Concrete, Corruption and Japan

the problem

The construction and engineering industry in Japan since WWII has been the envy of the world in many ways, not only for the technology developed and the scale of individual projects but in the magnitude and reach of the industry as a whole.

However many people believe that as a result of big business (and the notoriously corrupt relationship between Japanese business and politics) the bureaucrats who run Japan have systematically destroyed their own country over the last few decades, with the construction industry playing a major role. A prolific number of completely unnecessary and incredibly expensive public works projects – pointless highways, nonsensical bridges and dams – have been well documented; built not to benefit the public but in order to protect the industry and in the process line the pockets of bureaucrats, and maintain budgets and future funding.

a concrete frenzy

Concrete is really big business in Japan. Not only in the incredible urban development, but also the outrageous exploitation of natural areas. An estimated 50-60% of Japan’s waterways – lakes, rivers and seafronts – have now been concreted in some form. In fact only 3 of Japan’s 142 larger rivers still have their natural banks.

Of course this construction frenzy plays havoc with local ecosystems, and natural species have fast disappeared from many areas where formerly they were plentiful. Japan’s authorities show a horrendous lack of concern at the severe destruction being wrought. The country’s record of environmental awareness is at best blissfully ignorant and at worst indiscriminately and unreservedly negligent.

Whether one can simply blame the government and construction industry is questionable – perhaps the situation might not be so severe were public apathy not so prevalent, however the nature of the obedient Japanese people is to defer to and capitulate with the established hierarchies. To openly express outrage or disagreement and to publicly protest are not considered socially acceptable behaviour. There is also general acknowledgement that the existing bureaucratic systems are impenetrable, secretive and rigid.


One of the most hotly debated points regarding construction is that of the justification for tetrapods along Japan’s coastlines. Tetrapod manufacturers of course are one group of companies which have benefitted most from the construction and concrete boom, but the question has not yet been satisfactorily answered – are they actually necessary? Those involved in the industry claim tetrapods are vital to prevent erosion of the coastline. Others point out that the coast of Japan was doing just fine and didn’t erode away in the centuries before the pods came along, and argue that they are simply another profit-making exercise, one which comes at the expense of the natural landscape. It has also been claimed that in many cases the presence of tetrapods actually increases erosion.

Further information, as well as some great tetrapod photographs, can be found on the following pages:
1. fascinating reading and industry information here
2. short article with great photos here
3. article and photos here
4. elegant tetrapod images here

further reading

For those interested in learning more about this issue of construction and corruption in Japan, as well as a number of other well-argued criticisms of different aspects of Japanese society (including education, architecture and the changing popular culture), I highly recommend Alex Kerr’s book Dogs And Demons. It gives quite a one-sided view, focussing on the negative aspects, but does so in a comprehensive and detailed manner, and not without an underlying sense of heartfelt disappointment emerging from the outrage.

Amazon links, both with an excellent range of reviews:
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan (UK)
Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan (US)

~ by JapanGasm on 27 November, 2009.

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