In recent weeks, we heard that the city where we live, Inzai in Chiba Prefecture, has become notorious for something. This has happened before; in fact, it’s happened several times. Though Inzai is about as nondescript as a Tokyo suburb can be, it occasionally pops up on the news for some reason or another. Earlier this year we were the butt of jokes because of a PR video produced by the city that had gone semi-viral because of its conflation of the name “Inzai” with the word “Indo,” which is the Japanese pronunciation of India. The video, fashioned after a low-budget Bollywood production, featured Indian tourists supposedly flocking to Inzai because they somehow mistook the city for their home country. Yeah, it deserved all the derision it attracted, and not just for the bad humor. More often, however, Inzai gets cited as one of the most “livable” cities in Japan for reasons we’ve talked about before and don’t need to get into again.
This latest blast of fame apparently originated on the prime time TBS information program “Newscaster,” which ran a mini-feature during its “7 Days” weekly review segment in September about all the homes on the Boso peninsula that had lost electric power during and following Typhoon Faxai. The main problem was that the strong winds blew over utility poles, many of which were in poor condition due to neglect. Because of all the work involved in getting utility lines back up, some sections of Chiba Prefecture didn’t have power for more than two weeks. In order to illustrate what could be done in the future to avoid such disasters, TBS visited Inzai, where a lot of new single-home construction is currently taking place. They went to one development near Inzai Makinohara Station on the Hokuso Line, the same station we use, because this neighborhood did not have utility poles. All the electrical cables are underground. Burying cables is the norm for most of the developed world, but Japan is way behind. In Tokyo only 8 percent of cables are buried; in Osaka only 6. In Hong Kong, London, and Paris all the cables are underground.
But thanks to TBS, Inzai was suddenly the representative Japanese city for burying cables, even though all they did was cover one new housing development. Even weirder was their use of statistics, which baffled us. The segment said that 7,500 homes lost power “at one point” as a result of the storm, but 83 homes whose cables were buried did not lost power. What exactly do those numbers prove? In any case, last month Asahi Shimbun ran a feature on mudenchuka (removing utility poles) that was accompanied by a photo of a housing development with no overhead wires that happened to be in Inzai, though the article itself didn’t mention our fair city at all. Inzai had obviously been canonized as the token mudenchuka municipality.
Except it really isn’t true. The vast majority of neighborhoods in this city of 100,000 people still have overhead utility lines. The areas where the lines are buried are mostly in those new housing developments, most of which haven’t been around for more than four or five years. The whole area north of the Hokuso Line seems to be where the majority of buried power lines are, but it isn’t the whole area, which was once owned by UR, the semi-public housing corporation. They bought in at a premium in the 1970s and 80s, and then finally sold it at a loss to developers about 10 years ago under pressure from the central government, who was tired of servicing the debt. The entire area is now a patchwork of different housing developments, each of which is a self-contained community cultivated by an individual developer containing between 100 and 170 or so homes, and while some neighborhoods are limited to a single manufactured housing company—Toyota and Panasonic are two that completely dominate some developments—some offer a small but limited selection of home builders, while others simply sell plots of land so the buyer can select their own builder. As far as infrastructure goes, each development is self-contained, so some have utility poles and others do not, which means you go from one street with overhanging wires to an adjacent street where the view of the sky is undiminished by poles and cables. It’s an odd feeling.
By our own rough estimation, made after patrolling the various new developments north of the Hokuso Line, there are about 1,200 homes blessed with underground cables. But building continues, so while this number will continue to grow, the number of houses overshadowed by utility poles will also continue to grow, and we calculate that this club will continue to be in the overwhelming majority. There are other areas of Inzai that are also being developed at the moment (UR had a lot of land thanks to the Chiba New Town project), but we assume the ratio is about the same, and, at any rate, except for two older developments that were already famous for having buried cables, pretty much everywhere there are poles. Just to play it safe, however, we did call the city office. The person we talked to didn’t know anything about the TBS show or where they got their numbers from, but he was very clear about the fact that the city itself did not decide which areas got buried cables and which did not. He also said there was no plan to start burying cables on public roads throughout the city, something that, in the wake of the typhoon, needs to be done. Obviously, Tepco would need to be in on this, since they own the poles and lease them to other utilities, but the Inzai employee said he knew nothing about that.
What it all means is that developers decide where the cables go, and work with both the city and Tepco to have it done their way. The Asahi Shimbun article pointed out something we already knew, that it is more expensive to bury cables than it is to hang them from poles after the poles are erected. According to our research it costs about ¥30 million for 1 kilometer of cables on poles. Burying them takes ten times as much money. For sure, the cost is all in the labor, so limiting that labor to a small neighborhood before people move in will cost much less, and when we looked at housing prices for the new developments north of the Hokuso Line we found that properties within developments with buried cables were going for about ¥10 million more than properties in developments with poles, so you do pay for the privilege of uncluttered skies (and Inzai, which is very flat, is famous for its very big sky). You also seem to pay more for neighborhood management fees.
Of course, given how far behind Japan is as a country when it comes to utility poles, it’s the central government rather than local governments, utilities, and private real estate players who should be taking charge of the project, since you really need a central power to bring all these parties in line. Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, has made mudenchuka one of her pet projects, but according to Asahi, she hadn’t gotten very far because there are too many conflicting interests at stake. Last week, the Abe administration announced it would be proposing a stimulus package worth some ¥26 trillion to address the current slack economy caused by the consumption tax hike and which will be exacerbated by the expected “post-Olympic slump.” They’ll probably waste in on incentives to buy houses and cars, as well as construction projects that will only benefit big contractors. What they should do is use it to bury all these utilities, but stimulus packages are invariably short-term solutions and mudenchuka would take years. Besides, it’s the sensible thing to do, and that seems to be anathema to the current administration.
Nagoya where I live is currently 5% utility pole-less, but there is an official plan to mudenchika the city, starting with main streets designated as primary and secondary emergency transport routes (makes sense — you don’t want those roads blocked by downed poles in a disaster) followed by all roads in the downtown Marunouchi-Fushimi-Sakae area — and only a few other scattered streets, alas.
When I came to Japan in the early 1990s I often used to ask people why Japan doesn’t put its power lines underground. Everyone said it was because of earthquakes, which didn’t make sense to me at all. All I had to do was look outside my office window and see the mess of power lines strung out over the street. Even at that time I thought if there were a big earthquake, the poles would all come down leaving a huge mess that prevent emergency services from getting to areas most in need. Just seeing these lines all the place is so ugly.
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