Several days after a storm caused the Kinugawa River to overflow its banks and destroy communities in Ibaraki Prefecture in September, the infrastructure ministry held on-site meetings to look into what went wrong.
One problem was the loss of a sand embankment in the city of Joso that acted as a natural levee. A company had shaved off the top of the embankment when it installed some solar panels, and Joso’s mayor said it undermined the city’s flood defenses. A year earlier, he had asked the ministry to build an artificial levee along the compromised portion, and the government answered that there was little it could do since the land was private property, but it did receive permission from the owner to deposit sandbags along the river. Obviously, they didn’t do any good.
This was the story reported by the media, but according to Atsuko Masano, a journalist who specializes in civil engineering, the ministry’s responsibility for the disaster goes deeper. Kinugawa is designated as a Class 1 river, which means the central government is tasked with its ongoing maintenance. Well before the solar panel company scalped the embankment, it was being reduced by other businesses who used the sand for construction projects. The ministry had acknowledged years ago that this stretch of the Kinugawa was dangerous and had intended to strengthen the levee system, but it never got around to it. When interested parties questioned this lack of initiative, some blamed the Democratic Party of Japan, which had cut back on public works projects during its brief tenure as the ruling party.
Masano believes that regardless of the DPJ’s policies, the infrastructure ministry prefers new projects to maintenance work. In a discussion on the Web channel DemocraTV, she talked about the LDP’s recent announcement that it would substantially increase the budget for public works using the catch phrase “gensai-bōsai” (reducing and preventing disasters). The timing of the Kinugawa tragedy was perfect, since it illustrates the aims of the policy, which was proposed as soon as the LDP regained the government reins in 2012 and is identical to the policy it used to maintain support during its previous 50 years in power. The core of that policy is extending money to regions with spending for public works. What concerns Masano is that while the tatemae (ostensible reason) implicit in the announcement is a worthy one since Japan’s infrastructure is sorely in need of repair, the infrastructure ministry’s honne (real intent) is something different.
Major construction companies don’t like maintenance work since there isn’t as much money in it, and so maintenance jobs on existing public works have a lower priority on the ministry’s agenda than new public works. Moreover, the infrastructure ministry is the most powerful bureaucratic entity when it comes to dispersing government funds, and hides its reasoning for selecting and delegating jobs behind a curtain of legal niceties to protect that position.
Even before the DPJ implemented its rationalization plan, the LDP’s Junichiro Koizumi reduced public works spending during his stint as prime minister, so there is a backlog of major public works projects that the land ministry is impatient to carry out. Under the rubric of gensai-bōsai, which brings to mind the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, they can now get government funds for reinforcement (kyojin) of existing public facilities, but as Masano points out, most of this money will be funneled into projects that have no practical disaster-alleviating functions. However, they are related to water issues.
One of the biggest is a ¥180 billion “environmental project” that connects several rivers to Kasumigaura, the large lake in the middle of Ibaraki Prefecture. The plan was first proposed more than 40 years ago as a means of cleaning up the polluted lake, the idea being to pump in fresh water through huge pipelines. Experts say the plan would definitely destroy the currently pristine Naka River, one of the most plentiful spawning grounds for salmon and ayu in Japan, and thus will also ruin local fishing businesses. These experts also agree that the proposed pipeline will have no effect on the cleanliness of Kasumigaura, much less alleviate any possible effects from a disaster.
Dams are still the preferred means of spending money for the infrastructure ministry, even if this goes against current world trends, and the LDP’s new public works policy has also revived the Ishiki Dam project in Nagasaki Prefecture. This ¥20 billion plan was first proposed back in the 1960s, and ever since then local residents of the village of Kobaru have maintained a patrol to monitor any public works activity in the vicinity of Ishiki River, which, as recently described by show biz personality Seiko Ito on a Bunka Hoso radio program, is nothing more than “a stream.”
Nevertheless, the infrastructure ministry wants to build a dam near its mouth that would entail the removal of more than a dozen households, which may not sound like many but in fact represents practically the whole village. Ito says the farming community is strong and young people there are having children. It is the model of a thriving rural hamlet, the kind of traditional Japanese enclave the authorities love to champion. The stated reason for the dam is to provide drinking water for the nearby city of Sasebo, but even 50 years ago when the plan was proposed, Sasebo didn’t need extra water.
Because Ito and the Japan affiliate of clothing maker Patagonia have publicized the Ishiki Dam controversy, the media is covering it, but there are hundreds of similarly pointless projects now being revived throughout Japan in the name of gensai-bōsai that the press couldn’t care less about. More to the point, there are also plenty of tunnels and bridges and levees that need to be repaired, but which have been given lower priority than these big-ticket public works showcases. It may take another disaster to get enough people to pay attention.