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It’s about time for Japan to take its foot off the gas . . . and think

by Philip Brasor

What do the following recent news items have in common? 1) An automobile driven by a 23-year-old man in Yokohama accidentally runs into a line of high-school students returning home from school, killing two and injuring seven. 2) The United States Senate votes to open the Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling. 3) The government of Fukushima Prefecture passes a law that will place limits on the construction of large retail stores.

Give up? What these stories have in common is that they all illustrate the downside of our automobile culture. The first one about the accident is an obvious illustration. The second is less obvious but easy to understand. For years the oil industry has wanted to drill in Alaska, but environmentalists have fought such development because of the area’s fragile ecosystem. The U.S. Senate, under pressure from voters who are worried about rising gasoline prices, finally caved in.

The third story requires more explanation. Ever since the Japanese government passed the so-called “big-store law” in the 1990s to placate the United States, which wanted to export American superstores like Toys R Us to Japan, large retailers have built stores in outlying areas, drawing people away from regional shopping arcades. These large stores can only be accessed by car, which means those without cars can’t go there. Unfortunately, the smaller neighborhood retail businesses that these people patronize are being forced to close because they can’t compete with the super-stores.

Cars-as-culprits is not the main theme of these items, but that’s because we’ve been conditioned to think that cars by themselves are only tools. As with the adage “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” automobiles are considered innocent of the harm they cause.

However, there was no question that America’s car culture had much to do with the problems surrounding the two big hurricanes last month. The poor people who were stranded in New Orleans could not evacuate because they didn’t have access to cars, and the people in Houston who did try to evacuate couldn’t get out of town because of massive traffic jams and a shortage of gasoline.

In reporting these stories, the American media came around to the fact that automobile addiction was a serious problem in America; or at least they did for a week or two. The Japanese media has yet to discuss how dangerous, impractical and wasteful Japan’s own car culture is despite the fact that driving here is much more inconvenient and expensive than it is in America.

Japan’s love affair with the car is even more bizarre given the country’s excellent public transportation and its total reliance on imported oil. As Rikkyo University professor Andrew DeWit has pointed out in a series of articles in Shukan Kinyobi, the Japanese media avoids the topic of finite petroleum reserves like the plague, even though it’s a hot topic everywhere else in the world. DeWit cites figures that show oil exploration and petroleum stockpiles peaked a long time ago. Optimistic predictions say that oil production will start to drop in 2020, but more realistic forecasts say 2010.

And with more countries developing industries and car cultures of their own, demand will only go up as the supply dwindles. Even multinational oil companies are facing this fact, as shown by Chevron’s “Will you join us?” advertising campaign, which is meant to start a “series of discussions” on the energy needs of the world.

There are explanations for Japan’s lack of a crisis mentality. Though the price of a barrel of oil has doubled in the past 18 months, it remains in real terms lower than it was during the second “oil shock” in 1980. Oil prices peaked in August at over $70 a barrel. In 1980, oil was $43 a barrel, which equals $140 a barrel in today’s money, so Japanese economists say there’s no reason to panic. Gasoline prices now are about 130 yen/liter, which is still below 1980′s peak of 155 yen/liter. Japan is actually less worried about its own oil situation than it is about others’, since higher oil prices could trigger a recession in America, thus hurting Japanese exports.

DeWit says that Japan believes it doesn’t have to do anything because other countries will act to protect their own interests, thus in turn protecting Japan’s. Given that some experts think more countries, including China, are now willing to go to war over oil just as the United States did in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, it sounds like a pretty cynical strategy.

The emphasis on environmental technology at this week’s Tokyo Motor Show and at the recent Aichi Expo would seem to indicate that Japanese automakers are leading the way toward a more rational future, but there’s a danger in allowing the industry to set the terms of the debate. The media relies heavily on the automobile industry for advertising revenue and thus the downsides illustrated in the news items mentioned before are never discussed.

Even the authorities are in thrall. Presently, the government is thinking about what to do with the gasoline and car taxes that were used to build and maintain roads in Japan. These taxes will expire in 2007, and some have said they should be used for the environment from now on. However, Japan’s automakers and oil companies, as well as the Japan Business Federation (known as Nippon Keidanren), whose chairman is also the chairman of Toyota Motors, are urging the government to cut these taxes in order to encourage car sales.

A more rational future means not just less reliance on oil, but a world of fewer cars. Automobile ownership is the yardstick by which we measure individual economic independence, but anyone who has been stuck in a 50-km traffic jam during the Golden Week rush for three hours or more understands the limits of such independence.