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 Pon-tocho, 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 Pon-tocho 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 waste u public-works projects, decided to halt the landfill. While this is progress, it does not mean that Lake Nakaumi or the area und it will remain in pristine condition. For one thing, 40 cent 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 nation in 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 is visible 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 harmony with 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 but divine; 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 croaking in the rice paddies in the suburbs. Itakura Yutaka, the chief of Kyoto's Pollution Control Office, reported, «They say, 'Please кill 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 track must 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.»

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