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 construction, if one includes work that derives indirectly from public-works contracts.
The secret behind the malaise of the Japanese economy in the 1990s is hidden in these numbers, for the millions of jobs supported by construction are not jobs created by real growth but "make work," paid for by government handouts. These are filled by people who could have been employed in services, software, and other advanced industries. Not only do my neighbors in Iya valley depend on continued construction but the entire Japanese economy does.
The initial craving for the drug of construction money came from the profits made by politicians and civil servants. But for a craving to develop into a full addiction, there needs to be a reason why the addict cannot stop himself at an early stage--inother words, some weakness that prevents him from exercising self-control. In Japan's case, addiction came about through the existence of a bureaucracy that was on automatic pilot.
Bureaucracy by nature tends toward inertia, for left to themselves bureaucrats will continue to do next year what they did this year. In Japan, where ministries rule with almost no supervision or control by the public, bureaucratic inertia is an irresistible force. The world of official policy functions like a machine that nobody knows how to stop, as if it had only an "On" button, no "Off."
With essentially no accountability to the public, Japanese ministries know only one higher power: the Ministry of Finance, which determines the national budget. Whatever original purpose each government department may have had, over time its aim has devolved to the very simple goal of preserving its budget. Dr. Miyamoto Masao, a former official in the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW), relates the following exchange with a superior in his book Straitjacket Society:
Miyamoto: "You mean that once something is provided for in the budget you can't stop doing it? Why not?"
MHW official: "In the government offices, as long as a certain amount of money has been budgeted for a certain purpose, it has to be used up."
"Surely it wouldn't matter if there was a little left over."
"It's not that easy. Returning unused money is taboo."
"Why is that?"
"Leftover money gives the Finance Ministry the impression that the project in question is not very important, which makes it a target of budget cuts the following year. The lossof even a single project means a smaller budget for the whole department. The director is going to take a dim view of that, since it affects his career prospects."
True to their reputation for efficiency, Japanese ministries have done an extremely good job of enlarging their budgets by meticulously observing the principle that each ministry should get the same relative share this year that it received last year. The allowance for construction in the general budget for 1999 was thirteen times larger than it was in 1965, around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. Although more than thirty years have passed since that time, when small black-and-white television sets were common and most country roads were still unpaved--years during which Japan's infrastructure and lifestyles have changed radically--each ministry continued to receive almost exactly the same share of construction money it has always had, down to a fraction of a percentage point. "Bureaucrats are very skilled at spending it all. It is a fantastic waste, done in a very systematic way that will never stop," says Diet member Sato Kenichiro.
Budgets that must be spent and programs that must expand in order to maintain the delicate balance among ministries--such is the background for the haunting, even weird aspect of Japan's continued blanketing of its landscape with concrete. The situation in Japan enters the realm of manga, of comic-strip fantasy, with bizarre otherworldly landscapes and apocalyptic visions of a topsy-turvy future. This is what the Construction Ministry is busy building in real life: bridges to uninhabited islands, roads to nowhere honeycombing the mountains, and gigantic overpasses to facilitate access to minute country lanes.
The story of Isahaya Bay is a good example of the "unstoppable" force of bureaucratic inertia. In the mid-1960s the Ministryof Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) drew up a plan to reclaim this bay near Nagasaki, Japan's last major tidal wetland. The tides in Isahaya can rise to five meters, among the highest in Japan, and they nurtured a rich sea life in the bay's wetlands, where about three hundred species lived, including rare mudskippers and a number of endangered crabs and clams. On April 14, 1997, everything began to die when officials closed off the waters behind the first part of a seven-kilometer embankment.
The original idea was to provide new fields for farmers in the area. But the number of farmers, which had begun to drop in the 1960s, fell rapidly thereafter, and was reduced to almost half between 1985 and 1995. That nobody would farm these new fields posed a serious problem for MAFF, because the Isahaya drainage project, at ¥237 billion, was a very large civil-engineering program, a keystone of the ministry's construction budget. So it relabeled the plans a "flood-control project," even though experts believed that the last flood, in 1957, had been of the sort that comes only once every hundred years.
Major projects involve decades of bargaining with vested interests as to the amount of their payoffs, or "compensation," and at Isahaya this long preparatory period ended in the early 1990s. The fishing and farming groups in Isahaya could not refuse a largesse that amounted to hundreds of millions of yen. But this compensation was the gold for which such local groups sold their souls to the devil, for once they received the payoff they could never refund it. Many towns in Japan, having decided to reconsider a dam, nuclear plant, or landfill they have agreed to, learn to their sorrow that the citizens have received more money than they can possibly repay In the late 1980s, a group of environmentalists began to object to the Isahaya drainage project. Opposition grew, but MAFF went on steadily building the seven-kilometer dike that shut the wetlands offfrom the sea. By the time the villagers began to question the project, it was too late.
Enter the Environment Agency, whose role shows how the Construction State has led to strange mutations in the shape of the Japanese government, rather like those crabs that grow an enormous claw on one side while the other side atrophies. While the River Bureau of the Construction Ministry, originally a minor office, has burgeoned into a great empire with a budget surpassing those of many sovereign states and with almost unlimited power to build dams and concrete over rivers, the Environment Agency has shriveled. Starved of a budget and without legal resources, it has ended up a sleepy back office with a dusty sign on the door and very little to do, having been reduced to rubber-stamping the projects of its bigger and stronger brother agencies.
