Concrete — modern Japan’s blockhead obsession

Ultimately, one has to blame the Romans

by Kevin Rea

They invented it, didn’t they?

I am referring to concrete, that ubiquitous, seemingly innocuous, cold, hard and gray building material that, according to a book published here recently, threatens to take over the world — or at least this far eastern corner of it.

The book, Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons — The Fall of Modern Japan,” reads like a Stephen King novel with lashings of statistics that compound the horror of the story.

It exposes the insidious schemes of the balding bureaucrats who are bringing this country to ruin through a combination of greed, lust, sloth and intransigence, not to mention sheer boneheadedness.

Concrete and its evil twin, asphalt, are the weapons of choice for the pernicious pencil pushers in their quest to dominate the nation and nature herself (and line their own pockets in the process).

That the Japanese have a penchant for pouring the stuff in prodigious quantities should be obvious to even the most casual of visitors to this land.

Overpasses, underpasses, bridges and buildings are all made of the stuff. Rivers, roads, coastlines, mountains and tunnels are festooned in it. When will it end?

Never, apparently.

According to some of the more hair-raising statistics in the book, concrete production in Japan totaled 91 million tons in 1994 compared with 78 million tons in the United States.

When the fact that Japan is about one-twentieth the size of the U.S. is taken into consideration, that means some 30 times as much concrete per square foot (30 cm) was poured in Japan as in the U.S.

A sobering thought, especially when Japan at that time was (and still is) mired in recession after the bursting of the “bubble.”

What will happen when the country finally emerges from its economic slump is the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares.

That the Japanese people, who like to think of themselves as having “a traditional empathy with nature,” should have let this sorry state of affairs come to pass is puzzling — until the nature of their government is brought to light.

The Japanese people actually have very little say in what the various ministries get up to. This lack of accountability leads to some very dodgy schemes being foisted on a public largely powerless to intervene. If the public does get alarmed over some proposed multibillion-yen boondoggle, chances are that their petitions against it will be ignored.

Of 33 such contested public works projects between 1995 and 1998, says the book, local legislatures rammed through 25 of them without allowing even a referendum.

One well-known example of a petition that actually succeeded is the case of the proposed bridge in Kyoto’s Ponto-cho. Locals argued that the bridge, a copy of a modern French monstrosity of steel tubes and concrete, would destroy the character of the quaint little area.

After years of wrangling, the local legislature agreed to halt the program — but only until another design could be found. The fact that the locals don’t want any bridge at all is irrelevant. They had even less say in the construction of the new Kyoto Station, a huge, gray bunkerlike structure that dwarfs the nearby pagodas and wooden temples, which are what Kyoto is famous for in the first place.

The litany of woe continues.

The wanton construction of dams is another pet peeve of the author. Japan’s River Bureau has dammed (damned, more like) or diverted all but three of the nation’s 113 largest rivers.

Some 500 new dams are scheduled to be built, bringing the total to a whopping 2,800. In contrast, the U.S. is removing dams, having recognized that they often do more harm than good.

The Isahaya Bay boondoggle is yet another example of the government riding roughshod over the protests of thousands.

First planned in the mid-’60s, the idea was to reclaim the land in Japan’s last major wetland, home to hundreds of rare species. Thirty years later the project is complete, the 7-km concrete dike built, the land reclaimed, the ecology ruined.

The planners still haven’t decided what to do with the land. When asked to comment on the destruction of the wetland, the ministry official in charge shrugged and said, “The current ecosystem may disappear, but nature will create a new one.”

This fetish for concrete reaches truly insane levels. Some 60 percent of Japan’s coastline is plastered with retaining walls and festooned with millions of giant concrete tetrapods — some weighing as much as 50 tons — despite the fact that the ugly monsters actually contribute to the erosion of the shoreline. No matter — there are bids to be rigged and money to be made. Unfortunately, the catalog of cataclysm doesn’t end there. According to the book, Shimizu Corp., one of Japan’s largest construction firms, is already looking beyond the shores of Japan for new horizons to calcify with concrete — the moon.

“It won’t be cheap to produce small amounts of concrete on the moon,” said one general manager of the firm, “but if we make large amounts of concrete it will be very cheap.”

Lord have mercy.