Japan from the inside out

Does the rubber meet the road with the DPJ platform?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ONE SALUTARY EFFECT emerging from the real possibility that the opposition will take control of the Japanese government after next month’s election is the greater scrutiny given to the parties’ political platforms than has been the case in the past. That is particularly true for the platform of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which critics claim involves some serious book cooking.

Attention so far has been focused on the party’s child-rearing subsidy, but some are also looking at their plan to eliminate the tolls on the nation’s expressways and make their use free of charge.

Here are some recent comments:

First, Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at a press conference after a recent Cabinet meeting:

“(If they make the expressways toll-free), it will require that we triple our budget for roads. The party says they will reduce wasteful spending on public works projects, but how are they going to do that by tripling the amount spent on roads?”

From the vernacular edition of the Asahi Shimbun:

“(The party) intends to implement two “eye-catching policies” next fiscal year: eliminating the tolls on expressways and the surcharge for gasoline taxes. These are expected to cost about JPY 7 trillion (about $US 736 million) a year. It is not clear at present whether they will really be able to obtain the funds (to make up for this loss) for the overall budget.”

From a press conference with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo:

The plank about eliminating the tolls on expressways was placed under the category of regional sovereignty, but I don’t understand the connection.

From an interview with Tokyo Metro Vice-Mayor Inose Naoki, a fierce critic of the national bureaucracy:

Q: There were immense traffic jams this year during Golden Week (the holidays at the end of April and the beginning of May). Wasn’t it strange for the government to allow people unlimited access to the expressways during the holidays for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.50)? These tolls are for a company that’s been privatized.

A: I can understand it as a temporary economic stimulus measure. The Nippon Expressway Companies (collectively known as NEXCO, which pre-privatization were the Japan Highway Public Corp.) maintain a framework in which they repay JPY 1.6 trillion in debt every year. The tax funds invested will be only for the discounted amount. The DPJ’s idea of eliminating (highway) tolls, however, is more of a problem than (temporarily) reducing the tolls to JPY 1,000.

Q: But the users will be more grateful for not having to pay any tolls at all.

A: That way of thinking is a mistake. If the tolls are eliminated, they’ll have to sink in tax funds forever. Only one vehicle (in Japan) in 10 uses the expressways, so the people who don’t use them will also bear the burden. The citizens who are happy that the expressways will be free should be aware that it allows the current dominance of the bureaucracy (to continue).


Will the party resolve these contradictions with stealth taxes down the road, or will the DPJ follow the precepts of former head Ozawa Ichiro and “replaster” their campaign promises once they’re in power? Time will tell.


A friend in England occasionally rants about the steps taken in that country to cut back on rail service over the years. He insists that rail travel better suits the country than expressway travel, and the cutbacks have caused economic hardship for some local areas.

I’ve never been to England, so I can’t vouch for that claim, but it does make me wonder if the same is true of Japan. (Not that they’re cutting back rail service here, but that trains are generally a better way to get around than the expressways.)

I also can’t vouch for the figures of either Mr. Kaneko or Mr. Inose, but if the latter is correct, forcing everyone to pay for something that only 10% of the people use does seem like a cheap ploy to win votes in the near term that will wind up being quite expensive further down the road.

12 Responses to “Does the rubber meet the road with the DPJ platform?”

  1. St John said

    Your friend in England is correct about the lack of funding of the British train network over several decades. Our roads and highways are overloaded because of this. I think the train system in Japan is wonderful.

  2. Rick said

    Well, as a tax-payer in Miyazaki, I can tell you that there is no train system to speak of, nor is there any highway going north (i.e to Oita), and it would cost me 1200 per day to take the bus to work (about 120 yen per km). This is what “leaving it to the private sector” generally entails in any country if you live a bit off the beaten track.
    Fair enough, as long as we admit that there is *no* national transportation infrastructure in Japan.
    Gov. Higashikokubaru’s comment makes perfect sense to me in this context, and basically reflects that fact that nothing is going to change in this regard (for Miyazaki) no matter who forms the national government.