In 1988, only a year before construction of the Isahaya dikes was to begin (but decades after MAFF began planning and negotiating the payoffs), the Environment Agency made a "study" of it all, followed almost immediately by approval with a few minor restrictions. When MAFF closed the dikes in April 1997, it was clear that the Environment Agency's study had been a cursory travesty. Assailed by the media, the only comment of agency chief Ishii Michiko was this: "The result might have been different if the assessment had followed today's environmental standards ... . But it is unlikely that we will ask the Agriculture Ministry to re-examine the project."
In other words, although the Environment Agency was aware that the drainage of the Isahaya wetlands was a disaster, it did not move to stop the project. And why should it? Allowing Japan's last major wetland to die shouldn't concern anyone. MAFF chief Fujinami Takao commented, "The current ecosystem may disappear, but nature will create a new one."
And so it stands. The tideland is dead now, and for no betterreason than the necessity for MAFF to use up its construction budget. When asked what Isahaya would do with the drained land, the town's mayor, its most strenuous supporter, had no clear idea. "We are considering using the reclaimed land for growing crops, raising dairy cows, or breeding livestock," he replied. But apparently there are even better uses for land that no one knows what to do with. He added, "We have also studied setting up a training center for farmers from Southeast Asia or conducting biotechnology research."
Having seen how Japan killed its largest wetland, let's take a look at the mechanisms behind the attack on its rivers. One of the biggest businesses spawned by the Construction State is the building of dams and river-erosion levees. Under the name of flood control, Japan has embarked on what the British expert Frederick Pearce calls a "dam-building frenzy." This frenzy costs ¥200 billion per year, and by 1997, 97 percent of Japan's major rivers were blocked by large dams. This figure is deceptive, however, because concrete walls now line the banks of all Japan's rivers and streams; in addition, countless diversion canals have brought the total of river works to the tens of thousands. The Construction Ministry justifies the dams and canals on the pretext that Japan faces a water shortage. Yet it is a well-known fact that this is not true. The River Bureau uses projections for population and industrial growth that were calculated in the 1950s and never revised, despite drastic changes in the structure of water use since then. The estimates are so far out of line that, according to Sankei Shimbun newspaper, the additional demand projected by the River Bureau is 80 percent above and beyond all the water used in Japan in 1995.
An example of the construction bureaucracy's modus operandis the Nagara Dam, an enormous facility spanning the Nagara River, where three river systems meet in Mie, Gifu, andAichi prefectures. The cost of this facility (¥1.5 trillion, roughly $12 billion) makes it one of the world's most expensive civil-engineering projects. The Kozo, or "concept," of the dam took shape in 1960, but while water needs changed completely in the ensuing decades, the plan did not, for too many bureaucrats and politicians stood to gain from the construction money. By 1979, new water-use projections showed that the three prefectures would have more water than they needed for at least thirteen to twenty years--possibly forever.
The governor of Mie, well aware of the water surplus, was concerned about the tremendous expense that his prefecture would have to shoulder. At the same time, he was afraid to cancel the project because the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was subsidizing its construction, and if the prefecture turned down the dam MITI would deny it money in the future. In 1979, Mie dispatched Takeuchi Gen'ichi, the director of its Office of Planning, to present the new figures to MITI and to beg for a delay in construction. But MITI's manager of the Office of Industrial Water Use dismissed Takeuchi, saying, "You can't just tell us now that there will be too much water!" MITI couldn't allow the fact of water surplus in 1979 to interfere with the inexorable concept adopted in 1960. Environmental groups loudly protested the damming of Japan's last major river in its natural state, but their voices went unheard. Construction began in the 1980s, and today the central dam stands complete while work goes forward on a vast web of canals and subsidiary flood works spanning the three rivers.
Once a concept, always a concept. As in the case of the Isahaya wetlands, no opposition and no change in outward realities would affect the concept. Students of Japan's bureaucracy must understand this simple truth: A bureaucratic concept is like a Terminator robot programmed with commands that no one can override; the Terminator may stumble and lose a leg oran arm, but it will pick itself up and go forward relentlessly until it has fulfilled its mission. It is beyond the power of any man to stop it.
An old poem reads: "Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; / Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all." So grind the mills of Japan's government agencies. In August 1998, public opposition forced Kyoto's city office to cancel plans to build a bridge that would have altered the ambience of the old street of Pontocho, but when the dust settled it became clear that the city had canceled only the present design of the bridge, while reserving the right to build another bridge with a different design at the same location later. No matter how misguided or unpopular--give it five, ten, or twenty years--the bridge at Pontocho will be built.
Across Japan, gigantic earthmoving projects--among the largest and most costly in the world--continue to advance, many long after their original purposes have disappeared. There is hope, however, in new citizens' opposition movements that are beginning to stir, such as the one that stopped the Pontocho bridge. Other projects are being canceled or "extended indefinitely" because their costs have run too high even for Japan's profligate ministries. One such example is Shimane Prefecture's plan (dating back to 1963) to create new agricultural land by filling in part of Lake Nakaumi at a cost of $770 million, even though the number of farmers in the area, the people for whom the plan was intended, has dropped. The few farmers who remain vigorously oppose the landfill because of the damage it will do to the water quality of the lake, but the project continued on course--until recently. In August 2000, the government, as part of a review of the most notoriously wasteful public-works projects, decided to halt the landfill. While this is progress, it does not mean that Lake Nakaumi or the areaaround it will remain in pristine condition. For one thing, 40 percent of the reclamation has already been completed; meanwhile, on learning of the news of cancellation, local governments scrambled to present new proposals for roads, and even for reclamation of other parts of the lake to "revitalize the local economy" Shimane governor Sumita Nobuyoshi told reporters that he would do everything in his power to make sure the replacement proposals get funded. The Concept at Lake Nakaumi will live on, although under different names.
