Associate Professor Brian Woodall was quoted in a recent article about Japan in Bloomberg Businessweek, "Rebuilding Japan, Without the Graft".
Can the government rein in the country's big construction firms, or zenekon, which still wield an outsize influence?
The half-century that followed the end of World War II compelled an almost uninterrupted construction binge in Japan. The outside world thinks of Japan rising to the world's second-largest economy as being built on cars and electronics, but a good portion of it was built on building. The strength of the zenekon - large construction companies - ensures that Japan is ready to rebuild quickly in the wake of its latest catastrophe. But the sector, while a point of pride catered to by the nation's elected leaders and bureaucrats, isn't always a force for good. Proof lies all over Japan - in pointless and costly endeavors.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009 promising an end to wasteful public works projects and the cozy relationships between zenekon and politicians. The rebuilding of northeastern Japan following the Mar. 11 earthquake and the resulting tsunami and nuclear crisis will test that commitment. "They're going to have to contract out these projects in quick order, and that means companies with really tight ties to the contracting agency get the project," says Brian Woodall, a political scientist at Georgia Tech and author of Japan Under Construction. "It may be an opportunity for interested and powerful politicians to get involved, and that to me is not a good thing."
The zenekon have traditionally been Japan's political kingmakers. There have been questionable interactions between politics and industry, including generous sums of monetary donations and yakuza crime syndicates, etc. In his book, Woodall describes a construction minister from the 1960s, Kono Ichiro, who would only meet with executives at his home after they paid a kutsunugidai ("shoe removal fee"), a zabutondai ("floor cushion fee"), and a nantokadai ("something-or-other fee") for specific "favors" in return.
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Dr. Brian Woodall is an Associate Professor with The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. His research focus includes comparative politics with an emphasis on Japan and East Asia, international relations, and political economy. His current research projects explore energy security in East Asia, campaign finance and political corruption in Japan, and the evolution of Japanese democracy.