Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

In the early 1990s, construction investment overall in Japan consumed 18.2 percent of the gross national product, versus 12.4 percent in the United Kingdom and only 8.5 percent in the United States. Japan spent about 8 percent of its GDP on public works (versus 2 percent in the United States -- proportionally four times more). By 2000 it was estimated that Japan was spending about 9 percent of its GDP on public works (versus only 1 percent in the United States): in a decade, the share of GDP devoted to public works has risen to nearly ten times that of the United States. -- The colossal subsidies flowing to construction mean that the combined national budget devotes an astounding 40 percent of expenditures to public works (versus 8 to 10 percent in the United States and 4 to 6 percent in Britain and France). -- by 1998 it (the construction industry) employed 6.9 million people, more than 10 percent of Japan's workforce--more than double the relative numbers in the United States and Europe. Experts estimate that as many as one in five jobs in Japan depends on construction, if one includes work that derives indirectly from public-works contracts. -- In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 millions tons in the United States. This means that Japan lays about thirty times as much per square foot as the United States. -- By the end of the century...shoreline that had been encased in concrete has risen to 60 percent or more. -- There are more than a thousand controlled hazardous substances in the United States,...In Japan, as of 1994 only a few dozen substances were subject to government controls...

Japan spends more money on roads than on education and more on building hospitals than on paying doctors. Construction and politics in Japan are extremely intertwined. This I find it amusing when the new Prime Minister is the former president and from the family of one of the largest cement companies, Aso Cement. Nothing personal for or against PM Taro Aso, but it's just so clear. ;-)


Hi Joi,

That's interesting - I had wondered what these synthetic doggers were all about when I visited Okinawa a few years ago!

I'd just assumed they were preventing erosion, but was undecided on whether they were aesthetically pleasing in a modernistic way, or a minor blot on the landscape.

So had there been any erosion, or are these just here because they needed somewhere to put concrete?!


I don't think anyone is too surprised, nor do I think there will be any new changes to much of the foreign policies and activities that Japanese politicians and leaders of construction and heavy industry do overseas. But Joi, I have to ask, with all these LDP Prime Ministers post-Koizumi dropping out, what's the future going to be after Prime Minister Aso? Early elections booting the LDP out, or does any of the opposition as such have now a stronger foothold to try and put a not-so KY leader up on the podium?

really I am not surprised about these facts. for example in France more of corruption included local politicians (and even national) and construction companies. and more big french companies get contracts through corruption in former French colonized countries. moreover, it is more easy to earn money through such fraudulent contracts than hiring doctors or investing in education :)


if you were here @ Argentina, where the "thirld world politics" rules... i;d say that im not surprised since construction can pay bribes to corrupt politicias, somenthing i would never say from other country than mine (well, i might say that from Italy too :P)

Yes, it's SO clear. And the more I continue reading about Aso, the less I believe in Japanese democracy or whatever it is....

-He is the grandson of ex-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.
-His wife is the daughter of ex-Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
-He is great-grandson of Okubo Toshimichi. Important guy in the Meiji Restoration.
-His sister is married to a Emperor Akihito first-cousin.

it seems a royal family!!!

Btw, funny picture :)

Check out the superb John Rain assassin thrillers by Barry Eisler. Rain is half Japanese, and the early novels are set partially in Japan with an extended description of the connection between Japanese politics, the construction industry and, uhh, organized crime.

Thank goodness Mr. Eisler has come along and expanded my knowledge of Japan beyond what I learned from Mr. Clavell.


Interesting observation, Americans noticed certain industry focuses when we have different presidents too. I suspect it's a human behavior, not uncommon to any culture. I'll be in Tokyo in a month, and would love to see you at this blogger dinner, hope you can attend.

I'd love to hear more about your observations of politics there.

What really worries me is that the political system in Japan has become so reliant on the construction industry for funding that any kind of meaningful change to the way the government allocates its budget is impossible, regardless of who is in charge.

I've been wanting to read "Dogs and Demons" for years, but I can't help thinking that, as long as I'm living in Japan, it would leave me far to depressed and pessimistic about the state of the country. Maybe save it for when/if I need to come up with some good reasons to leave!

"Japan spends more money on roads than on education and more on building hospitals than on paying doctors. Construction and politics in Japan are extremely intertwined."

What makes this fact even more painful is that local taxes saw a huge increase here in the Kanto region last year.