The roots of Japan's environmental troubles go much deeper than the mere greed of bureaucrats and politicians. Japan is a sobering case study, for it calls into question what may befall the landscape of other countries in East Asia or across the world. What happens if "developing countries" never become "developed countries"? The great modern paradox of Japan is the mismatch between its present-day economic success and its governing mentality, which is that of a still-undeveloped country.
Japan suffers from a severe case of "pave and build" mentality. "Pave and build" is the idea that huge, expensive, man-made monuments are a priori wonderful, that natural surfaces smoothed over and covered with concrete mean wealth, progress, and modernism. Nakaoki Yutaka, the governor of Toyama Prefecture, summarized this attitude when he argued, in September 1996, for the construction of a new railroad line to rural areas, although there was no apparent need for it. Building the new line, he said, "is needed to develop the social infrastructure so that people can feel they have become rich."
Before World War II, Japan was a poor nation, with industrialization limited to its cities. The war devastated the cities, and afterward the pave-and-build mentality took root. Although today Japan is wealthy--by some measures, the wealthiest nationin the world--and every tiny hamlet has "developed," the postwar view that progress means building something new and shiny remains unchanged.
President Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that when he was growing up his family was very poor. "But the wonder of America," he said, "is that we never felt poor." The wonder of Japan lies in precisely the opposite feeling: though rich, people do not feel rich, and hence need a constant supply of new train lines and freshly cemented riverbanks to reassure them.
Kata is an important Japanese word that means "forms," a term that derives from traditional arts and refers to fixed movements in dance, the tea ceremony, and martial arts. Once the kata of an art take shape, it is nearly impossible to change them fundamentally, although practitioners may make slight adjustments and embellishments. In the tea ceremony, kata require that the tea master first fold a small silk cloth and wipe the tea container with it. Followers of the Urasenke school fold the cloth in thirds, while those of the Mushanokoji school fold it in half, but the essential kata is the same for both schools.
Kata apply to modern life in Japan as well. Japan's school system, established in the 1880s, took as its model the Prussian system, complete (for the boys) with black military uniforms with high collars and brass buttons. Today, even though the boys have dyed hair and wear earrings, they must continue to wear these uniforms--a kata that never changed. In general, most of Japan's modern kata do not go back as far as the Prussian uniforms; they can be traced to the early postwar years, roughly 1945-1965, the period during which Japan experienced its highest growth rate and its modern industry, banking, and bureaucracy took shape. The mismatch between the realities of the 1990s and ways of thinking established in the decades before 1965 is the keynote of Japan's modern troubles--and it isvisible in every art and industry. The kata were set in their present shape almost forty years ago and are now out of step with the modern world.
Pave-and-build involves another mismatch--with Japan's own tradition. In their historical culture, the Japanese have all the ingredients necessary to counter or, at least, to temper this mentality. "Love of nature" is a cliche in the standard literature about Japan, and there was much truth in it, as can be seen in the haiku poems of Basho or the intensively cared for gardens of Kyoto. Japan was once the land of love of autumn grasses and mossy hillsides covered with the falling leaves of gingko trees and maples; Japanese art is almost synonymous with the words restraint and miniature, with the use of unpolished wood and rough clay. Yet modern Japan pursues a path that is completely at variance with its own tradition.
Shigematsu Shinji, a professor at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya, discovered this to his surprise when he did a survey of the sacred groves of Japan's local shrines, stands of trees preserved even in the middle of large cities, which Shintoists hold up as the very essence of Japan's love of nature. People complained, he learned, that "the forests are a nuisance because the trees block the sunlight and fallen leaves from extended branches heap up on the street and in front of their houses." That fallen leaves have become a "nuisance" goes straight to the heart of Japan's present-day cultural crisis, and it raises sobering questions about what the future may bring to other developing nations in East Asia.
If we were to divide modern cultural history into the three basic phases--pre--industrial, industrial, and postindustrial life--we might say that in the first phase, which ended about two hundred years ago in the West and as recently as twenty years ago in many countries of East Asia, people lived in harmonywith nature. For Japan, the primal image is that of a peasant family living in a thatched house nestled in the foothills at the edge of the rice paddies.
The second industrial phase is marked by a rude awakening. Because the contrast between unheated, dark old houses and sparkling new cities is too great, a rush to modernism takes place in which people reject everything old and natural as dirty and backward in favor of shiny, processed materials as symbols of wealth and sophistication. The world over, the paradigm is well-dressed salaried workers commuting from their concrete apartment blocks to new factories and offices.
In the third, postindustrial state, most people have reached a certain level of comfort--everyone has a toaster, a car, a refrigerator, and air-conditioning--and societies move on to a new view of modernism, in which technology recombines with cultural heritage and natural materials. In the United States, the image is that of young people gentrifying nineteenth-century brick town houses in Brooklyn, or of Microsoft computer nerds dwelling in solar-heated houses in the mountains of Washington State. In the first phase, man and nature live happily as one family; in the second, they divorce; and in the third, they are reunited.
