Why the Frog Bridge is Stupid

Ampontan at Japundit had a thought-provoking post on the “Kaeru Hashi,” or Frog Bridge, that was built on central government largesse in Inami-cho, Wakayama Prefecture:

I can’t begin to explain how quintessentially Japanese this entire story is. They’ve managed to use a historical Japanese figure for inspiration, connect him to a unique public works project to gain a little recognition in a cheerful, positive way, and incorporate the Japanese love of wordplay. When I was new to the country, unaware of the extent to which I was affected–or infected–by the sense of fashionable, cynical irony so endemic in the West, I would have rolled my eyes until they slid out of their sockets at the dorky hellokittyishness of this bridge and the people who built it.

After all these years in Japan, however, I’ve come to realize that cynical irony is a dead end street and learned to appreciate the sincerity, simplicity, and earnestness of the emotion behind efforts such as those of the people of Inami-cho. I wish them the best, and if I’m ever in their neighborhood, I’ll be sure to stop by to look at the bridge and buy some vegetables or flowers. I’m sure they’re excellent. You can even see the bridge if you’re just passing through–they built it so that it’s visible from the local JR train station.

People at Japundit were too mesmerized by the hypnotic power of the bridge to respond to my comment, so here it is for my MF peoples:

You seem to present two possible interpretations of the Kaeru Hashi: cynical-ironic dismissiveness or appreciation for the earnestness of the people’s efforts.

Perhaps I haven’t spent enough years in Japan, but there must be at least one other way to look at something like this, because I think, with no irony whatsoever, that this bridge is a gaudy and horrible waste of money.

I mean, consider it this way: when you go into the house of a married couple and find that the wife keeps it decorated nook and cranny with frilly lace, pink bunnies, and countless antiques, scented with nostril-burning potpourri, and kept immaculately clean, do you (a) Appreciate the sincerity, simplicity, and earnestness of the emotion behind the woman’s efforts; or (b) Feel sorry for the poor schlep of a husband who has to put up with such tacky interior design (and probably isn’t allowed to sit on the couch)? I for one would choose (b). This bridge and other such projects look as if the federal government gave a team of domineering housewives with bad taste a million dollars to waste on whatever silly civil engineering project they could come up with.

That million dollars could have been put to much better use than yet another bridge. The problem is that the funds these towns get are tied to programs like the euphemistic “Self-conceived self-conducted Regional Development,” so they are forced to actually build something. If the federal government were truly interested in revitalizing these small towns (instead of padding the wallets of construction companies), they could have steered the money toward, just for example, scholarships to regional universities or maybe even incentive programs for industries.

The problem isn’t so much of different “worldviews” between the Japan and the “West” but rather one of the corrupt central government exploiting the small towns for its own benefit. It’s funny you call this post the “Great Leap Forward” because these types of federal programs actually do resemble China’s great leap forward in that they force local governments to perform economically unsustainable activities. The towns aren’t starving, at least, but without true economic development they are facing a slow death – depopulation. Koizumi’s “Trinity Reforms” are supposed to end the cycle of addiction to public works that afflicts the outlying regions of Japan by putting more tax revenue in their control, but prospects for their effectiveness are moderate at this point.

3 thoughts on “Why the Frog Bridge is Stupid”

  1. But what if that married couple has children? Are you going to pity them for having childrens’ toys in their house? All those horrifically stimulating bright colors wreak havoc on any sense of decor, and sacrifice money that could be invested just for the sake of raising children well-adjusted and happy.
    Is it entirely illogical to actually use some of the excess generated by the market to improve the lives of everyone? As much as you believe japan to be in crisis, things are generally pretty bright. It’s still number two in the world, well ahead of those hard-nosed capitalists that have been running the UK, and “developing” countries like mexico and thailand.
    The most threatening thing to japans future is the cynical self-centered generation of children that fill up the schools right now. When the propensity to defacement of public property makes this sort of bridge untenable in japan too, then japan is on it’s way down.

  2. Not my beloved Wakamaya, nooooo!!

    You spend way too much time commenting, Adamu! But great comments on this post (and to Nate too).

  3. I guess children’s toys are acceptable. But enough with my strained metaphor!

    Sure, Japan is still number 2, but that doesn’t change the fact that the economy was stagnant for far too long. There are several possible explanations for why this was, but the fact remains that projects like this are absolutely not intended as any kind of celebration of wealth.

    The idea was ostensibly to dump Japan’s excess savings and bank liquidity into projects that would keep wages and prices afloat while Japan’s businesses could pay down their debts. The problem is how they spent it — i.e. on massive projects with no long-term benefit (the frog bridge is a novelty at best) that either add nothing or needlessly tack on to the infrastructure.

    Sure, Japan faces many problems. But the idea that one must ignore a problem in order to face something you think is more compelling makes no sense.

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