoughtful note. He writes in his latest:
Too much Japanese government spending has been on useless assets such as concreting riverbeds, and bridges to no-where, which were done to justify the diversion of tax revenues to organisations which supported the LDP system — the amakudari bureaucracy, large building corporations and local government.
I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, but allow me to make two points to provide another perspective.
One: I’m not a civil engineer and know nothing about riparian works, but perhaps some of those concreted riverbeds really needed concreting, particularly in places like the city where I live. The people here call them rivers, but where I grew up, we’d call them creeks, and this town might as well be the Venice of creeks. We’ve just entered the rainy season, and there’s bound to be one, and maybe more, heavy rains that cause those rivers to overflow. I wonder–doesn’t that concrete prevent a lot of collapsed riverbanks?
Two: The spending may create useless assets now, but they might not have been so useless when the paradigm was developed by Tanaka Kakuei.
In 1972 he dictated a book called Nippon Retto Kaizo Ron (Building a New Japan), incorporating ideas from young bureaucrats and aides. The concept was to create a unified national infrastructure that would raise the living standards of the regional areas to the level of those in the big cities. As he explained it to one of those bureaucrats, “If you get drunk and pass out in Hibiya Park, an ambulance will come and take you to a hospital. If you did the same thing in Hokkaido, you’d freeze to death. The conditions of life are different depending on where you live. We have to eliminate that difference.”
A translator of my acquaintance has lived in Japan since the late 1960s, and he remembers unpaved streets in the Tokyo Metro District in those days.
Tanaka’s book was really a blueprint with an enormous number of new ideas for linking the country through highways, airports, and the Shinkansen. (In fact, he called for building more Shinkansen track than exists now, or will exist after the Kyushu leg opens next spring.) He proposed the creation of a telecommunications network that anticipated the Internet, as well as cable TV and videophones. He called it the unification of omote Japan with ura Japan (the front and the back). He also wanted to create rural/industrial cities of 250,000 people throughout the country. If they were attractive places to live and work, people wouldn’t concentrate in Tokyo, and it would help alleviate pollution and the other problems of unbalanced industrialization.
Some of the quasi-national corporations that became amakudari nests were created to implement those programs, and some had the ability to procure funds quickly on their own. He even encouraged what are called zokugiin (the legislator lobbyists), because he thought it would facilitate the national business if the legislators made themselves experts in the affairs of one of the ministries. In other words, there was a good reason for a lot of that stuff in the beginning.
His book was released in June and it wound up 4th on the best-seller lists that year. It even outsold a mass market sex manual called How To Sex, which wound up in 5th place.
The downside of all that has become obvious over the years, and it was just a matter of human nature for that downside to emerge. Nevertheless, an ambulance will pick you up if you pass out drunk in a Hokkaido park today and take you over paved streets to a fully equipped hospital with an Internet connection.
That it would be difficult to leave that old vision behind and take the next step is understandable (especially for the LDP). I’m certainly not going to make excuses for any of it, or for his money politics, but from what I can tell, a lot of it did happen with the best of intentions.
But if anyone who was around in those days thinks I’m off base, feel free to write in and set me straight!