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Media appear to be ignoring maglev woes

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Earlier this month, two different Tokyo District Court sessions associated with the maglev bullet train line now under construction were convened. In one, major contractor Obayashi Corp. was prosecuted for rigging bids for work on the project. In the other, a citizens’ network was suing the government to halt it because of the damage it will allegedly cause to the environment and the lives of people who live along the route. The first trial was covered by the mainstream media. The second was virtually ignored by them.

The government loaned Central Japan Railways (JR Tokai) ¥3 trillion in 2016 to help finance the maglev bullet train, which is supposed to start operations between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027. Consequently, the project has become one of “national interest,” which means the mainstream media generally avoids any negative coverage. The bid-rigging charges, which involve three other construction companies, were impossible to ignore and had to be reported, but covering the citizens’ lawsuit requires explanations of planning issues that might have made the government uncomfortable.

In an interview with journalist Hideki Kashida in April 2015, even before the loan was approved, Yasumi Iwakami of Independent Web Journal was already saying that close coverage of the maglev was taboo for the mainstream media. Kashida had just published a book about the project that had been canceled by a previous publisher at the last minute — all printed copies were destroyed before they could be distributed — owing to pressure from parties with connections to JR Tokai.

The only other media that has covered the maglev critically are the financial press and individual blogs. Among the latter is a blog produced by Toshinori Nakayama. An activist who specializes in public-interest issues, Nakayama wrote in July 2017 that suits to stop the maglev are quixotic efforts. No one who sues the bureaucracy wins unless they can rally public opinion to their cause, and that requires mainstream media exposure.

The maglev project originated as a private enterprise, with JR Tokai pledging to shoulder the entire cost. However, extending the maglev to Osaka, which is not JR Tokai’s bailiwick, inevitably involved the central government. Nakayama mentions an Asahi Shimbun journalist who in 2014 revealed that he wanted to write about government involvement but was shot down by the editorial board.

Coverage in the financial press has focused on cost. In a Feb. 6 article, Toyo Keizai said the bid-rigging scandal would likely delay completion of the Tokyo-Nagoya leg since there are still aspects of the project that have not been contracted out. Eighty-six percent of the route is underground, and construction of the South Alps tunnel, which goes through Shizuoka and Nagano Prefectures, is supposed to be finished by November 2026, but some sections will be 1,400 meters below the surface, a depth that has never been attempted before. Even if they do finish the tunnel by 2026, they still have to lay track and test them, which will take several years at least. The longer the maglev is delayed, the less revenue JR Tokai can generate from fares and the further it will sink into debt.

More significantly, delays on the Tokyo-Nagoya leg will push back the opening of the Nagoya-Osaka leg, which has already been pushed up. Originally, service to Osaka was to start in 2045, but after the government approved the loan the launch was moved up to 2037. In a series of six articles written for Nikkei Business Online this summer, Shinichiro Kaneda and Jun Fujinaka speculated that the maglev debacle would become Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s third scandal after the Moritomo and Kake school controversies, since he is personal friends with JR Tokai Chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai and is believed to have lobbied for the collateral-free loan, approved at 0.8 percent interest and with no payment due on the principal for at least 30 years. It was Abe who announced the Osaka deadline would be advanced by eight years, presumably because that was the only way to get the Osaka business community on board. The president of the company handling the financing scheme told the Nikkei Business Online he had never seen such easy terms for such a risky public works project, and this was after the government had changed right-of-way laws and eliminated some property taxes to make it easier for JR Tokai to secure the land it needed for the route.

Some of the Nikkei Business Online’s reporting overlaps with complaints in the citizens’ lawsuits, one of which is: What will be done with all the dirt and rock removed for the tunnels? A professor tells the Nikkei Business Online that 50 Tokyo Domes’ worth will be excavated, and JR Tokai has yet to find places to deposit it all. Roads and secondary tunnels must be built to transport this rock and dirt, which means more negotiations with local governments and residents. In addition, the tunnels will be built through aquifers. A book published by a citizens network opposed to the maglev points out that construction could reduce water volume in the source of the Oi River by up to 2 tons per second during excavation. About 620,000 people rely on this water supply. JR Tokai said it can return 60 percent of the water to the river, but Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu demands they replenish 100 percent or he’ll withhold permission to continue construction.

The opinion of experts cited in these media is that the maglev will not be completed on time or within budget, and when it is finished it will be inconvenient and unsafe. Since those concerns aren’t being aired in the mainstream media, the government can ignore them. As the president of the financing company told the Nikkei Business Online, by the time JR starts paying off the loan the main players will be “retired or dead.” They won’t be bothered when the chickens come home to roost.

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