Thursday, 11 March 2010

Concrete Rivers of Japan

While on my stay here I have observed a fascinating and terrible phenomenon more dangerous to Japan than earthquakes, typhoons or landslides. This phenomenon rises its ugly head from the most remote forests to the downtown cores of every part of Japan. The Japanese government's obsession with concrete on anything and everything has severely distorted the nations rivers and economy. Most small towns and even major cities are reliant on government infrastructure handouts, and the bureaucratic leviathan backing the process up, to the point where cities have spent all their money on a process called "river stabilization". The nature of the beast is that money flows only where it is spent so each prefecture spends all of it's money on such projects to guarantee the same amount of handouts the next year. The result has been disastrous and it is written all over the face of Japan.

For the better part of the country (some 98% of all rivers) dams, concrete river encasements and waterflow baffles have removed any sense of nature from the landscape all in the name of spending government handouts and 1950s style developmentalism. I will not get too far into analyzing bureaucracy and the foolish inefficiencies of Japan's government, but suffice it to say that the Japanese economy has become addicted and indebted to the process of burying the land and rivers in concrete. Lulled by an intense campaign of propaganda and a social order that values hierarchy and subordination, people are not willing to speak out against the lunacy. With the resulting lack of a strong civil society or bureaucratic accountability the machine rolls on, burying Japan's once beautiful landscape in sheets of drabness.
The process is not much lamented by many Japanese people I have spoken to as they feel it is "safer" and more "kirei" to encase all waterways in concrete. In North America we have long realized that concrete is not only ugly it is counterproductive as water can not permeate the barrier and the flow of rivers speeds up and does not filter. So you end up with dirtier, deeper, faster-moving water that cost a lot of money to achieve.
On the topic of "Kirei", a Japanese word which means "neat and clean/beautiful", there exists a sense that "mess" and disorder are to be avoided and everything constantly cleaned. "Kirei" is the reason that city governments cut the limbs off of city trees at the end of summer to keep the leaves from falling "messing up" the grounds. Most people have pointed out that "messy things" like riparian buffer zones of cattails, water loving trees, shrubs and the animals that live in these habitats are not "kirei" are better off "cleaned up". It is viewed as somehow unmodern to most people to just let rivers flow their courses, and construction upon them is a sign of progress, a frame of mind that died out (thankfully) in the 1960s in North America.

Japan has "stabilized" almost every delta, river bed and stream to the point where you can find concrete drainage flues and flood breakwater gates on remote hikes anywhere in the country. This frantic attack on the land stems from the Japanese need for total control noted in Alex Kerr's "Dogs and Demons" and a strange sense that Japan is full of peril and natural dangers, many more than faced by any other country in the world (They obviously have have not visited Hurricane alley, the Tornado plains or the San Andreas fault). Without total control the Japanese government feels that it might lose control, that some natural calamity will overtake the country if some planning office has not approved the flow of every stream and the depth of all lakes. Hence you find a nation covered in concrete.

Alex Kerr has noted that in the "Construction State the situation reaches Kafkaesque extremes, for after generations of laying concrete to no purpose, concrete is becoming a purpose in its own right." Earlier he points out that
"even as Japan fell deeper into recession during the 1990s, it continued to provide more funding for civil-engineering works [on rivers, reclaiming land and covering mountain faces in concrete] than ever before. In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 million tons in the United States. This means that Japan lays thirty times as much per square foot as the United States. In fiscal 1998, spending on public works construction projects came to...$136 billion...the kind of money that dwarfs the building of the Panama canal and far surpasses the budget of the U.S. Space Program. It meant an almost incalculable quantity of concrete and metal structures overlaying rivers, mountains, wetlands and shoreline, in just one year--and a "poor" year at that, since Japan was mired in a recession. One can only imagine the heights that such expenditures may rise to when the economy begins to rise". The laws of bureaucratic inertia have meant that this has only gotten worse in the last decade since Kerr's writing.

I have been shocked by the extent of this addiction Japan has with laying waste to it's natural beauty. The historic cities such as Nara and Kyoto are not exempt from this pattern as even there you will not find a nice view of even one river, and there are several in both cities. I can only hope that the Japanese people start to react to this senseless and bankrupting practice which is erasing natural habitat, water quality and just plain old good views. As a foreigner here for a short time I can only witness it in awe and be glad that I will not be here to live with the consequences.


  1. This is so tragic! I don't think they will see the error of their ways until years down the road. I guess you will enjoy hiking once you come home more than ever after seeing what they have done to their natural landscape.

  2. Yeah it is a very strange and ubiquitous process but at least there are mountains which they mostly leave alone, we are planning on going to see some mostly untouched landscape for our vacation. I think the Japanese cover everything in concrete because they still feel like they are a developing country even though they are not (the second largest economy in the world) and their modern capacity and pre-industrial goals leads them to believe that they are making life better or more developed the more the do. But there are some interesting places left but yeah this will surely make me appreciate the mostly natural landscape of Canada (obviously not the GTA though).