When the 77th Division of the 9th Army Corps landed in Hakodate, Hokkaido, on Oct. 4, 1945, it began a low-key U.S. presence in Japan’s northernmost prefecture which continues to this day.
Some 20,700 U.S. troops were stationed in Hokkaido in 1945. The main reason was security. Fighting between Japan and the Soviet Union continued even after Japan’s Aug. 15 surrender, and Soviet troops by September had occupied what Japan still refers to as the Northern Territories and Russia calls its South Kuril District.
Hokkaido marked one of the borders between the U.S. sphere of influence and that of the former Soviet Union, said Mikine Yamazaki, a professor of political administration at the Hokkaido University Graduate School of Political Science. “Suddenly, Hokkaido’s local concerns became matters of national policy.”
Here began the frontline mentality that rationalized funneling cash from central government coffers to sparsely populated Hokkaido for decades to come, he said.
Central government cash remains the lifeblood of Hokkaido. Dependent on public works for 12 percent of its economy — the highest in Japan and twice the national average — the prefecture consistently guzzles 10 percent of the nation’s public works funds every year.
This is despite Hokkaido’s first-rate infrastructure, the result of five campaigns to “develop” Hokkaido since the end of World War II at the cost of 71.9 trillion yen.
Sewers reach 85.8 percent of its territory, far outpacing the national average of 66.7 percent, and 69.4 percent of its roads are paved, compared to the national average of 55.8 percent.
The roads and sewers come at a price.
“Dependency kills autonomy,” said Naoki Azuma, an author living in Hokkaido. “We’ve become hooked on public works; we’ve lost the ability to think whether the prefecture needs them.”
But where did Hokkaido’s addiction to public works — and the central government’s tolerance of that addiction — begin?
At the height of its expansion in 1942, the “Great Empire of Japan” stretched across Asia, reaching north to the Aleutian Islands and the southern tip of Kamchatka, west to British colonial territories of Burma and south to New Guinea of the Netherlands and French Indochina.
With defeat, Japan found itself not only resource poor but pressed to absorb a sudden influx of 6.6 million former soldiers and other Japanese returning from abroad.
It was then that government officials turned to Hokkaido, which was estimated to hold 50 percent of the nation’s unmined coal, 40 percent of its fisheries, 50 percent of Japan’s untilled land and 30 percent of its forests.
“Hokkaido is the new frontier of postwar Japan, and has the potential of playing a large part in our country’s economic revival,” wrote Kaneyoshi Okada, first vice minister of Hokkaido’s Regional Development Agency in October 1952.
It was a matter of national security to put development of Hokkaido’s resources under the direct control of the central government, instead of under the local government, Okada reasoned.
But such a move would require a special law that would apply only to Hokkaido. And that, wrote Alfred Oppler, head of the legal division of the U.S. Occupation’s General Headquarters, would be illegal.
“The Diet cannot legally enact a law that applies only to a single regional public entity, without the majority approval of the residents of that regional public entity in a public referendum,” he wrote in a memo dated June 1950.
But the GHQ had other worries: Hokkaido could turn into one of the fronts of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
Further, Japan’s energy shortages were growing critical year by year, and the GHQ was demanding that Hokkaido boost coal production.
At the outset of the Occupation, one of the GHQ’s first moves was to allow workers to unionize and strike. But strikes caused productivity to fall 28 percent short of goals set by the GHQ in 1948. Soon, the GHQ’s Natural Resources Section was arguing that strikes constituted a huge risk to stability in Japan.
In 1950, the central government persuaded the GHQ to approve the creation of the Hokkaido Regional Development Agency. In 1951, it created the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau, the development agency’s local outpost that would oversee major public works projects.
With the creation of the agency and its branch, huge funds began to flow into the northernmost prefecture, the majority of which would be under the control of the central government outpost.
The creation of the outpost created a peculiar two-tier bureaucratic structure, where the minister of the development bureau became known as “Hokkaido’s second governor.”
Local bureaucrats must get approval from both the central and prefecture governments for the same projects and funding sources, doubling the already formidable amount of paperwork.
But the most overwhelming evidence lies in the results, Yamazaki said.
Despite the huge flow of funds, Hokkaido’s industries have not grown as specified in five long-term “development plans.”
“It’s a paradox: Hokkaido was poor, so it got money for public works to catch up. But it only benefited construction companies needing more money for public works,” he said.
Former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Muneo Suzuki and the pork-barrel politics he stands for in Hokkaido are the natural culmination of the decisions made in the postwar years, Yamazaki said.
A politician’s job in Hokkaido is to bring money and public works from Tokyo, and this was something Suzuki did extremely well.
Suzuki’s conviction in December on charges of bribery, however, spurred mass soul-searching about Hokkaido’s addition to public works, said author Azuma.
Self-disgust has also whetted the public’s appetite for stories of individuals taking the initiative to change Hokkaido’s status quo. Most recently, local media have latched onto Asahiyama Zoo, Japan’s northernmost zoo in the city of Asahikawa.
Here, penguins take walks through the park from late fall to early spring, and visitors can see polar bears and seals up close in surroundings close to the animals’ natural habitats. These and other employee ideas brought the zoo back from the brink of closure and the annual number of visitors jumped five-fold from 1996 to 1.45 million in 2004.
“Innovation is here in Hokkaido’s private sector,” said Harumi Takahashi, governor of Hokkaido.
Takahashi is spearheading a campaign to put all public works projects under local government control by 2010, even if it means less funding, “to eliminate public works for public works’ sake.”
“Just because it’s never been done doesn’t mean Hokkaido can never become self-sufficient,” she said. “It would be cowardly to give up hope.”
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