What about this third phase in East Asia? In the case of Japan, although all the elements that can propel the nation into a postindustrial culture are present, the process seems blocked. Instead, Japan is speeding forward into a culture where the divorce is final and irreparable, in which everything old and natural is "dirty" and even dangerous.
Someone once asked Motoori Norinaga, the great eighteenth-century Shinto thinker, to define the word kami, a Shinto god. True to Shinto's ancient animist tradition, he answered, "Kami can be the Sun Goddess, the spirit of a great man, a tree, a cat, a fallen leaf." Yet in modern Japan, fallen leaves are anything butdivine; it would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which the public now dislikes them. Most cities, including my own town of Kameoka, near Kyoto, lop off the branches of roadside trees at the end of summer, before the leaves begin to change color and fall onto the streets. This accounts for the shadeless rows of stunted trunks lining the streets in most places. I once asked an official in Kameoka why the city continued this practice, and he replied, "We have sister-city relationships with towns in Austria and China, and when we saw the beautiful shady trees on their streets, we considered stopping. But the shopkeepers and homeowners in Kameoka objected. For them, fallen leaves are dirty and messy. After receiving a number of angry telephone calls, we had no choice but to continue."
In 1996, NHK television produced a documentary reporting on the difficulties of growing trees in residential neighborhoods in Tokyo. One neighborhood had a stand of keaki (zelkova), which grow tall, with graceful soaring branches resembling the stately elm trees that once marked the towns of New England. Residents complained that the trees blocked the sunlight, shed too many leaves in autumn, and obscured road signs. Many wanted the trees chopped down altogether, but after discussion the city of Tokyo reached a compromise in which it cut down some of them and pruned the tall, arching branches off the rest, reducing them to the usual pollarded stumps found along streets in other parts of the city.
Nor is it only fallen leaves that earn angry calls to city offices. In May 1996, the Yomiuri Daily News reported that the city of Kyoto received only four calls during the previous year objecting to the noise from sound trucks chartered by rightist fringe groups, which circulate through the city year-round, blaring nationalist diatribes and martial anthems so loudly that the noise echoes on hillsides miles outside town. On the other hand, there were a number of complaints about frogs croakingin the rice paddies in the suburbs. Itakura Yutaka, the chief of Kyoto's Pollution Control Office, reported, "They say, 'Please kill all the frogs.'"
The stigma of being "messy" extends beyond trees and animals to natural materials in general. The writer and photographer Fujiwara Shinya witnessed once, in the 1980s, a mother in Tokyo guiding her son away from handmade crafts in a shop because they were "dirty" This was an example of "how Japanese women had come to prefer shiny, impeccable plastic with no trace of human labor to products made by hand from natural materials," he wrote. The idea that nature is dirty, that shiny smooth surfaces and straight lines are preferable to the messy contours of mountains and rivers, is one of the strangest attitudes to have taken root in modern Japan, given the country's traditions.
But take root it has. The Japanese often use the word kirei, which can mean both "lovely" and "neat and clean," to describe a newly bulldozed mountainside or a riverbank redone with concrete terraces. The idea that smoothed-over surfaces are kirei is a holdover from the "developing country" era of the 1950s and 1960s, when most rural roads were still unpaved--one can imagine people's joy at having rutted dirt lanes overlaid with smooth asphalt, and rotting wooden bridges replaced by reinforced steel. That feeling of joy has never faded; the nation never stopped to catch its breath and look back, and the result is that Japan has become a postindustrial country with pre-industrial goals.
It's a dangerous combination, and the effect is sterility. Drive through the countryside and you can see the sterilization process everywhere, for the damage lies not only in large-scale projects that flatten the curves of beaches and peninsulas but in many an aluminum or asphalt detail: be it a trail in a national park or a humble path through the rice paddies, every trackmust be paved, lined with concrete borders, and fenced with high chrome railings. To give some sense of the sterility of the new Japanese landscape, here is an image from close to my home: in Kameoka, a walkway goes alongside a pond that used to be the moat of the local castle, and on the other side is a small park that until a few years ago was a shady, grassy hideaway, where people sat on the lawn and boys played soccer. The grass and the shade were hopelessly "messy," though, so the city recently redid the park, paving over the grass and cutting down the trees. Now few people linger in the park's empty expanse of masonry edged with neat borders of brick and stone. In the middle stands one official cherry tree, with a granite monument in front engraved with calligraphy that reads "Flowers and Greenery."
Japan's traditional culture sprang from a oneness with nature, but it is sterile industrial surfaces that define modern Japanese life. It's a stark contrast, but a real one. The gap between Japan's traditional image of itself and the modern reality has riven the nation's present-day culture. Artists must make a hard choice: try to re-create a vanished world of bamboo, thatched houses, and temples (but in a cultural context in which sterility rules and all these things have become irrelevant) or go with the times, giving in to dead, flat industrial surfaces. Cut off from the latest trends in Asia or the West, designers find it hard to conceive of natural materials used successfully in a modern way, or of modern designs that blend happily into a natural context. This unresolved cultural conflict is a secret subtext to art and architecture in Japan today.