And they spend more on building museums than on art collections and on curators and researchers.

I was wander that there are many Japanese construction engineer in my country (Vietnam), so now I know. simply, they are doing some on site work. same as us, we are going to Japanese and coding. I hope some day I will have a short time onsite in Japan too, long time is not interesting as short.

A question, though. There seems such suspicion and so forth about the construction industry, and perhaps there is some justification, as any large business area.

However, as far as Japan doing a lot of construction, why is this not completely sensible when there are not other jobs that can be made possible for a large segment of the population?

I have many years of memories in Britain of the 'cones' -- endless stretches of motorway filled with safety cones, while construction was done on them during economic low points through the 90's.

It just seems sensible to me, until we create with our new tools and new thinking, new work that 'ordinary' persons can do.


Narr Ito.

Joi Ito, a few years after you wrote this post, Taro Aso is the finance minister and he's justifying a record expenditure in public works project by using the fear of tsunami and the government responsibility to protect the people. So what are they spending the money for? Building 20 meter concrete walls along many parts of the coastline and dumping more tetrapods everywhere, even on virgin beaches that no one knows about.

Recently I showed a Japanese waiter in Paris the image of a tetrapod on the ground (on my phone). I asked him what comes up in his mind when he looks at the picture. His immediate answer with no hesitation was: UMI !! (the sea)

So here you have it. People in Japan have been desensitized to this catastrophic and very rapid destruction of their beautiful natural environment. They think it's the way it's supposed to be. According to Alex Kerr from the book you quote, the Japanese government also allocates a humongous budget on propaganda material, via NHK documentaries, posters and education material. The point of this propaganda is to desensitized people when they see a beach covered in concrete, and make them feel it's normal , "shio ga nai" (Nothing one can do about it), and part of the environment and for the greater good.

A good example of this, for instance, is 2 signs on the road, one pointing to the Kikuchi water falls, and another pointing to a huge dam. Both are supposed to be for visitors wanting to see the most scenic places. The distinction between nature and man made structures that destroy it becomes blurred. These are very subliminal messages, but they are all around, even on constructions signs (singing birds and smiling dolphins, happy trees). The irony of course is that constructions never make birds sing or trees smile, they get rid of them.

After the lost decade of the 90s and cumulative public debt the Japanese people had enough of this politic of waste and needless public works, so they elected to power a new government which promised to reduce public works spending (NDP). What a reversal of situation we now have! The 3/11 catastrophe and the LDP coup d'etat that followed has brought us once again the Construction State, but this time on steroids: ( )

What's most unfortunate, is that this government is destroying everything that makes Japan a country worth visiting. By destroying the beauty of the Japanese landscape, they are destroying the economic future of Japan, one that they project will be based partly on tourism from abroad. In 2014, Japan saw a record number of visitors due in part to an international campaign to promote Japan. Ironically ,this increase in visitors has been happening since after the 3/11 tsunami and nuclear catastrophe.

Unfortunately, promoting the beauty of Japan while destroying it is a completely unsustainable strategy. I personally know Europeans who've dreamed of visiting Japan, and after they finally did, they were met with disappointment at the sight of concreted coastlines and ugly towns that look the same everywhere they went.

The strategy used by the Japanese government to promote Japan is akin to an internet start-up that spends millions on advertising and customer acquisition. The only problem is, millions of users may sign-up, but they rarely come back if the product is not good. If user retention is negative, no amount of advertising can save a start-up.

The very little left of beautiful Japan needs to be protected, and other places restored to their previous state if Japan is to be saved. Unfortunately, if the Japanese equate sea with tetrapods, rivers with concrete, and nature as "INAKA" _ a place for peasant where there's nothing to do or see _ the chance of a change in policy and the end of the corrupt Construction State will take generations to take place. By that time it will be too late, as there will be nothing left to remind people how beautiful Japan once was.

My hope is that we won't reach this point of no return. That the construction state becomes the restoration state. In other words that a new trend in public works project emerge and transforms this industry for the greater good. There are 10s of 1000s of km of concreted coastline that have lost all their sand due to coastal engineering projects ( if one can even call it engineering ). Most rivers are so concreted they bring no sediment to the shoreline and salmons can no longer swim upstream. This is not the country visitors imagine: A high-tech country where people live in harmony with nature guided by Shinto principles of respect and reverence for nature and all living things.