Make Mine Maglev (2)

Section of maglev route, in red, that goes through Shizuoka

Right now there are much more serious matters on people’s minds than the maglev Chuo Shinkansen, or “linear motor car,” as it’s called in Japanese. Nevertheless, the train, which will spirit bodies from Tokyo to Nagoya in about 40 minutes, is set to become a major public works project that many in government and industry probably think could help revitalize the economy in the new post-pandemic “normal,” though no one has actually taken the time to publicly explain its role in such a brave new world. But one thing is for certain. It’s not going to be finished by its planned completion date in 2027. Actually, we never thought that was possible in the first place, but now it seems to be definite because the major media have said so.

Though there are actually a lot of reasons why the project won’t be completed on time, the only one the media is talking about is the governor of Shizuoka Prefecture’s refusal to allow construction to proceed on the 10-kilometer portion that passes through his bailiwick. Consequently, Heita Kawakatsu is the scapegoat for everyone who has a stake in the maglev. The governor of Aichi Prefecture, Hideaki Omura, is especially aggrieved, since the city of Nagoya is spending a great deal of money redeveloping the area surrounding the new maglev station. If it doesn’t open by 2027 everything will be screwed up fiscally. A think tank has estimated that the maglev will generate ¥2.3 trillion for Nagoya during the ten-year period after the station opens.

Kawakatsu’s gripe is about water, specifically the water supply for the 600,000 residents who live along the Oi River, which is 168 kilometers long. In 2013, JR Tokai, the company behind the project, carried out an environmental assessment that found construction of the tunnel through Shizuoka would result in a loss of ground water amounting to between 1.07 and 2.12 tons per second, equivalent to 17 percent of the river’s volume at any one time.

The biggest media outlet to go into detail about the Shizuoka matter has been TBS, whose newsmagazine, “Hodo Tokushu,” did a feature on it a few weeks ago. However, we found the presentation a bit misleading, or, at least, too focused on the water problem at the expense of other issues that, in the long run, are just as central to the success or failure of the maglev. For one thing, while the program did talk a lot about how expensive and time-consuming it is to build all those tunnels, they didn’t actually come out and say that almost 90 percent of the whole route from Shinagawa to Nagoya will be underground. What’s more, some portions will be more than 100 meters below the surface, depending on the mountains the tunnel happens to be going under at any given location. Both of these aspects have drawbacks that we’ve talked about in earlier posts and which are probably obvious to anyone who thinks carefully about them, but the fact that most media just take them for granted points out the main problem with the thinking behind the project, which is that it’s all a matter of execution and will. It’s moved well beyond the stage of whether the project itself has any value besides its novelty as an engineering feat.

But even as an engineering feat, its formidability begs the question: Is it really worth it? The water problem is the main focus right now, and so TBS thought only about that, revealing that 7 cities rely on drinking water provided by the Nagashima Dam, which is part of the Oi River network. In order to bring home the seriousness of what a water shortage could entail, the reporters spent a lot of time at a hospital in Kakegawa, where 60 people a day undergo dialysis, a process that requires a lot of water. TBS interviewed patients and doctors who expressed worry about the future if construction went ahead and water levels dropped by that 17 percent. Although we could see their point, it wasn’t necessary to spend all that time at the hospital. Similarly, the region’s tea-growing industry, which requires much water, would be adversely affected, and the reporters talked to several farmers, all of whom said the same thing. The city of Yaezu contains lots of fish processing plants, which also rely on water, mostly for cleaning the equipment. TBS even talked about past water problems in the area. In 1988, Chubu Power built a hydroelectric dam that diverted water, causing portions of the Oi River to dry up. Eventually, public pressure forced the utility to restore the river to its original state, but TBS failed to make this example relevant to the current situation. The viewer had to make their own leap of logic.

What the feature did right was explain JR Tokai’s response, which, in October 2018, was to say they would reimagine the construction planning so as to not waste a single drop of water, a promise they have so far been unable to back up. Initially, JR said, after studying the matter, that they could guarantee pumping back some of the water, but the prefecture was not satisfied: You said not a drop would be lost, so you have to recover all the water. JR reasserted its promise, but last August talks between the railway and the prefecture broke down. The program aired before the recent failed summit between Kawakatsu and JR Tokai president Shin Kaneko, but as a kind of parting shot, TBS pointed out that there were problems with tunnel construction in Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures as well, though they didn’t specify what those problems were. Nevertheless, Shizuoka is the one that will be blamed when JR has to eventually announce that the project won’t be finished on time, which is what they did last week, and most media outlets didn’t bother talking about any of the other obstacles to construction.

