The BBC on Japanese Infrastructure

From an article titled, “Will China fall flat on its face just like Japan?”

BBC on Japan Infrastructure

I’m not going to get into the rest of the article, or indeed even the ridiculous title, but this bit here on “wasted projects” got my blood up a little.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

•Seikan Tunnel 青函トンネル – This tunnel connects the main island of Honshu to the northern island of Hokkaido, and to this day provides the only way to reach Hokkaido by land.  About five and a half million people live up there, almost two million of them in Sapporo alone, which would explain why Tokyo to Sapporo is the busiest air corridor in the world.  Seems like a useful thing.  JR East and Hokkaido (rail companies) agree with me, and are currently extending the Shinkansen there through this very tunnel.

•Akashi Kaikyo Bridge 明石海峡大橋 – This bridge was the first to connect the main island of Honshu to the fourth largest, and last of the main islands, Shikoku.  Well over four million people live there.  This particular channel strait that the bridge spans is a particularly dangerous crossing, and plans for this bridge were prompted by the sinking of two ferries in 1955, which took 168 lives with them.  I’d say keeping people from drowning in a dangerous sea is a pretty worthwhile thing.

Perhaps for the British author this is hard to conceptualize, so I will make it simple.  Imagine that Scotland and Wales suddenly broke off from England and shifted a couple of kilometers out to sea.  It might be useful for those people who find themselves wanting to go to those places for whatever reasons to be able to get there by land, no?

•”The Bullet Train” 新幹線 Shinkansen – First of all, construction on the line began in 1959, but it didn’t actually open until 1964.  Perhaps my definition of “inaugurated” is different from the author’s, though.  In any case, a high speed rail network is incredibly useful, and though Japan was the first to put one together, many other countries agree about its usefulness and have built their own in the intervening half-century.  And at least according to one PhD:

“The method used most often to quantify the effect of rapid transport on the social economy is to convert the time saving compared with conventional transport into money.
If 85% of the total passengers on the present four shinkansen lines shifted from conventional lines, the annual time saving calculated from the difference in schedule times between the shinkansen and conventional lines is approximately 400 million hours. By calculating the value of the time per hour from the GDP per capita, the value of the time saving is approximately ¥ 500 billion per year.”

And that is not even counting the environmental benefits or that fact that no one ever dies from riding the Shinkansen.

•Kansai International Airport 関西国際空港 – This island airport took over all the international flight traffic for the Osaka area in western Japan from Osaka International Airport, which is located in the densely populated city.  Prior to its opening, Osaka International was both overcrowded and noisy.

Osaka International Airport, surrounded by city.

Osaka International Airport, surrounded by city.

Kansai International was not only desired in order to reduce the noise pollution, but was a necessity for this thriving region of Japan.  Being built on an artificial island allows the airport to run 24 hours a day without fear of noise complaints, as well as completely eliminating the problem of having to force people out of their ancestral homes to make an area big enough to build an international airport in, as was the case with Tokyo’s Narita International.

As for the sinking, first, the island was expected to sink as it settled in.  However, it is true that it sank more than expected.  So the terminal was built in such a way that it is able to be jacked-up, as it were, to keep it intact as the island itself sinks beneath it.  Second, the island is not about to be swallowed up by the sea; it has since slowed its sinking to an acceptable speed.  Kansai International isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Third, this was Japan’s first attempt at such a project, and provided valuable real-world experience and lessons for future projects.  Japan has since created several more island airports, none of which have had any sinking problems.

•”Isahaya Bay Dyke” 諫早湾干拓事業, Isahaya-wan kantaku jigyou, Isahaya Bay Land Reclamation Project – Now this project down in Kyushu is the closest our author manages to get to his point.  First lets take a look from above.


Isahaya Bay 諫早湾 as viewed from space.

This multi-purpose project has indeed made the news from time to time because of its environmental impact.  The city of Isahaya commonly experiences flooding, occasionally very serious flooding.  One such flood in 1957 claimed the lives of 537 people there.  This project eliminated that flooding, created large swathes of fertile farmland, and built a bridge across the bay.  Unfortunately it seems that the flooding was perhaps pretty important to local fish and wildlife that inhabit the area.  So, after some intense fighting between the local farmers and the local fishers, it has been decided to open some of the gates that separate the sea from the artificial fresh-water lake, to see if that can help with the fish and hopefully not damage the farmland.

In complete contrast to the BBC article, they are not inundating the farmland that has been reclaimed so far, they are merely stopping where they are now.  Originally the whole fresh water lake was to be turned into reclaimed farmland, but instead they are going to keep what farmland they have now, let sea water into the lake, and see whether or not it damages the farms or helps the fishes.

And even if the farmland does become seriously damaged, the project still prevents flooding in the city, and provides a bridge across the bay (there is a road on top of that white line in the picture).

Overall, there are two important things to keep in mind.  First, Japan is a country prone to very serious natural disasters.  I think the whole world realizes this now, but between earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, flash floods, and heavy storms, Japan can be a very dangerous place to live.  As we saw from the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster, nature is unimaginably powerful.  It takes huge projects and lots of money to even have a chance of combating her.  Whether you’re trying to keep people from drowning in the Akashi Strait or in floods in Isahaya City or from dieing in some other way somewhere else, you’re going to need a big project and the money to pay for it in order to keep things from being a total disaster.  And Japan is lucky enough to be a very rich country, it can actually afford to build these kinds of projects and has the technology to make them a success.  You need only look at Haiti or Indonesia to see what kind of devastation nature can wreak on a poorer country.  Japan would be exactly like those places if it wasn’t for its constant spending on these kinds of projects.

Second, why can’t a country have nice things?  It is nice to be able to get where you are going quickly, comfortably, and safely.  Oh no, who wants high speed trains and bridges?  It is far better to have a tax cut so we can each have an extra couple hundred dollars to blow on adding to our already ridiculous collection of consumer electronics.  No.  There is nothing wrong with public works projects.  They make things safer and more environmentally friendly, the actual cost per citizen is very low, and corporations then use them to make even more money.  Even the most conservative economists admit that infrastructure projects create more value than they cost.

Me, I like having nice things.  I really enjoy living in a country where the service is great, food is both healthy and delicious, and everything isn’t falling apart.

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