It seems that the old bubble economy stories about Japan are doing the rounds again in business journals and finance websites these days as lazy journalists try to make comparisons between infrastructure spending in Japan during the 1990’s, and the economic stimulus packages being proposed in the U.S and other countries.
But rather than these articles highlighting the folly of the Japanese infrastructure spending they more often than not, simply demonstrate the ignorance of the author and their inability to really understand Japan.
Japan is a mountainous country that is subject to around 20% of the world’s earthquakes. In addition the country is struck annually by a number of typhoons which result in landslides, flooding and heavy seas buffeting coastal areas.
Many rural townships in Japan are accessible only by a bridge and therefore having a good solid bridge that will not fail during an earthquake, or a road that will not be washed away by a landslide is often a matter of life or death.
Thankfully, economists, journalists and analysts etc. are not entrusted with designing and constructing national infrastructure. As a result when they write articles about large bridges in rural areas of Japan they make assumptions based on their own limited knowledge and simply judge that a solid looking multi-lane bridge in Japan is a so called “bridge to nowhere”.
The fact is that these bridges link many small rural communities and are solid and large in nature because they are engineered to withstand large earthquakes and high winds.
These bridges are not aimed at generating ongoing revenue and just because they carry relatively few vehicles does not mean they are over engineered. They are built to survive nature’s fury and in a 100 years time they will still probably be in faithful service. In addition heavy equipment (such as excavators) may need to cross these bridges after landslides and this is another reason that they tend to be of solid construction. Makes perfect sense to me.
Another target for ridicule by western observers is some of the apparently large community and sporting facilities in rural Japan. However what these observers fail to appreciate is often these facilities are used as evacuation centres and can shelter for people for many days during typhoons or after earthquakes.
So perhaps a town looks small, but remember in the advent of a major disaster the centre may have to house a few hundred people from the surrounding region.
Then there are dams which help prevent major floods (which use to kill hundreds in the past), coastal barriers to prevent seaside communities from heavy seas and concrete cladding on hillsides to prevent landslides. These might seems wasteful to some people, but they have without doubt saved lives. Again this infrastructure will be in use for a hundred years or more. Wasteful spending…I think not.
To an economist I guess a back-up system on a commercial aircraft is probably unnecessary, unless of course they are on the plane.
In the past I spent several years working in engineering roles in Japan, and during that time I came to appreciate why some things appear “over engineered”. However when storms and earthquakes do strike what is actually surprising is the lack of damage caused, compare this for example to the chaos caused when Hurricane Katrina struck the United States.
The Japanese also spent much effort and money repairing the damage caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and this work had nothing to do with any economic stimulus package. There was also a lot of retro fit work needed as a result of the lessons learned from this earthquake, but many economists fail to mention this when they ridicule the amount of money the Japanese government spent on construction related projects in the 1990’s.
Of course there were projects that were ill conceived or motivated more by politics than necessity, but this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Japan. However in general the roads, bridges,dams,concrete barriers and community centres will reap benefits for the nation long after their critics have gone.