Those matters were covered by Hideki Kashida in his article about the summit in a July 1 posting on Harbor Business Online. Kashida is probably the only journalist in Japan who has been following the maglev project closely, and his personal blog contains the most detailed information, though you may have to dig for it (he also covers the detention of foreign nationals in detail). As Kashida pointed out in HBO, the recent meeting between Kaneko and Kawakatsu was the first time the two men had met, and the meeting had been requested by Kaneko, who is obviously getting impatient with the slow pace of the negotiations. The exchange, or portions of it, were aired live on local TV, and what came out was startling with regard to what still needs to be done after 5 years of talks. Right now, the negotiations are not about the actual tunnel construction, but rather about preparation for tunnel construction; namely, building a construction yard and a dormitory to house workers.

Kashida says that 60 media representatives were on hand to report on the summit, which they did the next day, but he says they left out many important aspects. The construction of a yard and dormitory will involve a network of drainage ditches for rainwater as well as setting up facilities to carry out the tunnel construction. It’s not until those preparations are finished that actual work on the tunnel can start, but once it does start it will involve more than just excavation. Emergency exits to the surface every kilometer or so must be built as well as facilities for processing dirty water and sand, not to mention transporting the thousands of tons of rock and soil the excavation produces every day. Kashida also pointed out that construction of the dormitory began in September 2018 but was suspended when Shizuoka tied it to negotiations about tunnel construction itself, presumably in the belief that if tunnel construction negotiations broke down there is no need for a dormitory, a hypothetical that likely stoked a fire under JR Tokai.

So for one hour and 20 minutes, Kaneko basically just kept asking Kawakatsu to let them build the construction yard, because, as with most public works projects in Japan, once it is underway it is almost impossible to stop, though Kaneko implied that they would stop after the yard is built and then restart negotiations about the tunnel and the water problem. Kawakatsu saw through this scheme and refused to play along. He didn’t turn down Kaneko’s request outright but rather set conditions. If the yard was less than 5 hectares in size, JR Tokai would not need to ask for Shizuoka’s permission to build it, but if it were larger than 5 hectares, than a separate agreement would have to be reached with Shizuoka. The initial plan called for a yard size of 4.9 hectares, but it seems that no one really thought that would be big enough. Presumably the agreement would be based on conserving as much water as possible.

Though the governor’s approach would seem to indicate otherwise, Kashida says Kawakatsu is not opposed to the maglev train, and truly wants to make everyone involved happy, meaning both JR Tokai and his constituents. That said, there are no maglev stops planned for Shizuoka. The train simply goes under the prefecture, which means Shizuoka gets no direct financial benefit from the project when it’s finished. But Kashida himself thinks that the governor’s intention all along has been to refuse Kaneko’s request, and in that regard he thinks the other media, most of which belong to the JR Tokai press club, misunderstood the governor’s intentions. After all, Kaneko has requested more meetings. Meanwhile Kawakatsu noted during the summit that land sales around the maglev station in Nagoya have been extended to March of next year, meaning the city may not be ready either.

Kashida then goes on to explain what other reporters, who think this is just about Shizuoka, neglect to mention; that part of an emergency tunnel being built under Gifu Prefecture has collapsed, causing a lengthy suspension of construction in that sector; and that “exit tunnel” construction in a vllage in Nagano Prefecture has been delayed by as much as 2 years. Had any of the other reporters, most of whom are locally based, access to these stories, they might not have concluded that Kawakatsu was the man to blame for the fact that the maglev won’t come in on time. Kashida has maintained for some time now that the deadline for completion would be delayed by at least two years, probably three, maybe more. After all, there’s still a lot of tunnel to be dug, and quite a few lawsuits to be resolved.

One comment

  1. Andrew · July 12, 2020

    Your story reminds me of one aspect of Japanese television journalism I have grown aware of in general, which is the apparent over-reliance on citizen opinions, as opposed to detailed background or analysis. No matter the network, no matter the subject of journalistic treatment, the tendency appears to be much as you describe for the TBS piece here: talking to the people who might be affected most to gather their “feeling” on the matter… but the why, the what, the how, the when, the how likely, all often go unsaid. Is this a shortcoming of the medium in this case? Or is it an unconscious attention to establishing the audience’s shared human dimension for journalism over the policies or facts? I wonder…


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