works like this: the River Bureau of the Construction Ministry builds a dam, then hands its operation over 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 – in other 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 loss of 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 Ministry of 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 off from 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 better reason 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 operandi is the Nagara Dam, an enormous facility spanning the Nagara River, where three river systems meet in Mie, Gifu, and Aichi 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 or an 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.»

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