Make Mine Maglev (4)

Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu predicts the Chuo Shinkansen won’t be ready by 2027. (TBS)

Our ongoing coverage of the Chuo Shinkansen, vernacularly known as the “linear motor car,” and usually referred to in English as the “maglev project,” continues apace even if construction itself doesn’t. This week, we found three distinct media stories about the maglev, and while they can be related to one another due to the way they describe obstacles toward completion of the Tokyo-to-Nagoya leg of the railway, they deserve to be addressed separately.

The first story, reported by the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 12, takes place in the town of Mitake in Gifu Prefecture. In 2016, two areas within the town had been selected as candidate landfill sites for receiving excavated soil and rock resulting from maglev tunnel construction. However, any formal announcement about the selection had been postponed after problems arose about the “impact” of the decision. Apparently, a portion of the candidate sites included a wetlands area that has been recognized by the environmental ministry as a vital habitat for a rare species of flora. Such designations do not automatically prohibit “development activities,” but those who carry out the operations regarding development are “required” to consider conservation efforts to protect precious resources. JR Tokai, the company building the maglev, has said it would transplant any rare species of plant in the area. 

On Nov. 10, Mitake held its fourth public forum with “experts” and representatives of JR Tokai. Residents expressed alarm, since it was the first time they were alerted to the fact that the landfill project would contaminate a valuable wetlands area, a fact that was actually revealed by reporter Hiroaki Izawa in a scoop for the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi after he confirmed the environmental ministry’s designation of the rare species. Afterwards, the town’s mayor tried to explain why no announcement had been made previously, even though the environmental ministry’s designation had also been made in 2016. He said that he wasn’t sure what JR Tokai was planning to do at the time and so put off the announcement. After the company pledged to transplant the endangered plant species he became more positive about the landfill project. 

Though the environmental ministry applauded the dialogue between Mitake and JR Tokai, they didn’t address another problem, which was pointed out by a different media outlet, namely that the excavated soil and rock would contain natural heavy metals, which are toxic to living things, including humans. Consequently, the soil would have to be extensively processed before being dumped into the landfill. 

The significance of the story for our purposes has less to do with the town administration’s misrepresenting the landfill project to its citizens than with the fact that such a small component of the maglev construction activity will itself cause an additional delay, since securing landfill sites for the excavated rock and soil from constructing all the tunnels necessary—about 90 percent of the Chuo Shinkansen will be underground—is one of the most pressing concerns for JR Tokai if they want to meet the 2027 deadline for opening the Tokyo-Nagoya route. 

The biggest cause for delay is Shizuoka Prefecture’s refusal to approve construction within its borders due to the impact it will have on water resources. We’ve already discussed this problem in detail in previous posts—how the tunnel that passes through Shizuoka will cause water levels to drop drastically in the Oi River, which supplies water to thousands of residents—and it remains the main obstacle for construction. Shizuoka and JR Tokai have been discussing the problem for more than three years with no reported headway. Nikkei Business, in a feature that appeared Nov. 21, looked into the matter as it stands right now. For the record, Nikkei, as the country’s premier financial publication, is all for the maglev, and the writer of the article, Yoshihiko Sato, seems gung ho for the project as well, saying in the introduction that he rode the maglev for a second experimental run in October and found it a superior ride than the first one he took five years ago—better aerodynamics, less noise, roomier seating—though still “not as comfortable” as a standard Shinkansen. 

The chief culprit, as far as JR Tokai is concerned, is Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu, who has made an issue of the Oi River, saying that JR Tokai must come up with a solution where the river retains all its water, something that seems unlikely. However, as we wrote last time, Kawakatsu claims he is not against the maglev. As a matter of fact, Shizuoka recently joined the regional maglev promotional group that is made up of all the prefectures through which the train will pass. Shizuoka was the last holdout, but Kawakatsu, by joining, has pledged he will do his best to ensure that the maglev is completed. But he doesn’t think it will be completed by 2027, and that is the gist of the Nikkei Business article.

For one thing, there appears to be a kind of rivalry between Kawakatsu and the governor of neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, Yuji Kuroiwa. Nikkei mentions an event that took place recently in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the site of the maglev’s future Hashimoto Station, which is now essentially a large hole in the ground. Hashimoto will also be distantly connected to a train yard where the maglev rolling stock will be kept. About 2,000 people showed up for the event, which was also attended by the president of JR Tokai and Kuroiwa, who gave a speech in which he assured the crowd that construction was proceeding toward the 2027 deadline, a clear contradiction of a statement that Kawakatsu had made a week earlier to the effect that it would be impossible to open the maglev line by 2027, especially since JR Tokai hasn’t even secured the land necessary to build the Sagamihara train yard. Kanagawa Prefecture is still negotiating with the pertinent landowners. Kuroiwa has pushed against this caveat by saying that “80 percent of the homes” on the designated plot have accepted the prefecture’s deal.

However, what made Kuroiwa’s Hashimoto speech noteworthy, if not controversial, was his characterization of the maglev as a “national project.” One of the salient features of the Chuo Shinkansen is that, unlike other Shinkansens, it is ostensibly the sole responsibility of JR Tokai. Though other Shinkansen lines are operated by various JR companies, the tracks and most of the facilities (electrical lines, etc.) are owned by the Japanese government and leased to the JR companies. The maglev is not, though, as we’ve written in the past, this is mostly a dodge. The maglev is for all intents and purpose a national project, just as Kuroiwa said, because the government will not allow it to fail, and, in fact, the late Shinzo Abe, when he was prime minister, arranged for a ¥3 trillion loan to JR Tokai to make the maglev a reality as a favor to the company’s former president, Yoshiyuki Kasai, an Abe pal, with the extraordinary condition that JR Tokai wouldn’t have to start paying it back until 30 years after the maglev opens for business. 

