Friday, March 14, 2008

Your test, should you choose to accept it

Psychology 101 - Mass delusion
(Essay question - 20 points)

With the enthusiastic support of Diet members, Shinkansen train lines are being extended to Kyūshū in an effort to improve access to economically disadvantaged areas. Income projections indicate that these lines will never earn enough to settle the loans taken out to build them. In order to pay for the rights-of-way and settle "nuisance" claims, the railway companies intend to transfer to the prefectural governments their landholdings ("Excellent economic development opportunities!") along existing JR rail lines. The prefectural governments, strapped for cash, decide to in turn transfer these landholdings to local communitie--this in lieu of transfering tax revenues. Local mayors and town councils, knowing they are given improperly assessed landholdings in lieu of the cash they need for their operating expences, refuse to accept the land. The prefectures and the railway companies sign an agreement to build the Shinkansen lines anyway. The new Shinkansen line will have no stops servicing the local communities being saddled with the twice-transferred trackside landholdings.

With the stars invisible, the late night television programs cover the last run of the overnight Blue Train service from Kyōto to Kyūshū and from Tokyo to Ōsaka. All is sepia-tinted floods of tears and plastic-wrapped bouquets. Silver-maned male commentators and their mahogany-tressed female counterparts recall how wonderful the Shōwa Era was. They wonder why the Japanese people are abandoning their cultural treasures and touchstones. Individualism and Koizumi reforms are mentioned as the likely culprits.



Anonymous said...


I think we should distinguish between the nostalgia of TV as opposed to what typical people think. TV loves to broadcast sentimental pieces, while ignoring the actual causes of problems. The Japanese public seems much more aware of the problems with the system, but, as always, says "shikata ga nai".

So, in a sense, I see the problem has being one of getting the public to imagine positive change that isn't driven from the top, such as with the Meiji and US Occupation periods.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't this resistance to urbanization occur in every country?

I agree that it is to some extent a failure of imagination among Japanese voters. I mean, you get these hopeless rural development projects everywhere, but in Japan they seem to expect not much else out of their politicians. The bureaucrats are supposed to be the (occasional) drivers of positive change.

In the last two elections, however, they seem to have woken up to other possibilities.

MTC said...

anonymous -

Agreed. My own meetings with local officials, NGO members and just about anyone who wants to talk have convinced me that the majority of folks are not only aware of the absurdity of the status quo but are also sick to death of it.

christopher -

The extension of the Shinkansen to Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Hokkaidō does not seem to be related to urbanization.

In theory, the Shinkansen is an intercity transport system, linking existing urban units, easing congestion and shortening travel times between centers.

The new lines however, are only reducing travel times--there is no congestion to relieve. As for their ability to all value to a depressed regions, the further north and south the lines extend, the more they come into competition with the incumbent airlines and airports.

From the sales pitches, the new extensions are designed to reverse the main flow of urbanization over the last 100 years--the self-interest-driven shifting of the population from the chihō to the Kantō, Kansai and Fukuoka urban megacenters. By making it easier to speed out to the increasingly underpopulated chihō, the new Shinkansen lines are supposed freeze or even reverse the main postwar urban migration pattern.

MTC said...

Whoa, what happened?

The above, discombobulated section should read:

"The new lines however, are only reducing travel times--there is no congestion to relieve. As for their ability to increase the value of distant, depressed regions, the further north and south the lines extend, the more they come into competition with the incumbent airlines and airports."

Anonymous said...

Well yeah, that's what I meant... The shinkansen extensions are intended to reverse the urbanization that is ongoing, and therefore are a "resistance to urbanization".

I mean, it may sound harsh but I don't think there's much reason for anyone to live anywhere in Kyushu besides Fukuoka. So I'd be including, for example, people moving from Nagasaki to Fukuoka in this urbanization.

Anonymous said...


I don't think you can think of some of this as being related to urbanization as such. The bureaucratic system requires constantly going to where the bureaucrats are for approval to go to the bathroom. This drives businesses to move there. It's hard to imagine how ridiculous this is until you've had to deal with it.

The sales pitch to people in places like Kagoshima is that they'll prolong their deaths in the current lousy system if they support the Shinkansen, but that's an argument made by people who are going to get a cut of the action.

And I have to question whether the country really only needs a few megacities. This seems to come down to politics: countries that are fairly decentralized, such as the US and Germany, have multiple centers, while centralized countries, such as Britain and France, force everything to come to the capital.

As for me, I think it would be a tragedy if the US moved to the model of forcing everyone into, say, four or five cities, and left the rest to rot.