The enigma of Japanese infrastructure

There’s a reason, beyond the shock and sadness brought on by preventable deaths, why people in wealthy countries respond with such anger and disbelief when public infrastructure fails with devastating results.

Rightly or wrongly, safe and reliable roads, bridges, and tunnels have become de facto human rights, something taken for granted, ignored, even neglected. When what we expect to be invisible in function and flawless in operation fails, our faith is shaken and our anger roused. Collapsing bridges and crumbling tunnels have a way of raising uncomfortable and important questions about priorities and values.

These questions have a certain poignancy, and long historical context, in Japan. The collapse of the ceiling in the Sasago expressway tunnel, 80 kilometers west of Tokyo, is just one more example of the preventable crumbling into the incomprehensible.

Because there are few other countries in which faith in safe, well designed, and resilient public infrastructure should be so well placed. And so necessary. Since 2003 Japan has spent upwards of $200 billion on public construction projects every year, a staggering 40% of the national budget. And Japanese construction firms win international awards, and big dollar contracts, for projects around the world. This is a country that knows how to build.

That know-how and expertise make domestic failures such as the Sasago tunnel collapse all the more disheartening. If commuters can’t have faith in something as simple as the concrete ceiling in an expressway tunnel, how much of what they drive on, live in, pass under, and stand on can they have faith in?

In 2012, it shouldn’t be a matter of faith. Humans have been building stout tunnels for a very long time. The Terelek kaya tüneli under the Kızıl River in Turkey is estimated to have been constructed over 2,000 years ago. Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered the construction of a tunnel along the Via Flaminia road, parts of which remain in use today. And in England, the Sapperton Long Tunnel opened in 1789 between the Thames and Severn Canal, and was once the longest tunnel in the United Kingdom.

And there are plenty examples of Japanese infrastructure wonders, from bridges and tunnels to grand damns and artificial islands (95 in Osaka Bay alone). Yet even without Godzilla’s flailing tail, Japan has suffered more than its share of construction disasters. In the realm of cinema, many of these disasters would seem comedic, improbable, bizarre.

In reality, they are dark tragedies because most of them could have been prevented. When considered in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on needless construction projects — Japan’s infamous and countless roads, bridges, and tunnels to nowhere — a deeper national tragedy emerges. In this context Japan’s construction waste, successes, and innovations are like salt on an open wound.

But they shouldn’t be. That so few casualties occur in a country with so many natural disasters and such a high population density is testament to Japan’s civil engineering and construction expertise. Forty stories up, when the big one strikes and the walls begin to wobble, a Japanese-built skyscraper is quite probably the safest man-made structure to find yourself in. You’ll say your prayers, but you’ll live to laugh about it.

This makes perfect sense. From adjustable-height airports to skyscrapers with independent suspension, Japanese companies are at the forefront of earthquake resistant design and construction. It’s understandable that safety and innovation are taken for granted by many people in Japan. The ability to do so is a first world luxury.

What doesn’t make sense, what’s never made sense in Japan, is how smaller feats of public engineering, such as expressway tunnel ceilings, compare so poorly. Outside of the gleaming cities, the scene is very different. On a recent drive through the countryside, the state of public infrastructure reminded me more of rust belt counties of the United States than of prefectures just outside of Tokyo.

In one afternoon, I drove over and walked under rusty bridges that seemed derelict but for the high volume of industrial traffic driving over them. I parked on road shoulders that were crumbling into adjacent rice fields, their dangers unmarked. And in several areas, the stained and dingy concrete lining the walls and ceilings of secondary route tunnels looked as if its defiance of gravity could come to an end any second. Scary stuff.

Looks are often deceiving, and I’d like to think any civil engineer could cast out my fears with one glance. But the doubts inspired by the still settling dust of the Sasago tunnel remain, and seem very reasonable.

It’s true that Japan does a remarkable job maintaining a vast amount of public infrastructure. The Japanese climate is severe, the mountainous terrain challenging, the tectonic plates unrelenting. And the country is vast for its relatively diminutive size, with over 8,000 kilometers of mirror smooth expressways alone. What seems straightforward enough — inspecting and maintaining roads, bridges, and tunnels — daunting and expensive given the scale. Add in deep corruption and powerful lobbyist, and the reality darkens considerably.

But the enigma of Japanese infrastructure — that skyscrapers withstand the strongest of quakes, yet commuters die in expressway tunnels that collapse for no reason — is no longer excusable, not that it has ever been. The ability to pass through tunnels without having to look up and worry is a right that should have been bought and paid for by the billions of dollars Japanese taxpayers spend on public works each year. And it’s been paid for with far too many innocent lives.

It would be nice to think those lives did not end in vain, that changes to standards, inspections, maintenance schedules, and laws will be made to save lives in the future, not risk them. It would be nice to think that instead of more monumental bridges and highways to nowhere, a simple tunnel could have its ceiling inspected and repaired.

Because uncomfortable, important questions need to be asked. They are being asked, they have been asked. They just aren’t being answered. Until they are, it’s business as usual for public infrastructure projects in Japan. And the enigma of Japanese infrastructure remains.

Author Infomation

Dan Hilton
Dan Hilton
  • 3

    volland

    You quote the problem, but you did not see it?

    "Since 2003 Japan has spent upwards of $200 billion on public construction projects every year, a staggering 40% of the national budget."

    The question is how much of this money wnet into the projeczts, and how much of it vanished into pockets in the corruption channels. If Japan wants an infrastructure that can be called First World, then its people need to go against the corruption. In other words: Nothing will ever change.

  • 4

    cornbread1

    Nothing puzzling about this. It's just that govt workers are not proactive, simply reactive: they start doing things only after an unfortunate disaster occurs. Until then, they just sit comfortably and wait.

