Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Wasting Money and Taking Money

Asahi Super Dry congratulates Ibaraki on it's White Elephant.

Two seemingly unrelated news articles caught my attention today. The first is the opening of Ibaraki Prefecture Airport and the second is the Mayor of Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward taking two weeks paid paternity leave. These two stories say volumes for how Japanese are masters at wasting money and geniuses at discouraging people from taking money and benefits that they are entitled to.

The preposterous thing about Ibaraki Prefecture Airport is that it cost $268 million to build and it has one flight a day, the sole carrier being Korea's Asiana Airline. The airport is so typically unnecessary, so Japanese, as it is only a few kilometers from Japan's two biggest airports, Narita and Haneda. It reveals the Japanese penchant for concrete and white elephant construction projects. Anything that will make big inroads into the integrity of the countryside and allow 10,000 construction workers with baggy hammer pants to work for a year or two is traditionally thought to be a wonderful use of public funds. Show me a major river in Japan without concrete banks and I'll show you a public funds work under consideration. There are quite literally roads in Japan that go nowhere, that just end. These frivolous millions are spent to keep construction companies going. And the political payback has traditionally been promises that Jimin-to (LDP) candidates can deliver jobs to an area; in other words, pork-barreling. In return the company bosses tell the union leaders to make the workers vote for the Jimin-to candidate promising to enrich the concrete and construction companies. That's Japanese democracy at work.
Another aspect of the Ibaraki airport story that resonates beyond the particular is that the reason why the airport is so unsuccessful is that ANA  (All Nippon Airlines) and JAL (Japanese Airlines) operate a virtual monopoly on air traffic in Japan. Before the first bag of concrete was opened the airport was doomed to failure because ANA and JAL were always going to protect their monopoly.

“We're not planning any flights from Ibaraki Airport,” Japan Airlines President Haruka Nishimatsu said. “It's out of the question.”

If they knew that before building they shouldn’t have continued with the $268 million project. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines and their subsidiaries make up 96% of air traffic in Japan. And they keep the prices nice and high. For a mere $684 JAL will fly you from Tokyo to Sapporo and back. While for $622 China Airlines will sell you a return from Narita, Tokyo to Honolulu. So that’s a short journey to a freezing, dull city or a $62 cheaper flight to lie on the beach in Hawaii. That’s a toughie. JAL and ANA realized immediately that Ibaraki Airport could be a haven for cheap flights and immediately decided to boycott it and thus destroy the business viability of the project. And these two national carriers have powerful friends – there are no plans to connect Ibaraki Airport to existing train lines. Thus it takes one and a half hours to get to Ibaraki airport by train and bus, making any potential money or time savings irrelevant to Tokyo inhabitants - a genius Japanese stitch-up.

The Mayor of Ibaraki insists the airport is not “A Field of Dreams” – a reference to a movie starring Kevin Costner about a man who builds a baseball diamond for ghosts. The famous line in the movie is: “Build it and they will come”. He’s right about that. Why would Japanese ghosts want to go to Inchon in Korea?

The second news item is about the Mayor of Bunkyo Ward in Tokyo being the first civil servant of that branch of local government to take paid paternity leave; correction any type of paternity leave. It is remarkable how the Japanese media give you a snippet of news and bury it. After seeing it on the news I couldn’t get a sniff of it in Japan Times online or DailyYomiuri online. Even Wikipedia doesn't know if paternity leave exists in Japan. Only Kyodo News had three lines about the story. Basically, while it is alright to waste $268 million dollars of tax payers' money, it is considered very poor form for lowly civil servants and salary men and women to take their entitlements. Whatever next? Taking all your paid holiday is damn-right rude in Japan. If you do so you are penalizing your fellow inefficient office colleagues who will have to stay longer hours in the office being inefficient (probably without over-time pay). In other words, millions of workers are shamed into not taking what is their due. Who benefits? The bosses and big swinging dicks in the ministries. Who suffers? Everyone else. The notion has a moral dimension I feel (although stupid Japanese commentators are forever telling us that Japan has no ‘moral’ perspective). It is immoral to take paid holiday (unless you go on honeymoon or are burying your parents). It is immoral to take maternity leave (how dare the women don't just quit when they are pregnant). And it is immoral to take paternity leave (after all there's the wife and mother to tend to the baby). But it is moral to build Japan's 98th airport that has only one flight a day.

I salute Hironobu Narisawa for leading the way, setting an example. Now it will be acceptable for other civil servants in his ward in Tokyo to take paternity leave. I don't imagine he'll be in office long. I expect he'll be airbrushed out of the history books.
Hironobu Narisawa - a dangerous trend setter who felt so concerned about his decision to take paternity leave that he is offering to give his entitled absence of leave salary to charity.

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