So, in truth, the maglev is a JR Tokai project in name only, but Kuroiwa’s slip of the tongue, whether intentional or not, has had reverberations throughout the Japanese media, which now can openly state that Japanese citizens are paying for its construction because, as Kawakatsu has implied, it may never end. As with the controversial U.S. marine base in Henoko, Okinawa, whose construction has also been delayed indefinitely by unforeseen geological phenomenon, the maglev’s tunnel issues seem endless, owing probably to planning carried out too hastily and without proper coordination between central and local governments, or between private and public entities. 

Nikkei suggests that Kuroiwa’s mention of the maglev as a “national project” was made to focus attention on Shizuoka’s part in stalling construction (though there are many other factors contributing to the delay, as we’ve outlined elsewhere). He even referred to how the new Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen is basically incomplete because Saga Prefecture has refused to give up land that would connect the line to the main Kyushu Shinkansen. According to Kuroiwa, just like Saga, Shizuoka is concerned only with its own benefit at the expense of national interests. 

However, if we take the accepted narrative—that the maglev is solely JR Tokai’s baby—at face value, then Kuroiwa’s accusation is off the mark, and in any case JR Tokai is required to negotiate with local governments to achieve its goals, not with the central government. Specifically, it means that JR Tokai, unlike with other Shinkansen lines, has pledged to build the stations along the maglev but has asked the prefectures to obtain the necessary land since they will supposedly benefit financially. 

Nikkei helpfully elucidates the conflict between JR Tokai and Shizuoka Prefecture, which goes back at least to 2002, when the governor at the time proposed what he called a “Nozomi pass-through tax” that would be levied on every Nozomi Shinkansen train—the fastest express on the standard Tokaido Shinkansen line—that passed through Shizuoka Prefecture. The governor was angry because there were no Nozomi stops within the prefecture, only stops for the slower Hikari and Kodama trains. In the end, the tax was never implemented, but the bad feelings between Shizuoka and JR Tokai has remained owing to the company’s refusal to change timetables so as to make smoother transfers between Shinkansens and local trains. 

Kawakatsu has apparently inherited this sentiment. One of his main goals has been to get JR Tokai to construct a Shizuoka Airport Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Shizuoka and Kakegawa Stations, the idea being to make the prefecture’s main airport more accessible. However, JR Tokai has never been keen on the idea because such a station would only be a short distance from Kakegawa Station, thus confounding the whole high speed appeal of a super express train. 

Kawakatsu’s skepticism about the maglev is justified by how little Shizuoka gets in return for allowing it to breach its borders. After all, the line will only cover 10 kilometers within the prefecture, and there will be no station. And for that, many residents are at risk of reduced water resources. So Nikkei expresses at least some curiosity as to why Kawakatsu decided to join the maglev promotional group, whose main impetus for each member is that at least one maglev station will be built within their respective prefectures. But as with the phantom Shizuoka Airport Station, JR Tokai is averse to building any more stations than necessary since the whole point of the maglev is speed, and the larger the number of stations, the longer it will take to get from Tokyo to Nagoya. Yamanashi, Nagano, and Gifu prefectures have secured stations for their constituents by cooperating on construction logistics, but Shizuoka has no such leverage, and, as Nikkei points out, would probably gain little in terms of economic benefits even if it could get a station since the line is so far from the prefecture’s residential and commercial centers.

But after Kawakatsu joined the promotional group, the governor of Yamanashi joined in his lobbying campaign to get a Shizuoka Airport Station built on the main Tokaido Line. Meanwhile, JR Tokai has been carrying out its own PR campaign to convince residents that it can solve the water supply problem. In a sense, Kawakatsu is playing one side against the other and if he gets his way, he could have a new Shinkansen station and JR Tokai will eventually get its right of way.

But the problem remains: There’s no way the Tokyo-Nagoya line will be finished by 2027, and that brings us to the third maglev-related news item, which appeared Nov. 20 on the Gendai Business website. Gendai baldly states that Kawakatsu is “anti-maglev,” and as such he is backing Takashi Namba, the current vice-governor, to be the next mayor of Shizuoka City in the April 2023 election. Namba apparently has quite a good chance since the reputation of the incumbent, Nobuhiro Tanabe, who will be running for his fourth term, has suffered substantially due to his handling of preparations for Typhoon 15, which struck the area in September and did considerable damage. 

The race is significant because Tanabe has been a very vocal supporter of the maglev project—Gendai describes him as the “face of the maglev” in Shizuoka—and Namba, who was appointed vice-governor by Kawakatsu, is the opposite. JR Tokai is reportedly watching the race carefully because Namba is being supported by all the anti-maglev elements in the prefecture, including the local branch of the Japan Communism Party. If he wins, he will become yet another potential obstacle to the project. In fact, Gendai writes that a Namba victory could mean that the maglev “has no future.” Usually, we take the tabloid’s characteristically fatalistic pronouncements with a grain of salt, but given the clusterfuck nature of the project, we wonder if there isn’t some truth to this one.


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