It is not, of course, only the Japanese who find flat sterile surfaces attractive and kirei. Foreign observers, too, are seduced by the crisp borders, sharp corners, neat railings, and machine-polished textures that define the new Japanese landscape, because, consciously or unconsciously, most of us see such thingsas embodying the very essence of modernism. In short, foreigners very often fall in love with kirei even more than the Japanese do; for one thing, they can have no idea of the mysterious beauty of the old jungle, rice paddies, wood, and stone that was paved over. Smooth industrial finish everywhere, with detailed attention to each cement block and metal joint: it looks "modern"; ergo, Japan is supremely modern.
In this respect, as in many others, Japan challenges our idea of what modernism consists of. Kirei, in Japan, is a case of industrial modes carried to an extreme, an extreme so destructive to nature and cities as to turn the very concept of modernism on its head. An inability to let anything natural stand, a need to sterilize and flatten every surface--far from being comfortable with advanced technology, as Japan is so often portrayed, this is a society experiencing profound difficulties with it.
The cultural crisis might be easier to resolve if it were simply a matter of Japanese tradition versus Western technology. But the situation is made more complex--and also chronic and severe--by the fact that the roots of the problem lie in tradition itself. People who admire the Japanese traditional arts make much of the "love of nature" that inspired sand gardens, bonsai, ikebana flower arranging, and so forth, but they often fail to realize that the traditional Japanese approach is the opposite of a laissez-faire attitude toward nature. These arts were strongly influenced by the military caste that ruled Japan for many centuries, and they demand total control over every branch and twig.
Indeed, total control is one of Japan's exemplary traits, father of some of its greatest cultural marvels and of its high quality on the assembly line. The kind of sloppiness that is taken for granted in the West has no place in Japan. But a trait like total control is a double-edged sword, for it has cruel and deadly resultswhen married to the powers of modern technology and then applied to the natural environment.
Writers on Japan commonly lament the contrast between the nation's contemporary ugliness and its traditional beauty. Discussion focuses on the conflict between modernity and traditional values, but this is to neglect one of the most thought-provoking elements of Japan's twentieth-century disasters: the problem is not that traditional values have died but that they have mutated. Maladapted to modernity, traditional values become Frankenstein's monsters, taking on terrifying new lives. As Donald Richie, the dean of Japanologists in Tokyo, points out, "What's the difference between torturing a bonsai and torturing the landscape?"
In 1995, the citizens of Kamakura woke one day to find that the municipality was felling more than a hundred of the city's famed cherry trees--Kamakura's official symbol--in order to build a concrete support barrier on a hillside. The reason? Some residents had complained of rocks rolling down the slopes, and officials had condemned the hill, which was within temple grounds, as an "earthquake hazard." In modern Japan, it requires a surprisingly small threat from nature to elicit this "sledgehammer to a mosquito" reaction. Every bucket of sand that might wash away in a typhoon, every rock that might fall from a hilltop is a threat the government must deal with--us--ing lots of concrete.
Quietly, almost invisibly, a strong ideology grew up during the past fifty years to support the idea that total control over every inch of hillside and seashore is necessary This ideology holds that nature is Japan's special enemy, that nature is exceptionally harsh here, and that the Japanese suffer more from natural calamities than do other people. One can taste the flavor of this attitude in the following excerpt from a publication of the Construction Ministry's River Bureau:
Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and droughts have periodically wreaked havoc on Japan. For as long as Japanese history has been recorded, it has been a history of the fight against natural factors ... . Although Japan is famous for its earthquakes, it is perhaps water-related problems which have been the true bane of Japanese life. In the Japanese islands, where the seasons are punctuated by extremes, extremes which have required people to take vigilant precautions in order to assure survival, water is a constant issue.
The idea that the nation's history is one of a "fight against natural factors" goes back a thousand years, and the tradition is that the main work of government was Chisan Chisui, "control of rivers and mountains." An extensive literature bemoans the damage done by natural and man-made disasters, typified by the Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut by Kamo no Chomei (1153--1216), a classic of Japanese philosophical literature. In his Record, Kamo no Chomei dolefully relates a series of disasters ranging from fires, wars, and whirlwinds to famines and earthquakes. His point is that life is impermanent, that "the world as a whole is a hard place to live in, and both we and our dwellings are precarious and uncertain things."
As a matter of historical fact, Japan has suffered far less from wars, famines, and floods than China, for example, where these disasters have resulted in the loss of millions of lives and the destruction of much of China's perishable physical heritage. Many more ancient wooden buildings and artworks on paper and silk remain in Japan than in China, despite China's far greater size. Italy, likewise, has endured volcanoes and earthquakes far more severe than Japan has ever experienced, yet "impermanence" is not the abiding theme of Italian or Chinese literature. That it so dominates Japanese thought may have something to do with the ancient desire for Wa, "peace" or"stasis." Any sudden change, whether in politics or the weather, is an insult to Wa. Hence the fear of and fascination with "impermanence."
One of the persistent myths about Japan held by many Japanese and accepted unthinkingly by Western observers is that in the golden age before Commodore Perry arrived, the Japanese dwelled innocently in harmony with nature and that only with the arrival of Westerners did they learn to attack and subdue the environment. The romantic in all of us would like to believe this. "It was only when Japan modernized (and therefore Westernized) that it learned the ambition of conquering nature," writes Patrick Smith in Japan: A Reinterpretation. According to Smith, Japan regrets what it "has taken from the West: its excessive corporatism and materialism, the animosity toward nature that displaced the ancient intimacy."
