Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who gets the jam as Japan cuts road tolls?

At 6.05 on Saturday morning somewhere outside Tokyo everyone on the road began to feel majestically stupid. We wiggled awkwardly in our seats, delicately avoided eye-contact with other dupes and fiddled with air-conditioner settings that needed no adjusting.
All of us, burying our shame beneath iPod driving mixes and bags of chocolate raisins, knew exactly why we were sitting in the Great 2009 Tomei Expressway Jam. Like sailors we had been lured on to the rocks by two Sirens of the 21st century: economic stimulus and a sexy television newsreader.
“Leave your bed now and embrace the thrill of the open road — this chance will not come again for years,” the latter purred seductively. “Your epic highway adventure will cost you substantially less than it did two months ago,” oozed the stimulus Siren.
Both had a point. This week’s once-in-a-decade confluence of three Japanese national holidays guaranteed a binge of domestic travel, with the local media egging everyone to join. It was clear before any of us turned the ignition key that most of the lunacy would be road based. Japan’s new Government has extended indefinitely a scheme that removes much of the cost of its ruinous motorway tolls, and the Japanese are suckers for a bargain.
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By breakfast time, 10,000 freshly washed, gleaming cars (including mine) were ranged in a stagnant, fume-belching motorcade extending from the outskirts of Tokyo to the foot of Mount Fuji. Across Japan, motorway traffic turned solid and the Sirens cackled.
Conspiracy theory seeped with carbon monoxide through the air vents. Who benefits from this madness? Certainly not the environment, which is expected to receive another 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 from Japanese exhausts every year if tolls remain low. And probably not the economy, which relies heavily on goods moving quickly along the roads.
The only conceivable winners are businesses with exposure to people driving much, much more than they used to. For Toyota and Honda, the jollies may take years to work through. But for tyre-makers, the lucre is far more immediate. It is the sort of twist that must bring a smile to the face of Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s new Prime Minister, whose vast family wealth comes courtesy of Bridgestone, the world’s biggest tyre company.
A cheesy idea
Before much longer, for the sake of its future billing in the G7 show, Japan will have to come up with a plausible set of answers to the question “what is wrong with Switzerland?”. At first glance, for a disturbingly large proportion of Japanese, the question is rhetorical: the Swiss and Switzerland seem ideal.
The Swiss are conservative, stable, instinctively neutral and wealthy. They respect precision ball bearings, babbling brooks, snow-capped mountains and bearded old men who carve things from wood. Just like the Japanese, the Swiss make terrible wine, build first-class industrial robots and watch in resigned torment every year as their ski slopes groan under the weight of badly dressed foreigners.
The problem is that Japan’s politicians and business leaders have begun seriously contemplating the glühwein and cowbell approach to life. They wonder if Japan really needs to pursue growth or should stop where it is and be satisfied. If China’s rise is really so irresistible, and Japan is losing competitiveness as quickly as it seems, these patriarchs now reason aloud, what would be so bad about curling up in a role akin to Switzerland’s? Nobody would call on them to make big decisions, millions of tourists would visit for the clean air and mineral spas and they could be left alone to make brilliant robots and carve things out of wood.
The tiny snag with this is that it would be a diabolical betrayal of every Japanese person under 30. Slow Swissification may seem lovely to some, but it is a death sentence for everything Japan has puffed and panted to be since the Second World War. It may be hard to come up with reasons to despise the Swiss, but to trade in electronics for Emmental must be wrong.
On yer bike
In common with 3,000 other motorists, I briefly pulled out of the Great Tomei Expressway Jam to enjoy the Ebina motorway services. The extra-long weekend had brought out a fine collection of loonies, mostly on motorbikes. The gangs had organised themselves into tribes relating to their favourite bike-based film. One rather portly lot were in full Quadrophenia gear, while another was clearly modelled on the Hell’s Angels gang from Clint Eastwood’s Any Which Way But Loose. But the joint prize for effort went to six couples who had to perfection the look of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and two elderly gents who had poured themselves into the skin-tight fatigues of the 1970s television police drama CHiPs.
But Japan can be confident it has not yet turned Swiss. There was a barbed wire fence round the motorway services, but no wannabe Steve McQueen making his great escape to neutral territory.

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