  3. Bryce said

    “Only one vehicle (in Japan) in 10 uses the expressways, so the people who don’t use them will also bear the burden.”

    In general I agree on rail vs roads, but-but-but, if the tolls are reduced won’t more people use the expressways??

  4. ampontan said

    Note that is the figure for vehicles that are never on the expressways. I doubt that will change very much at all. It might increase the frequency of use for people who already do.

    How much will it increase the 10% figure by, assuming it’s true? To 20%? That still means 80% would pay for services they don’t use. 50% is far-fetched. Japan is just not that kind of a place.

  5. bender said

    Japan is just not that kind of a place.

    It depends on where in Japan you’re at. Also, it should be noted that highway networks work like blood veins, moving products in and out of an area. I’ve seen the media ridicule Hokkaido roads,and I recall Inose did so too, but they’re heavily used by “Hondo” tourists during summer, not just “Dosanko” folks. They also carry lots of farm and dairy products. Let’s see what would happen if Hokkaido roads become gravel roads like they were in the 1960s. Inose’s argument is too crude, if you tell me.

  6. ampontan said

    Let’s see what would happen if Hokkaido roads become gravel roads like they were in the 1960s.

    Got a link for that claim?

  7. bender said

    That’s what I heard from older Hokkaido folks. If you doubt it, feel free to.

  8. bender said

    I found one. Here you go!

    Japan wasn’t what you’d usually call a “rich” country.

  9. bender said

    Here’s one for Hokkaido. According to this side, only 27% of Kokudo/Dodos were paved in 1967.

  10. ampontan said

    Inose says that tolls should be kept on the roads so that only users pay, instead of removing the tolls and having everyone pay.

    This somehow led to a claim that Hokkaido roads could or would revert to gravel as they were in the 1960s.

    How is maintaining the status quo on expressways that charge tolls going to cause the Hokkaido roads to revert to their state 50 years ago?

    …only 27% of Kokudo/Dodos were paved in 1967.

    Hmmm. Maybe that gas surtax had some benefits after all.

  11. bender said

    I don’t know the political situation where you are in Kyushu, but Hokkaido is often criticized for its “extravagant” roads by Honshu folks. As for Hokkaido highways, I recall Inose or someone from the Koizumi gang ridiculed them as “roads for bears” because of their low usage, but the reason behind this seems to be because they are polled (there’s a study about this, I think). Cities are like like 120 km apart from each other in Hokkaido, but people use “ippan-do”s because it costs too much for them (need I mention that people in Hokkaido suffer low income?). One way to resolve is to allow people to run 100km/h in ippan-dos, but there’s probably lots of political/social barriers to overcome before that can happen, apart from the fact that ippan-dos maybe aren’t designed to withstand such speed or safety issues.

    Anyways, you should visit northern Japan since your view seems to be centered in the Kyushu area. It’s much different up there, and jumbling everything as “Japan is so-and-so” just isn’t right. I think you were against that kind of thought.

  12. bender said

    Interesting article by Tokachi Mainichi, a local Hokkaido newspaper. For avoidance of doubt, I’m not advocating construction of more highways- I’d rather not have them because they destroy the environment. I’d rather have people use trains, but the fact is that many railroads in Hokkaido were closed because the national and local governments couldn’t afford them (at least that is what they said). And how people live in Hokkaido now, and increasingly in many other chihos in Japan, people are dependent on cars- you can’t even buy rice without your car or commute. And the questions is, is ippan-do really enough for North and East Hokkaido? Can they be remodeled to allow high speed travel? Why can’t they be? Is it because making highways are cheaper, or is it that highways cost more, meaning more subsidies go to the “chiho”? Not to forget that ippan-dos are also public roads, and it costs public money to maintain them. The situation is quite sophisticated.

    BTW, the “anko” you eat with your anmitsu comes from Tokachi.

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