    Govt workers, including the police here, need to be proactive, to check, enforce, etc. to ensure codes and regulations are being met.

  • -7

    technosphere

    why people in wealthy countries respond with such anger and disbelief when public infrastructure fails with devastating results.

    Because most of mentioned people from "wealthy countries" arrogant, semiliterate or plain stupid.

  • 7

    Thomas Anderson

    The Japanese construction corruption... One of the issues that the Japanese strangely never touch upon.

  • 6

    Thomas Anderson

    If Japan wants an infrastructure that can be called First World, then its people need to go against the corruption.

    The Japanese people need to stand up to corruption on their own. The Japanese people need to be more vigilant and skeptical. The Japanese media need to stop being such spineless sycophants of the establishment.

    They've been trained to never question anything, never be responsible for anything and pretend and keep the illusion that the country is like a "big family".

  • 6

    zichi

    Rightly or wrongly, safe and reliable roads, bridges, and tunnels have become de facto human rights, something taken for granted, ignored, even neglected.

    I don't think its a case of human rights. Advanced countries like Japan, Europe and America which have the technical abilities and engineers to ensure the safety of the transport infrastructure but fail to do so because money is diverted elsewhere or a schedule of updating is not put in place.

    Failing infrastructures is a problem for all the advanced countries because the money wasn't spend on the way creating an eventual situation that now massive monies here and in other countries is needed to update those failing structures.

    I don't think there have been more failures here than in other countries, putting aside the problems from major earthquakes.

    Its always very sad when people are killed in a tragic failure like the collapsed tunnel or the Fukushima nuclear disaster when the technology was available to prevent them from happening.

    It will now cost ¥50 trillion to clan up the mess at Fukushima, thousands of times more than it would have cost TEPCO to have updated the safety at their plant.

  • 6

    zichi

    @volland

    "Since 2003 Japan has spent upwards of $200 billion on public construction projects every year, a staggering 40% of the national budget."

    The question is also how much of that money was for new builds and now how for updating aging infrastructures?

  • 7

    zichi

    I think Japan has achieved many remarkable civil engineering projects, like the world's longest suspension bridge at Akashi and the world's longest rail tunnel linking Hokkaido to Honshu.

  • 2

    Balefire

    I believe that a big part of the problem is that although building the structures is very popular, is very dramatic, and garners lots of public support (i.e., votes) for the politicians, especially in the disproportionately powerful hinterlands, spending the money year in and year out for the much less dramatic but equally--if not more--necessary maintenance is a very different story.

    We might see a more rational view of public works projects if each project were proposed, publicly and (dare I say) truthfully, with the cost of building and the cost, year by year, of maintenance clearly indicated. Perhaps that would reduce the enthusiasm for new projects, ensure that real necessity rather than pork barrel politics drove building, and free more money for upkeep.

  • 3

    zichi

    Since there are two tunnels at the Sasago tunnel, each with two lanes, there's not a single reason why the expressway company couldn't have closed one tunnel overnight while it conducted full safety checks and maintenance.

    The cost of the safety checks and maintenance is for the expressway company and not the taxpayer. The same is truth now with repairing and updating the tunnels.

  • 0

    cornbread1

    "I think Japan has achieved many remarkable civil engineering projects, like the world's longest suspension bridge at Akashi and the world's longest rail tunnel linking Hokkaido to Honshu."

    Without a doubt, constructed by the construction companies--Shimizu, Ohbayashi, Kajima, etc. and NOT by the government.

    The Haneda extension and the Tokyo Aqualine are without a doubt state of the art!

  • 1

    JeffLee

    Japan's infrastructure is patchy: it swings between very good to very bad, with little in between. The vanity projects that end up on postcards are the good. The more ground-level stuff can be really bad.

    My suburban bus stop is a steel post sunk into an impossibly narrow sidewalk on a very busy road: that's it. My previous suburban bus stop in another country consisted of a bench inside a large plexiglass shelter, another bench outside and a grassy boulevard where people sat on warm days. Well, at least there's a sidewalk; most streets in my neighborhood have no sidewalks, and the telephone poles are actually in the road.

    That's the result of insufficient land appropriation. My neighborhood is relatively new: it was rice paddies after the war ended. It has since developed into a mess of narrow streets with scant green space, few sidewalks and no boulevards. That's the "Infrastructure" that I deal with day to day, and I ain't impressed.

  • 2

    senseiman

    Reasonable points in the article.

    Just from my day to day observations I`ve always felt, as other commenters have suggested, that the problem lies in a skewering of budget priorities towards building stuff rather than maintaining it. I see this a lot with public parks that have a lot of expensive looking statues and other things installed but are basically abandoned once completed and spend there whole existence covered in waist high weeds that get cleared only once a year.

  • 0

    Fadamor

    I'm not an engineer, but it seems to me that there is an obvious difference between the tunnels in Japan and the tunnels he notes that have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years: Earthquakes. Japan exeriences thousands more every year than those other locations do. Yes, Japanese skyscrapers are more limber than some yoga students, but their ability to "go with the flow" is something that can never be designed into a tunnel. You're talking in the one case about a structure waving in the air as its base is shook. In the other case you're talking about a structure locked inside the earth that's doing the shaking. There's no place in the structure to incorporate flexibility.

  • 0

    japan_cynic

    I think the author needs a sense of proportion. 100% safe is never going to happen, and even 99.99999% would cost more money than we have. People can wring their hands all they like, but that's the reality.

    You want to get worked up about something, how about the thousands run down by car drivers each year? That's a lot more preventable deaths than the infinitesimal odds of a tunnel (or other infrastructure) failure.

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