The asphalt island utopia

Japan under Construction
November 8, 1996

If anything characterises the distant planet from where Japanese politicians must surely come, it is the story Brian Woodall tells of a road in Ibaraki prefecture, 50 miles east of Tokyo. The ministry of construction was in the process of upgrading local roads to the status of national roadways. All the thoroughfares which had been earmarked for consideration - nearly 4,000 miles of them - were upgraded, except for a single stretch in Ibaraki, 11 miles long.

The ministry of construction wanted the 11-mile stretch upgraded. So did a nearby town with a population of 10,000. But a local politician who happened to be on the government's select road research council had political rivals in the area, and was not about to reward their constituents with a newly paved road. He vetoed the move.

The story would have been worthy of feuding senators in ancient Rome or rival rubber barons in 19th-century Brazil. In fact, the incident happened in Japan in 1992. Woodall relates it as yet another example of the political nature of Japan's construction industry, so huge and Machiavellian that it comprises half a million companies, an army of conniving bureaucrats and a "tribe" of pork-barrel politicians. That is surely the recipe for an exciting yarn.

The story is not as colourful as it might be, because Woodall is clearly targeting an audience of scholars and Japan specialists. Anyone with a need to understand not only the Japanese construction industry but also Japanese politics will find it invaluable. But even casual readers who do not mind tripping over constant source references will enjoy a fascinating tour around the conspiratorial world of the Japanese construction industry, and through the smoke-filled corridors of the construction ministry and the Japanese Diet. These three elements make up an alliance known in Japan as the "iron triangle". It is apparently a holy place, where retiring bureaucrats descend as amakudari (literally "angels descended from heaven") into well-paid directorships in the companies they were supposed to be regulating; where local authorities are said to exercise the "voice of heaven" in deciding which firms can bid for public works projects; and where the lowest bids on such projects miraculously match the ceiling prices set by the contracting authorities. It is a world of secret meetings and blatant collusion.

Woodall cites the example of a company which bid on a road-widening project in Fukuyama city. "The 162.7-million yen (Pounds 875,000) tender submitted by the firm was exactly the same as MOC's (Ministry of Construction's) confidential estimate of the project. Only a few months earlier, a former director of MOC's Fukuyama Project Office had 'descended from heaven' into a position with the company . . ." Collusion is clearly the rule, not the exception.

The third side of the iron triangle, the politician, is - surprisingly - the weak link. While Woodall says most senior MOC bureaucrats try to land positions in construction companies, he quotes an old ministry saying that "those who have no place to go (after retirement) become MPs". The "construction tribe" in the Diet passes legislation favourable to the MOC or certain sections in industry. In return, the politicians get financial backing for their election campaigns from industry, and credit for pork-barrel projects for their constituencies, courtesy of the MOC.

Japan Under Construction has been meticulously researched, based not only on existing written material but also, says Woodall, on his interviews with Japanese businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians. For an outsider coming into the obtuse world of Japanese business and politics Woodall has done a remarkable job in understanding and explaining its complexities.

Woodall does, however, miss one inevitable consequence of the corrupt industry he so carefully describes. With the contractors and regulators so cosily in bed together, how does the system prevent shoddy construction? Woodall maintains that instances of shoddy construction work are "remarkably rare", giving as an example the fact that most of the structures damaged in the Kobe earthquake were old, built at a time of less stringent government regulations. That may be true, but a lot of newer structures were also damaged. Investigators found that the very symbol of the Kobe earthquake - the great Hanshin motorway which tipped over sideways - collapsed because of inadequate welding in its support pillars. It was a cost-cutting measure that would never have been uncovered except for the surprise earthquake. And a section of bullet train track failed because large pieces of wood had been mixed in with supposedly pure concrete on an embankment.

Other cases of shoddy construction work are legendary in Japan, especially those exposed by earthquake damage. But Woodall's book, otherwise so rich in anecdotes, gives few examples of them.

Japan Under Construction comes at an interesting time in Japanese postwar history, following the end of the Liberal Democratic Party's 38-year solo grip on power and the slow breakdown of the construction bid-rigging system. The iron triangle is still intact, but cracks are beginning to appear. Like everything in Japan, however, change comes slowly. Japan Under Construction will stand as the definitive reference book on the subject for years to come, bringing to life the utterly alien world of Japanese bureaucrats and construction dons. Nothing could better describe their horrific vision of the once-beautiful archipelago they inhabit than the Ministry of Construction's official "Utopia song": "Asphalt blanketing the mountains and the valleys," intone its lyrics, ". . . a splendid Utopia."

Peter Hadfield is a Tokyo-based journalist and former geologist, and author of Sixty Seconds that Will Change the World: The Coming Tokyo Earthquake.

Japan under Construction: Corruption, Politics and Public Works

Author - Brian Woodall
ISBN - 0 520 08815 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £22.00
Pages - 2

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