National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

As Japan's infrastructure crumbles, who's footing the bill?

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

In the run-up to next year’s Olympics, construction is everywhere — everywhere except, perhaps, in the places it is most needed. While the government is rushing to put its best foot forward and put a polish on Japan’s capital and environs, the situation is becoming increasingly dire in rural areas, which face not only an aging population, but a crumbling infrastructure and scant budget to patch it up.

Writing in Flash (Oct. 15), Osaka-based photojournalist Jiro Shinbo looked at the state of Japan’s deteriorating infrastructure in the aftermath of destructive Typhoon Faxai on Sept. 9.

In what observers called nakizura ni hachi (a bee stinging a crying face or, in other words, adding insult to injury), the 15th typhoon of the year was followed a month later by the wetter and considerably more deadly Typhoon Hagibis.

Shinbo cites data from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to the effect that as of March 2018, some 20 percent of Japan’s tunnels, 32 percent of water sluices and dikes on rivers, and 17 percent of seawalls at its ports were constructed in the 1960s or 1970s, making them around 50 years old.

“Take a human body reaching age 50,” he writes. “From that time, you start feeling your age, with problems such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and so on occurring. Your body creaks when you move. Well, it’s the same thing with concrete and steel, too.”

The price tag to fix them all over the next 40 years comes to ¥547 trillion — the equivalent of five years of the entire national budget. “How in the heck are we going to come up with that kind of money?” Shinbo asks.

Maybe, just maybe, the timing of the approval of flying passenger cars will be tied to the inability of conventional vehicles to negotiate the terrain? If more people in the future are able to fly about from place to place, won’t this eliminate the need for some of those roads, bridges and tunnels? Perhaps. In that case, however, Japan will have to divert huge amounts of money to burying all those dangerous power lines or risk them becoming entangled with flying vehicles.

“In order to have a future society that has no need of bridges and tunnels, what kind of infrastructure will be needed?” Shinbo asks.

Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 6) examines another barometer of rural Japan’s decline — the “countdown to extinction” for department stores in regional cities. This year, 10 department stores have closed, including Isetan in Sagamihara and Fuchu, and Iwata-ya in Kurume, among others.

More stores have already announced plans to close next year, including the Kyoto Marui — which was only open for 10 years — Takashimaya’s Konandai store in Kanagawa and Seibu’s Okazaki store in Aichi and five stores operated by the Seven and I Holdings.

Long-term prospects for other stores aren’t any better. In the most recent fiscal periods, eight out of 17 stores posted deficits, and 13 out of the top 20 reported year-on-year declines in revenue.

The worst performers included Tenma-ya (Okayama Prefecture), Izutsu-ya (Fukuoka Prefecture), Tsuru-ya (Kumamoto Prefecture), Fuku-ya (Hiroshima Prefecture) Maruhiro (Saitama Prefecture), Fujisaki (Miyagi Prefecture) and Yamagata-ya (Kagoshima Prefecture).

What’s behind the rash of store closings? Don’t people still need to shop for basic necessities, sundries, clothing and customary seasonal gifts?

“The retailing mainstream has shifted to suburban shopping centers,” says Kazufumi Masuda, a researcher at the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “That is particularly evident in rural areas. Department stores located in front of rail stations are all suffering. They’re wondering how they can survive. However, it’s possible that no solution will be forthcoming.”

“Most people from a certain area tend to feel a sense of loyalty toward their local department store,” a source in the retailing trade told Nikkan Gendai. “This affection toward the stores remains widespread and it would be sad indeed for them to go out of business.”

There are so many costs looming for propping up the infrastructure, it’s hard to know where to begin. Shukan Asahi (Nov. 15) examined the destruction from flooding in the wake of Hagibis and reviewed 50 of the nation’s rivers most likely to be at future risk in the event of torrential rains.

Looked at separately, they’re not particularly long rivers. However, if you measure them from end to end, the total portion in need of anti-flood measures comes to approximately 7,400 kilometers — which is about the same as traveling from London to Kabul. There’s just not enough concrete — or money in the treasury — to build dikes or line the riverbeds.

While rural prefectures such as Nagano took the brunt of Hagibis’ wrath, in terms of total population it’s Tokyo that is most vulnerable to floods. Adachi, Edogawa and Katsushika wards topped the list, with more than 1.5 million residents in areas vulnerable to flooding. And parts of 10 out of Tokyo’s 23 wards, with a total population of more than 2.5 million, are on the hazard map for flooding.

One of Hagibis’ more nasty surprises fell upon residents of the fairly new high-rise condominiums built over the past decade around Musashikosugi Station in Kawasaki’s Nakahara Ward. Even though the nearby Tama River did not overflow its banks, water seeped into their basements, causing power outages in two of the buildings, with cutoffs of tap water and elevator service. Some residents had to be evacuated because they couldn’t carry water up the steps. And now they’re concerned that the vulnerability to flooding might cause the property values to depreciate.

“The residents’ joint fund will probably cover the costs for pumping water from the basement, which are likely to be considerable,” wrote housing journalist Junji Sakaki. “This may be a good lesson for home buyers. Just as with those who purchase a single-unit house, people who buy a condo should first examine the hazard map and avoid places in low-lying areas.”