Saturday, July 30, 2005

Dogs and Demons - Chapter 1

As I mentionned before, I've been slowly making my way through Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr. It's pretty heavy stuff so I'm taking my time, and I've now read the first chapter twice. This chapter is entitled "The Contruction State" and deals with the behemoth self-serving construction industry in Japan. Why is this a heavy subject you ask? Well if anyone has been to "rural" Japan and taken a look around at the concrete lining the rivers, the thousands of dams, the endless roads heading to no particular location carved into the mountainsides, they'll understand. This chapter deals with the rape of Japan by huge companies with officials in government ministries receiving millions to continue funding projects and an "environnment" ministry which has been castrated.

Major corporations fund groups whose sole purpose is the creation of construction projects. These groups are more often than not staffed with former government officials who still have close ties to the purse strings of the nation. Japan's construction industry has entered a self-subsitance cycle of never ending projects just for the heck of having projects. Huge scandals have errupted in recent years where some ministry officials were caught receiving huge sums of money in exchange for diverting funds to this or that project, or for ensuring that the bidding process be favourable to a specific tender. While the ministry officials are usually chastized, the corporations doing the bribing rarely do.

Here are some stats pulled from his book which will show you the scale of the ongoing construction in Japan:
  • Planned spending on public works between 1995 and 2005 was pegged at $6.2 Trillion US. That's three to four times what the US will spend within the same time frame, and the US has 20 times the land mass and more than twice the population of Japan.
  • At 800 Billion US$ a year, Japan's construction industry is the largest in the World.
  • All but three of Japan's 113 major rivers have been turned into lifeless concrete chutes where only a trickle of water runs through. Life along the riverbanks has been decimated. Here is a picture of a mountain stream near Nasu as an example, concrete on both sides, and underneath... to "prevent" erosion and flooding.

  • Plans are in the works to add 500 new dams to the 2800 existing ones across Japan.
  • By 1993, 55% of Japan's coastline had become armoured with concrete and protected by giant tetrapods to prevent erosion. The problem is that the modification of the coastline in this way has actually had the effect of accelerating erosion. While countries such as the US are going so far as to remove existing armouring, Japan is continuing existing projects and planning new ones.
  • By 1998, construction employed more than 6.9 million people, more than 10% of Japan's workforce.
  • The 1999 contruction budget was 13 times larger than that of 1965 when Japan was gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics.
Difficult to understand why such a relateively small country needs so much constructions. One may be tempted to pass it off to the size of Japan's population or the numerous ecological disasters which threatens this beautiful country. That's an easy out though and can be easily discredited. Japan's population, pegged recently at around 127 million while large, is offset by the land available. Japan is thought to be a tiny island somewhere in the pacific, while in reality it is substantially larger than Britain and Germany. As for population density, Japan's reached 336 people per square kilometer by 1993, which is high, but let's compare it to other countries.
  • Japan - 336
  • China - 119
  • US - 27
  • Canada - 3.3 (WOOHOO!)
  • South Korea - 432
  • Taiwan - 625
  • Lebanon - 413
  • Netherlands - 385
  • Belgium - 337
  • Israel - 308
So Japan has a comparable population density to Belgium, and you don't see them doing anything this nasty right? Ok, so maybe it's the dreaded floods and typhoons and earthquakes that make Japan feel the need to armour itself against nature? Well again, we can take a quick look around the World and see much worse flooding in countries like China and India where hundreds of thousands of people have died in single calamities. So why is Japan so hell bent on destroying nature today when it was so in love with it in the past?

Alex Kerr puts forward an interesting argument in his book. He says that Japan's "love" of nature has never been more than a need to control it. Looking at the famous Japanese art forms of Ikebana and Bonsai, one can see a need to curve nature to one's own ideal of it. On page 37 of Dogs and Demons, Kerr asks: "What's the difference between torturing a Bonsai and torturing the landscape?" So maybe that can be used as a launching point for the hypothesis that Japan has always felt the need to control nature. The difference between now and a hundred years ago is that they're hacking away at it with bulldozers and concrete, which have a slightly more substantial impact... right?

Having said all that, I remind you that I am speaking from a purely academic standpoint. I am quite in love with Japan, its people and yes, even it's countryside. My trip to Nasu a few weeks ago proves that there is still plenty of natural beauty left in Japan. However, I feel that I must try and lend my voice to that of Mr. Kerr (and Scotto and Stacy) and get the word out there as to what's hapenning here. It truly is a travesty, and it's quite sad that more Japanese people don't comment or discuss this issue, unfortunate that they quickly accept the shady notion of "flood and erosion control" as a license to butcher the coastlines and rivers.

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