That is the myth. Now the reality. Where is the "animosity to nature" that is supposedly such an inbred feature of the West? Obviously, modern technology has led to environmental destruction all over the earth. Yet in the West this destruction has been tempered in local communities, where people have fought to preserve their villages, houses, and fields. Nothing remotely like what is happening in Japan has occurred in Europe or the United States. In England, France, Italy, and even industrial Germany, thousands of square miles of lovingly tended fields, picturesque thatched villages, un-dammed rivers and un-concreted seashore are preserved. Europe and the United States, not Japan, are in the forefront of environmental movements; in case after case--from the logging of rain forest in Malaysia and Indonesia to drift-net fishing--Japan fights these movements with every political and economic tool at its disposal. Where are the Westerners who are teaching Japan to destroy its landscape? From Lafcadio Hearn in the early 1900s toDonald Richie's The Inland Sea in the 1970s and Alan Booth's Looking for the Lost in the 1980s, Western observers have been lamenting what they saw as Japan's destruction of its natural heritage. They have certainly not been urging Japan toward further destruction.
The key to the misunderstanding lies in the telltale words "modernized (and therefore Westernized)." If there is one important contribution that the so-called revisionist writers on Japan of the past fifteen years have made, it is in their recognition that Japan is modern but definitely not Western. Its financial world, its society, and its industry function on surprisingly resilient principles, with roots set deep in Japanese history.
When Japan opened up to the world in 1868, the slogan of Meiji-period modernizers was Wakon Yosai, "Japanese spirit, Western technology," and Japan has never diverged from this basic approach. That it managed to become modern without losing its cultural identity is an achievement of which it can be very proud, and writers on Japan have universally seen this as a great success. On the other hand, Wakon (Japanese spirit) did not always adapt well to Yosai (Western technology), and sometimes the mix has been extremely destructive. The Wakon of militarism led to the disaster of World War II, and the Wakon of total control is leading Japan to ravage its environment today. Yosai was only the means; Wakon was the motive.
The impulse to subdue natural forces arises in every traditional society, from the Egyptians and the building of the Pyramids to the Chinese and the construction of the Grand Canal. In China, legends teach that Yu, one of the mythical first emperors in 3000 B.C., gained the right to rule because he tamed the Great Flood. Japan, too, has a long history of restructuring the landscape. It began in the eighth century, when the capitals of Nara and Kyoto were laid down according to vast street grids, tens of square kilometers across, on what had been semi-wildplains. Another spate of civil engineering took place at the end of the Muromachi period, in the late sixteenth century, when warlords mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers through the corvee to dig moats and build gigantic castles, the walls of which can still be seen today. Hideyoshi, one of the generals who unified Japan at this time, changed the course of the Kamo River in Kyoto, moving it somewhat to the east of its former channel. During the Edo period (1600-1868), cities poured so much landfill into their harbors that the livable area of ports like Hiroshima, Osaka, and Tokyo nearly tripled. Historians cite landfill as an example of a technology in which Japan had long experience before Perry arrived.
With the advent of modern technology, every society made mistakes. The United States, for example, embarked on enormous civil-engineering programs, such as the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Intended to address urgent needs for water and electric power, some of these programs were not wholly beneficial, although it had been claimed that they would be. After a certain point, however, Americans reconsidered these projects. In other East Asian nations, environmental destruction, serious as it is, slows down when it ceases to be profitable. Not so in Japan. It is tempting to blame this on an evil Western influence, but that does not explain Japan's rampant and escalating assault on its rivers, mountains, and coasts, which is so at variance with anything to be found in the West.
In this, Japan teaches us a lesson about a cultural problem that every modern state faces: how to rise above antiquated cultural attitudes that have dangerous consequences for modern life. Another case in point is the "frontier mentality" that still makes so many Americans cherish the right to possess firearms. The right to bear arms enshrined in the Second Amendment made sense for poorly protected frontier communities, but inmodern America it leads to the slaughter of thousands of people every year. No other advanced nation would tolerate this. Yet Americans still find it impossible to legislate gun control. From this we may see that Japan is very unlikely to rethink its environmental policies, for the very reason that channeling small streams into concrete chutes is something learned not from the West but from Japan's own tradition. As with other stubborn cultural problems, change will come when enough people become aware of them and demand solutions. Unfortunately, as we will see throughout this book, change is the very process that Japan's complex systems work to prevent at all costs.
In Kamo no Chomei's time, changes caused by nature seemed to be irrevocable acts of karma. There was simply no alternative but to submit to impermanence. With the help of modern technology, however, it seems possible to banish impermanence once and for all, and thus the concept of impermanence has mutated into a relentless war on nature. The self-pitying perception that Japan, punished viciously by the elements, is "a hard place to live in" features in the media and in school curricula, and serves as the official reason that Japan cannot afford the luxury of leaving nature alone.
A 1996 editorial in the major daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun says it well: "This country is an archipelago of disasters, prone to earthquakes, typhoons, torrential rains, floods, mudslides, landslides, and, at times, to volcanic eruptions. There are 70,000 zones prone to mudslides, 10,000 to landslides and 80,000 dangerous slopes, according to data compiled by the Construction Ministry." In the numbers quoted at the end of the editorial, the reader may experience a true Lovecraftian "thrill of ghastliness": these official figures tell us that the Construction Ministry has already earmarked tens of thousandsof additional sites to be covered in concrete in the near future.
