The Sky Is Falling

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Nothing better symbolized postwar Japan's economic miracle than its shinkansen. Fast, efficient and with a dazzling design, the bullet train looked like something out of Tomorrowland on its maiden trip in 1964 from Tokyo to Osaka. The speediest locomotive the world had ever seen, the shinkansen signaled an astonishing comeback for a country physically and spiritually humiliated at the end of World War II. Futurologist Herman Kahn, on board for the return leg of that inaugural journey, was so moved that he predicted the 21st century would be the Japanese century. The miracle has long since run out of steam, of course, and the bullet train can now be added to the roster of the mighty that have fallen. Just as years of prosperity masked flaws in the country's financial foundations, cracks are beginning to appear in the train system as well. Since last June, there have been at least 20 cases of concrete falling from tunnel walls onto tracks. In one instance, chunks smashed a freight train, causing it to derail; in another, falling pieces hit an auto beneath an overpass. While inspecting tunnels in December, the private railway company that operates bullet trains in western Japan found about 40,000 weak sections. Says Iwao Tsukahara, a worker in Saga prefecture who helped build the rail lines: Knowing how the work was done, I wouldn't ride the shinkansen.

The crumbling concrete is graphic evidence of the rotting underbelly of Japan's economy. Workers often cut corners to finish construction quickly. Steel-reinforcement rods sometimes weren't installed at all. Poor-quality cement was used: when Japan ran out of sand from its riverbeds, it substituted beach sand without removing the salt, an ingredient that accelerates corrosion. More than three decades of daily pounding has created a recipe for disaster. There is no way to estimate the extent of the fatigue, writes Kazusuke Kobayashi, an engineering professor at the Chiba Institute of Technology, whose book Concrete Is in Danger was a bestseller last year. The possibility of an overpass suddenly collapsing while a bullet train runs through cannot be ruled out.
Japanese engineers are disturbed by how little money the country spends on maintenance. Taketo Uomoto, a University of Tokyo engineering professor, figures that less than 10% of the country's construction budget goes toward preservation and repair. We don't have a habit of taking care of existing structures, he says. Historically we had wood structures that were destroyed by fires so regularly that we got used to rebuilding. Hosei University political scientist Takayoshi Igarashi believes the neglect has a sinister motivation: Japanese construction companies, which have considerable political clout, make a lot more money building new roads, dams and train lines than they can patching up the existing ones.

So the country keeps building. And building. Japan is like a drug addict, says Igarashi, who likens the national appetite for concrete and steel to a junkie's craving for his next fix. In 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available, Japan spent 15% of its GDP on construction, compared with less than 8% in the U.S. What Japan has done is far more enormous than anything the socialist countries did, says Igarashi. The spending continued during the boom years and even after the bubble burst a decade ago. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi shows no signs of trying to kick the construction habit. Since taking office 18 months ago, he has made old-fashioned Keynesian pump-priming a centerpiece of his economic recovery plan, spending $142 billion on supplementary budgets to pay for public-works projects.

All that building has left Tokyo and other local governments with debt totaling an estimated $6 trillion. Landscapes are littered not only with crumbling tunnels and bridges, but also with white-elephant projects built to win votes and reward construction companies for their patronage. That's why rural Oita prefecture in Kyushu built an airport used almost exclusively by farmers to fly their green onions and bell peppers to Tokyo. And why Kyushu's Kagoshima prefecture has a $117 million, 675-m bridge that connects the mainland with an island inhabited by 350 people. Hokkaido has a wide ribbon of highway that almost nobody drives on. And Kobe is building an airport even though there's a perfectly fine terminal in Osaka, just 30 km away.

The good news is that all of this new construction should benefit from past mistakes. The government has implemented stricter building codes since the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when elevated highways believed to be quake-proof toppled like dominoes. But Japan's real challenge will be repairing cracks in the concrete before any bridges, tunnels or buildings collapse. A lot of things were built to last only 50 years, says Uomoto. To be sure, the bullet trains still look grand. The question is how long can they dodge the concrete that is falling onto the tracks -- and chipping away at the myth of Japan's economic miracle.

With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo