By Brian Bremner When the history books on Japan's economic slide are written, the current uproar about the skyrocketing price of nori (dried seaweed) circa early 2001 will be lucky to get a footnote. But it probably deserves a chapter, because it's tied in with one of the most peculiar features of Japan's economy -- the tendency to throw away countless yen on public-works projects. And if wasting national wealth weren't bad enough, these government boondoggles sometimes cause grave environmental damage to boot.
At least, that's the suspicion among the seaweed farmers along the shores of the Ariake Sea, an inlet of the Shimabara Bay that is surrounded by the prefectures of Nagasaki, Saga, Fukuoka, and Kumamoto in the central-western part of Kyushu, the third largest and southernmost of Japan's major islands.
This part of Japan has a mountainous interior filled with coastal plains, volcanoes, and hot springs. The Ariake Sea (about 620 square miles) is a shallow body of water known for big swings in tide levels. Mud flats extend two to four miles from the shore at low tide, making it an ideal place to harvest seaweed. The region produces about 40% of Japan's total crop, for both domestic consumption and export.
But something has gone terribly wrong this harvest season. A lot of farmers are reporting major crop damage, and the newspapers are full of articles about a 50% jump in seaweed prices, thanks to the troubles down south.
COMPETING CROPS. Nori is typically sold in sheets to convenience stores and all manner of restaurants. It's used to make onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed), sushi, and various salad dishes and soups. The Daily Yomiuri newspaper recently reported that crop damages could total $170 million this winter. Central and local government officials have proposed loans for the hardest-hit farmers, and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's government has set up an investigative task force.
Who would think the troubles of a few thousand souls involved in a crop business like seaweed would make national news in Japan? The reason is the possible connection to a major land-reclamation project under way at Shimabara Bay, which the Japan Times describes as the "womb of the Ariake Sea."
Japanese down that way say the Ariake Sea is dying. And the key suspect is a public-works project under the aegis of the Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries Ministry up in Tokyo. The plan was to have a network of dikes that would control flooding and create more farmland. But with the tidal flows of the entire area having been altered in a damaging way, it seems to have backfired. Ecologists have noticed an abnormal amount of phytoplankton, microscopic ocean-dwelling plants that thrive on sun, water, and nutrients -- the same nutrients seaweed needs to thrive. That is leading to a seaweed scarcity.
Since 1992, Japan has spent more than $1 trillion on public-works projects, designed to kick-start the economy. They haven't done much good and, as the nori case shows, may even be doing harm to the livelihoods of ordinary Japanese. Environmentalists have argued for years that the nexus between Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its friends in Japan's overcrowded building industry has created a runaway construction state that's paving over the most pristine part of the nation and wiping out wetlands.
FIELD DAY FOR CRITICS. It's no secret the construction industry is a powerful constituency for the LDP. It employs some 6 million workers, not that far off from the flagship auto industry. But if scientists do make the link between the Shimabara project and the strange goings-on in the Ariake Sea, there will be enormous pressure to reconsider the whole point of the project, which is expected to be completed in 2006.
Prime Minister Mori would be wise to listen carefully. The Japanese press is going to have a field day with a story chock-full of environmental damage, little guys getting creamed by bureaucrats, and an issue that touches both the pocketbook and the stomach.
More broadly, it will be yet another reminder that throwing truckloads of yen into public-works projects of doubtful value is a game highly indebted Japan can no longer afford to play. That's why the plight of Japan's nori farmers isn't just a local story, but a national -- and international -- one. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online