C.W. Nicol

This is the second installment in an ongoing discussion with C.W. Nicol, one of Japan’s most influential and outspoken environmentalists.

The destruction of Japan’s natural resources through public works projects is rather well known, in part due to books by Alex Kerr and Nicol’s own endeavors. Wasteful public works projects seem to have abated in recent years, but we asked Nicol his opinion of the matter.

I don’t think you can understand the construction and public works splurge in Japan without having a glimpse of the mindset of the man who was probably the most influential politician ‘fixer’ of the last half century.

Tanaka Kakuei was born in Niigata prefecture, on the Sea of Japan, in 1918. His family failed in a venture to start the first dairy farm in that prefecture and was very poor. Young Tanaka left school and got a job in construction. He had the luck to meet and talk with Viscount Okochi, who helped him start off with a drafting office in 1937. He was drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria, but returned to Japan to recover from pneumonia in 1942, and never returned to military service again.

During the war he met the widow of the late president of the Sakamoto Civil Engineering Company and impressed her so much that she arranged a marriage for him with her daughter. Tanaka, thus, the son of a desperately poor rural farmer, married into money and the upper class.

In 1942 Tanaka renamed the company the Tanaka Civil Engineering and Construction Company. Despite the horrendous damage by firebombing in Tokyo and elsewhere, none of the main Tanaka buildings were destroyed, and just before the war ended Tanaka absconded with the equivalent of about $US78 million in Japanese war bonds—an immense fortune—and cashed them in Korea.

With Japan defeated, the first post-war Diet was formed under the watch of General MacArthur, and Tanaka doled out generous donations to a new political party called ‘The Japan Moderate Progressive Party’. In 1946 Tanaka entered the election race but failed miserably.

He ran for election again in 1947, appealing to the desperately poor rural voters of his home prefecture. With his gruff, rough manners and his background, the Niigata voters identified with him. He won this time. In 1949 he switched allegiance to the Democrat Liberal Party and became Vice Minister of Justice, the youngest in Japanese history. That same year he was arrested for accepting a million yen (a huge sum then) in bribes from the Kyushu coal mining groups, a group that had profited immensely from the war and from the use of slave labourers and prisoners. They were notoriously corrupt. Tanaka got out of jail on bail, made a deal, gave up his post as vice Minister, but was allowed to stay in the party.

Tanaka was supported by the Etsuzankai (Etsu was an old name for the Niigata area), a hugely powerful group with 100,000 members who reviewed vetted requests and petitions from villagers in rural Niigata. Tanaka favoured these requests with pork barrel projects, the largest of which was the Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Niigata city. He became a hero to the Niigata people because of the many lucrative construction projects that he sponsored.

In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party absorbed the DLP and Tanaka became its most influential and infamous member. He served as Prime Minister from 1972 to 1974.

In 1976 the vice chairman of Lockheed Corporation told a US subcommittee that the corporation had paid Tanaka almost several million dollars in bribes while he was Prime Minister. Kissinger tried to suppress this scandal for security reasons, but Tanaka was arrested. The Lockheed trial ended on October 12th, 1983 and Tanaka was found guilty. He posted bond and spent the rest of his life with his case in appeals. He died in 1993.

I found it hard to understand in my earlier years in Japan how such a vulgar, pompous and obviously corrupt man could have such a devoted following, but I supposed that it was because of his money and his generosity to those close to him. Even now, a lot of the older Niigata people regard Tanaka Kakuei as a hero. He left many followers in politics too.

One of these is Ozawa Ichiro, the modern political kingpin who was elected to the Diet in 1969 as a disciple of Tanaka, and was later a supporter of the notoriously corrupt Kanemaru Shin. He was behind some of Japan’s most environmentally damaging projects. Ozawa himself was indicted in 2011 over controversial land purchases.

Putting it simply, Diet politicians have greatly relied on the votes of rural voters. In local rural politics also, all too often it is the man who will promise to bring public works to his town or village who is supported and becomes mayor. Ever since 1980 I have lived here in Shinano town (not really a town but a collection of widely separate communities) whose population is now just under ten thousand, and I have seen and heard far too much to have much faith in Japanese politics.

Soon after I became a Japanese citizen in 1995, Mr. Hatoyama Yukio (who later became Prime Minister) asked me to go into politics. Although I respected and liked him, and would never accuse him of being corrupt, he certainly had to work in that odious world of wheeling and dealing. In a way I felt honoured that he should ask me, but I couldn’t see myself in that world. Later I was approached in the same way by Mr. Kan Naoto (who also became Prime Minister). Mr. Kan is a very sincere and hardworking man, one whom I believed could do a lot for the environment in general and for sustainable forestry in particular. But I’m glad I didn’t accept, for even a good man like Mr. Kan got mired in the swamp of back-stabbing politics.

Now, against that political background, 98% of Japan’s rivers have been dammed, with little or no thought for the salmon and other fish that used to migrate up them. Wetlands have been land-filled, often as a means to get rid of garbage. Even remote mountain streams have been lined with concrete, ruining the formerly pristine aquatic habitat. There are 2450 golf courses in Japan, mostly built by ripping away hilly, forested areas during the ‘bubble’ times of 1980’s and early 1990’s. If you come into Tokyo’s airports you look down and see them all over; they look like a yellowish mange on an otherwise healthy dog. Alex Kerr has done a remarkable job in writing about this, and I agree with almost everything he says. One could fill a thick book with examples.

Japan is practically bankrupt because of squandering money on mostly needless public works. The nation imports most of its food and timber, and the population of farmers and foresters is in steep decline, with most of them aged sixty-five and older. Driving, walking or cycling around our area, I see very few young folk working the fields, but pachinko parlours have sprung up in the countryside where they were never seen before, all over Japan. If people devoted even half the time that they spend on golf courses or in pachinko parlours in their fields and forests, the nation would be thriving.

Although I have met and discussed things at length with a few very good, sincere politicians who try to be honest and do what they can for the country, Japanese politics is a quagmire, and I—and indeed the majority of the Japanese people—have lost confidence in politicians’ ability or even will to rule wisely. More than a year after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on March 11th 2011, we are already confronted with environmentally and economically insane plans to build massive sea walls around Japan. But I’ll come to that later…




















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