|February 23, 1999||atimes.com|
MEDIA WATCH: Gang-boosters?
By Masuo Kamiyama
''Japan builds great roads, fishing ports, islands and other public-works projects that nobody needs. Nobody, that is, save the country's gangsters and corrupt politicians.'' - Forbes
''[T]his article creates misunderstandings and misperceptions among readers about public infrastructure development and the construction industry in Japan.'' - Ministry of Foreign Affairs
In a letter dated February 5, the Japanese government protested toWilliam Baldwin, New York-based editor of Forbes magazine, over an article entitled ''The yakuza's revenge'' that appeared in Forbes' issue of February 8. The article maintained that wasting money on public-works projects ''matters not just to Japanese taxpayers, but to everyone in the world: Wasting all that money has greatly weakened Japan's economy."
In the three-page letter (one that sources say was drafted by the Construction Ministry), Kazuo Kodama, Counselor for Public Affairs at the Japanese embassy in Washington, patiently noted that:
1) Japan's public infrastructure development has a short history; full-scale development only began as late as the 1960s;
2) Japan is subjected to heavy precipitation and other forms of natural disasters; and
3) special construction methods that are required due to mountainous terrain and soft ground are translated into higher construction costs.
The letter added for good measure that Japan must give more emphasis to public infrastructure development now, while it still has abundant resources from its high savings rate, ''before the advent of full-fledged aging society."
Perhaps in the interest of brevity, Kodama chose to overlook certain other points raised in Forbes, such as the survey finding that 17.5 percent of top executives at the largest 100 construction companies are former government officials. Or that construction firms shell out roughly $10 billion to entertain politicians and bureaucrats. Instead he chose to denounce as ''completely groundless and fictitious'' a quote by a Japanese lawyer who estimates $21 billion to $88 billion of government money paid since 1991 was to the yakuza.
He also wrote: ''[S]uggesting that there exists a system of corruption involving politicians, bureaucrats, the construction industry and yakuza is also quite groundless and seriously defames Japan."
Actually, Forbes' Tokyo bureau chief, Benjamin Fulford, had phrased it a bit more directly: ''Why have the supposedly thrifty Japanese thrown so much money down rat holes?'' he asked. Then, mixing his metaphors between fruit and anatomy, he asserted: ''Japan's economic and political system is rotten to the core, and ordinary Japanese are paying through the nose for it."
Gyosei, the company that publishes the Japanese-language edition of Forbes, prudently made the decision not to run the article in translation.
But Shukan Shincho (2/18) is never one to back down from a good fight whenever it feels Japan's sensibilities have been trod upon in the foreign media. So how does it introduce this article that would disturb the harmony in the Land of Wa through such inflammatory accusations?
''Japanese residing in the U.S.,'' it writes, ''have been saying among themselves that the Forbes story was a good article.''Shincho essentially echoes Forbes' allegations. In Forbes, Hitoshi Yamada, who is described as ''gang expert for the Japan Bar Association,'' is quoted as saying that ''probably 30 percent to 50 percent of public works projects in Japan now involve payoffs to gangs, and these vary from about 2 percent to 5 percent of the total construction cost."
Shincho notes with irony that when this individual (whom it refrained from identifying outright) was confronted by the Japanese government, he backed off and insisted his remarks were ''misquoted."
Unable to make much of Yamada's vacillations, Shincho cites investigative journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi, an authority on yakuza economics, who basically confirmed the point, saying: ''Among construction firms in Western Japan it's common knowledge that from 3 to 5 percent of public project funds are going to flow into the hands of yakuza. If you look at the subcontractors used by general contracting firms, you can find yakuza and other sleazy groups.
''Let's face it,'' Mizoguchi shrugs, ''Without yakuza, it would be impossible for Japan to carry out public projects."
Photomagazine Friday (2/26) ran a full-page shot of an unsmiling Fulford holding up the offending article in one hand and the protest letter in the other. ''The letter maintains there is no corruption and that no money flows into the hands of yakuza,'' Forbes' bureau chief observes. ''If that's the case, then Japanese are really stupid to be paying such high costs for construction. But on the other hand, they went so far as to say they were engaged in 'efforts at reform.' That itself makes for a contradiction."
A Construction Ministry official, Motoi Sasaki, counters by telling Fulford, ''Our main objection was over your allegation that the system is set up to put money into the hands of yakuza . . . . To say that several trillions of yen spent on in building the Kansai International Airport flowed into the hands of yakuza flies in the face of common sense. What wemeant when we said 'reform' was in regard to the bidding system . . . ."
If the abuse-ridden Ministry of Construction has so much free time to engage in squabbles with foreign magazines, Friday remarks sarcastically, maybe it ought to take a knife and trim some of the lard off its own organization.
(Masuo Kamiyama is a Tokyo-based translator and writer.)
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