Everywhere in Japan, one encounters propaganda about the rivers being the enemy. Typical of the genre is a series of advertisements written in the guise of articles called "The Men Who Battled the Rivers," which ran every month from 1998 to 1999 in the influential opinion journal Shincho 45. Each article features antique maps and paintings or photographs of the tombstones of romantic personalities in history, such as the sixteenth-century warrior Takeda Shingen, who subdued dangerous rivers. The message was that fighting against rivers is traditional and noble.
Agencies with names like the River Environmental Management Foundation, whose money comes from the construction industry and whose staff have descended from the River Bureau, pay for "nature as the enemy" ads, and cultural figures happily lend their names to these ads. In the West, we are so accustomed to seeing and hearing "save the earth" preachments in magazines and on television that it may be hard to believe that the media in Japan are following a different tack, but it is indeed different. Here is an example of what the Japanese public reads every day in popular magazines and newspapers: a long-running river-works series printed in Shukan Shincho magazine was called "Speaking of Japan's Rivers." The September 9, 1999, issue features a color spread of the award-winning writer Mitsuoka Akashi standing proudly on a stone embankment along the Shirakawa River in Kyushu. In the first few paragraphs, Mitsuoka reminisces about his childhood memories of swimming in the river; then the article gets to the point:
It was in 1953 that this Shirakawa River showed nature's awesome power and unsheathed its sword. It was on June 26,1953. That natural disaster is known as the June 26 River Disaster. At the time, our house was near Tatsutaguchi Station near the riverbank. At about eight o'clock at night there was a loud rumble. The steel bridge had been washed away. We rushed to the station platforms but the water level kept rising, so we took refuge at Tatsuyama hill just behind. I could hear people in the houses along the riverbank screaming "Help!" and before my eyes I saw one house and then another washed away. But there was nothing we could do.
Mitsuoka concludes: "For me, Shirakawa River has much nostalgia, for [I remember] the surface of the water sparkling when I was a little boy. At the same time, it was a terrifying existence that could wipe out our peaceful lives in the space of one night. With regard to Shirakawa, I have very complicated emotions in which both love and hate are mixed." It's a sophisticated message reminding the public that Japan has no choice but to hate its rivers, that they are dangerous and need to be walled in or they will unsheathe their fearful swords. Similar warnings of nature's destructive power, issued by respected intellectuals, flood the media.
The media campaign is related to Japan's special Law of Inertia as it applies to bureaucratic policy. Newton's law is that an object will continue to move in the same direction at a constant speed unless it is acted on by an outside force. In Japan, the rule has a special and dangerous twist, for it states that if there is no interference the object (or policy) will speed up. Former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore once commented:
One particularly outspoken chap told me, "I don't trust us, the Japanese people. We get carried away to the extreme. It starts off small. It ends up by going the whole hog." I thinkit's in their culture. Whatever they do, they carry it out to the apex, whether it's making samurai swords or computer chips. They keep at it, improving, improving, improving. In any endeavor, they set out to be No. 1. If they go back to the military, they will set out to be No. 1 in quality, in fighting spirit. Whatever their reasons, they have built total dedication into the system, into the mind.
Total dedication drives Japan's self-sacrificing workers, and underlies the quality control that is the hallmark of Japanese production. But the tendency to take things to extremes means that people and organizations can easily get carried away and set out to "improve" things that don't need improving. Recently, driving home from Iya Valley, I passed a small mountain stream, no more than a meter wide, which the authorities had funneled into a concrete chute, flattening the mountain slopes down which it flowed and paving them for fifty meters on each side. One could see the "fail-safe" mentality of the Construction Ministry's River Bureau at work: if ten meters of protection will prevent a landslide for a hundred years, why not fifty meters, to make sure there will be no landslide for a thousand years?
Take the ideology of "An Archipelago of Disasters" and marry it to "Total Dedication." Sweeten the match with a dowry in the form of rich proceeds to politicians and bureaucrats. Glorify it with government-paid propaganda singing the praises of dam and road builders. The result is an assault on the landscape that verges on mania; there is an unstoppable extremism at work that is reminiscent of Japan's military buildup before World War II. Nature, which "wreaks havoc" on Japan, is the enemy, with rivers in particular seen as "the true bane of Japanese life," and all the forces of the modern state are made to focus on eradicating nature's threats.
In the coming century, under pressure of population, erosion, and climatic changes, nations will be making crucial decisions about the proper way for people to live in their environment. Two opposing schools of opinion and technology will influence these decisions: the natural-preservation group (which at its extreme includes the "tree huggers," who fight to preserve the environment at all costs); and the pave-and-build group, represented at its most far-reaching by the planners of massive dam systems on the Yangtze or the Mekong River, who seek to dominate nature with big man-made structures.
In the West, most governments are trying to chart a middle course, with environmental protection given high priority They are decreeing the removal of shoreline buttresses and funding vast projects to undo mistakes already made. In Florida, for example, there is now a multibillion-dollar program to remove some of the drainage canals in the Everglades and restore them to their natural condition. "If someone's got a dam that's going down," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told his friends, "I'll be there." But Japan's Minister of Construction will very definitely not be there. He's busy planning Japan's next monster dam system, similar to the one at Nagara, this time on Shikoku's Yoshino River, another mega-project designed to protect against a flood that comes only once every few centuries. The majority of registered voters in the area signed a petition requesting that the project be put to a referendum, but it moves forward regardless. So weak is Japan's democracy in the face of officialdom that in twenty-five out of thirty-three such cases, between 1995 and 1998, legislatures have refused to conduct referendums.
