Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Koike exposes the dark side of the 'Iron Triangle'

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

When Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was elected by a landslide in July, I don’t think there were high hopes that she would take on the old-boy network of vested interests with such tenacity and verve. But she has defied expectations, exposing the seamy ways and means of a corrupt system run by the Liberal Democratic Party.

No wonder the party was so upset with her for deciding to run for office when they had already decided on a LDP candidate — a former bureaucrat who made a career out of understanding how to make that system work and not ruffling feathers by asking awkward questions. He represented the “Iron Triangle” — LDP, bureaucracy and big business — that is credited with Japan’s postwar economic miracle, but is also synonymous with cozy and collusive relations that rig the system in favor of the powerful. It is a system of fleecing taxpayers and, like Abenomics, has an inherent bias that favors the wealthy.

The LDP-dominated Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly did not anticipate the damage Koike would cause. Since taking office, she has exposed the monumental waste of taxpayers’ money, opaque decision-making and deeply flawed plans behind Tokyo’s two high-profile public projects: the Tsukiji fish market relocation and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

An investigation into the failures of the Tsukiji relocation project did not identify a culprit, perhaps because there is collective responsibility for this particular debacle. Decision-making is vulnerable to politicized interventions that prevent a project manager from doing the job properly. When someone powerful nudges a project toward certain policy preferences, it is very difficult for technocrats to resist. Due to this dysfunctional system of opaque decision-making, there is no accountability for flawed decontamination efforts at Toyosu, excessive construction costs and the missing layer of soil that was supposed to provide protection from hazardous chemicals. Yet again, taxpayers and consumers are left holding the bag, while fish wholesalers face public distrust over food safety.

So why not abandon this white elephant project? Nobody wants to associate the world’s largest wholesale fish market with dangerous chemicals, but the Toyosu site is contaminated and the recent scandal has reinforced its image as an environmentally hazardous location. Over the summer I asked some of the small Tsukiji fishmongers and shopkeepers about the planned relocation. I found almost no backers and plenty of criticism. There was a collective resignation because the decision has been made on high, despite some sharp criticism from low-ranking stakeholders. Apparently the new, gleaming facility does not meet the workspace needs of the fishmongers because they were not consulted.

And what about tourists and the value of heritage preservation? The proposed Toyosu site has all the charm of a hermetically sealed dumpster and is not nearly as convenient to visit. Tsukiji has adapted to the influx of tourists and imposed new rules on visits that allow workers to get on with their jobs. It is a sprawling, ramshackle market that oozes raffish charm and retains vestiges of a distinctive architectural past and way of life that has disappeared in recent decades in the face of a relentless onslaught of crass modernization. This is one of its big attractions and why so many tourists love to wander in the maze of stalls before sitting down for some excellent sushi. It shouldn’t be razed, it should be nominated for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But Tsukiji is basically an extension of Ginza, making it high-end real estate that has developers salivating over the profit potential of towering office buildings and condominiums. Tsukiji as fish market is an obstacle to realizing those golden dreams and thus has to be shoved to some charmless reclaimed land on a polluted site nobody would want to live on. The PR mavens tell us it’s about transportation efficiency and the need for modern facilities, but greed is driving this ill-fated project.

Koike is also wreaking havoc with some Olympic sites that, in retrospect, seem poorly planned, redundant and unsustainable. The original Olympic bid was ¥734 billion, but snowballing costs have boosted this to an unseemly ¥3 trillion, a fourfold surge that justifies scrapping some facilities. The powerful players in Japan’s “sports mafia” said the horrid Zaha Hadid-designed stadium could not be reconsidered, but it was eventually cancelled for financial, environmental and aesthetic reasons. They are now saying that the facilities targeted by Koike’s cost-cutting moves cannot be reconsidered. Why is that? Perhaps pride, hubris, malfeasance, ignorance or the old-boy network’s clueless arrogance. Take your pick.

You see, they explain, the decision has already been made. What seamless logic! A bad decision was already made so it can’t be overturned because it has already been decided. And with chutzpah these fogies assert that Koike is embarrassing Japan, shirking their responsibility for the shambolic preparations that have given Japan a black eye. Koike is guilty of trying to stage an Olympics that learns lessons from the recent past and meets the stated goals of the IOC about sustainability and reining in the ever-burgeoning costs and financial burdens that make hosting the games impossible for much of the world. It is not too late to question the utilization prospects for new facilities after the games and associated maintenance costs. It’s also sensible to shift toward temporary facilities and reduced seating for some of the venues. Tokyo doesn’t really need a second swimming center and could make do with Yokohama’s volleyball arena. It also makes sense to shift various boating events to Miyagi, where they already have facilities.

This would be a shot in the arm for a region that is still recovering from the devastating tsunami unleashed by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. For many of the dislocated people of Tohoku, preparations for the 2020 Olympics have diverted attention and resources from their needs. Doesn’t it make sense to boost the regional morale and economy by locating some of the events in Tohoku? For overseas visitors it would be a wonderful opportunity to attend some events in one of Japan’ most enchanting areas of natural beauty and contribute to the ongoing recovery.

Koike may not overcome the powerful old-boy network but, by exposing how it betrays the public interest, she is rallying voter discontent against the LDP’s shabby practices.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.