Tokyo Stories

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My normally placid wife Keiko turns violent at the sight of a road crew. More than once I've heard her scream "Muda ni zeikin wo tsukau na!" (Stop wasting our bloody taxes!) out of the car window at a bunch of hapless labourers on the other side of a noisy highway.

My normally placid wife Keiko turns violent at the sight of a road crew. More than once I've heard her scream "Muda ni zeikin wo tsukau na!" (Stop wasting our bloody taxes!) out of the car window at a bunch of hapless labourers on the other side of a noisy highway.

After years living in crumbling Liverpool 17, I used to appreciate the diligence of Tokyo's ubiquitous night-time road gangs, who descend on potholes like antibodies around a dangerous pathogen. Drive more than a couple of miles in any direction from our home in Hashimoto, western Tokyo, and there they are, as reassuring as Horlicks.

But the longer I stayed here, the more my wife's odd behaviour made sense. For example, the main road outside our apartment is resurfaced every year, even though I've never even seen a crack in it. In fact, perfectly good roads all over the city are harassed by men with giant diggers and blinding arc-lights all the time.

Gaijin that I was, I had never heard of Japan's "construction state", which essentially means that the country's status quo remains as long as it keeps doling out public works projects to its friends in the construction industry. The construction ministry bureaucrats will end up retiring in the same companies that pour all this tar and concrete.

This very Japanese blending of public and private means that the longer the country's slump has gone on, the more has been spent on dams, dykes and roads to nowhere. An angry book by the veteran Japan commentator Alex Kerr says the country lays about 30 times as much concrete per square foot as the United States, and the construction industry directly employs more than 10 per cent of the workforce.

The defence offered is that the spending helps to keep the country from sinking deeper into slump, which is true. But it also means road crews with nothing to do except use up bloated budgets on needless resurfacing, a fancy version of John Maynard Keynes's suggestion of burying pound notes and then digging them up again.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in one of Tokyo's expensive sushi restaurants, thanks to a very long story that ends with the magic words "friend's expense account". Sitting 10 feet away from us was the ex-prime minister Yoshio Mori.

Does anyone remember Mori now? He was the "Eddie the Eagle" of Japanese politics, bumbling his way to the lowest-ever public approval ratings for a Japanese leader before being elbowed aside by the Junichiro Koizumi juggernaut last year. I was itching to talk to him and verify the legion of Mori rumours, such as the one that he still pulls Koizumi's strings, but he was flanked by three scary-looking drinking partners.

Two bladder-bursting hours later, I saw my chance when he staggered to the tiny WC, where I thought I might be able to open an informal conversation. But when I tried to follow him, his big rugby-player's frame filled the doorway.

I went back to my seat, defeated. It is shameful to have to admit that the closest I've ever got to real power in Japan was in the queue for a restaurant loo.

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