So Japan has staked its position at the far end of the pave-and-build spectrum. Redressing old mistakes is not on the agenda; the momentum within Japan is for increasing, ratherthan decreasing, humanity's impact on its mountains and seas. Even as Japan fell deeper and deeper into recession during the 1990s, it continued to provide more funding for civil-engineering works than ever before. In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 million tons in the United States. This means that Japan lays about thirty times as much per square foot as the United States.
In fiscal 1998, spending on public works came to ¥16.6 trillion (about $136 billion at 1999 exchange rates), the kind of money that dwarfs the cost of building the Panama Canal and far surpasses the budget of the U.S. space program. It meant an almost incalculable quantity of concrete and metal structures overlaying rivers, mountains, wetlands, and shoreline, in just one year--and a "poor" year at that, since Japan was mired in a recession. One can only imagine what heights the expenditures may rise to when the economy begins to grow again.
Meanwhile, through its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), Japan is exporting the building of dams and river works to Asian countries such as Indonesia and Laos, where cash-starved governments welcome ODA largesse regardless of need. Through ODA-funded projects, Japanese construction firms profit during a time of economic downturn at home while establishing themselves abroad at ODA expense. Igarashi Takayoshi, a professor of politics at Hosei University and the author of a book on Japan's construction policies, commented, "They are exporting the exact same problems Japan has at home to the rest of the world."
At international forums, Japanese participants are usually to be found speaking warmly in favor of environmental protection. And while these individuals are often sincere--even tragically sincere--their speeches and papers should not blind us to the path that Japan as a nation is following. Projects such as the destruction of wetlands at Isahaya, the damming of river systemsat Nagara, the blasting of forest roads, and the armoring of the seashore are not marginal ones. They lie at the core of modern Japanese culture. Bureaucrats educated in the best universities plan them, consulting with the most respected professors; the finest engineers and landscape artists design them; top architects draft far-reaching civil-engineering schemes for the future; companies in the forefront of industry build them; leading politicians profit from them; opinion journals run ads in their pages in support of them; and civic leaders across the nation beg for more. Building these works and monuments consumes the mental energies of Japan's elite.
This means that Japan's money, technology, political clout, as well as the creative powers of its designers, academics, and civic planners, will be exerted in favor of pave-and-build--on a massive scale--during the next few decades. Scholars and institutions seeking to predict the way the world is going have overlooked one simple truth: the world's second-largest economy--Asia's most advanced state--is set firmly on this path.
One can already see the effect on Japan's intellectual life. While expertise in the technologies of protection of wetlands, forests, and seacoasts languishes at a primitive level, land sculpting heavily influences the direction of study both in the humanities and in engineering. The design of land-stabilizing material has become a specialty of its own. Gone are the days when the Construction Ministry simply poured wet concrete over hillsides. Today's earthworks use concrete in myriad inventive forms: slabs, steps, bars, bricks, tubes, spikes, blocks, square and cross-shaped buttresses, protruding nipples, lattices, hexagons, serpentine walls topped with iron fences, and wire nets. Projects with especially luxurious budgets call for concrete modeled in the shape of natural boulders.
Land sculpting has also become a hot topic in contemporary art. The photographer Shibata Toshio has built an internationalreputation with his images that capture in black and white the interplay of cement textures laid down over Japan's newly molded mountains and seasides. Shibata is documenting the haunting visual results of this disaster, and his work is very ironic. Yet foreign critics, faithful converts to what they believe is "Japanese aesthetics," and ignorant of the ongoing calamity on the ground, fail to get the point. Art critic Margaret Loke enthused, "For the Japanese--who seem to bring a graphic designer's approach to everything they touch, from kitchen utensils to food packing to gardens--public works are just another chance to impose their exquisite sense of visual order on nature." Japan is indeed imposing its exquisite sense of visual order on nature, on a scale almost beyond imagining.
At the far reaches of the Construction State the situation reaches Kafkaesque extremes, for after generations of laying concrete to no purpose, concrete is becoming a purpose in its own right. The River Bureau prides itself on its concrete technology, the amount of concrete it lays down, and the speed at which it does so. "In the case of Miyagase Dam," one of its publications brags, "100,000 m3 of concreting was possible in one month. While this record numbers third in the history of dam construction, the other records were set through seven-day workweeks. So this is the best record for a five-day workweek." At times, the fascination with concrete reaches surreal heights. In June 1996, the Shimizu Corporation, one of Japan's five largest construction companies, revealed plans for a lunar hotel--with emphasis on new techniques it has developed for making cement on the moon. "It won't be easy, but it is possible," said the general manager of the company's Space Systems Division. "It won't be cheap to produce small amounts of concrete on the moon, but if we make large amounts of concrete, it will be very cheap."
The Ministry of Construction, like many businesses andpublic institutions in Japan, has its own anthem. The lyrics of this Utopia Song, unchanged since 1948, include "Asphalt blanketing the mountains and valleys ... a splendid Utopia."
Japan will not have long to wait for Utopia. At home, the Construction Ministry is well on its way to blanketing all of the country's mountains and valleys with asphalt and concrete. The next challenge will be the natural landscapes of Southeast Asia and China, which are already destined for numerous dams and roads paid for by ODA money.
And then--it shouldn't take many more five-day workweeks--the moon!