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Torpedo the Dams, Full Astern on Public Spending

THE WORLD

Japan: A colorful author takes up politics and tackles corruption. He's adamant about canceling major government projects, which he sees as ruinous.

May 20, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"All we could do was watch helplessly in the past," said Shinichi Hayashi, a retired soil engineer. He voted for Tanaka's opponent but now says he supports Tanaka. "I think he has established a close relationship with citizens."

Hayashi is concerned about the debt the prefecture and nation are racking up. The nation has issued stimulus package after multibillion-dollar stimulus package--full of pork-barrel projects--but the economy continues to languish.

Local governments typically view public works spending as manna from heaven: At least 50%, and often as much as 80%, of the projects, such as bridges, tunnels and roads, are funded by the central government. Dams are favorites because they get among the highest subsidies: The government has spent about $7.74 billion on dams in the last two years alone.

Nevertheless, Tanaka says such spending is no bargain, for the prefecture or the nation. He says concrete dams aren't good for the environment and wear out. The funding skews the equation so river salvage projects that might be cheaper--and more appropriate than, say, one Nagano dam that would cost $325 million to build--aren't considered because they get a smaller proportion of matching national funds.

"It's our own expense, considering we're paying taxes," said Tanaka, who speaks English.

Prefectural council members have criticized him for canceling the projects without consulting bureaucrats who worked on them. "He's acting like a dictator," said Tamotsu Shimozaki, leader of the largest faction in the prefectural council, who compares Tanaka to Hitler.

Adding to the indignity, Shimozaki says, is that funding already received from the central government will now have to be returned and allocated to other prefectures. "Nagano citizens pay tax to the central government," he said, "so they have a right to receive it back."

One prefectural bureaucrat folded Tanaka's business card upon meeting him, an insult in a nation where exchanging business cards is essential and the cards are treated with utmost respect. The key central government official appointed as an intermediary between the national coffers and the state quit in disgust at the end of March.

The prefectural council has set some limits on Tanaka, establishing a 15-member committee to review any project he cancels.

But Tanaka's concern may be justified. Nagano has been staggering under a public-debt hangover from the 1998 Winter Olympics, leaving residents of rural Nagano saddled with even higher tax bills than in Tokyo, but with lower salaries to pay them. Nagano has a debt of $12.5 billion, about half of it stemming from the Olympics.

Tanaka is doing his part to cut spending too. He refused to move into the sprawling governor's residence, declaring it a waste of taxpayers' money; he rents a condominium at his own expense.

1980 Book Became a Bestseller

Tanaka has always cut a high profile in Japan: He rose to prominence as a young man in 1980 with a best-selling book, "Somewhat Crystal," about a woman who seeks meaning in her life by tracking fashion trends. He loves to wine and dine, publishing his reviews in a collection, "Recent Decent Restaurants."

And although he's no Tom Cruise--asked what they thought of him after they ran up and asked for his autograph, two giggling high school girls said, "He's short"--his confessional writings suggest he is quite the Lothario.

"I met Mademoiselle U at a soba shop," he wrote in one of his diaries, "Grinding and Caressing." "We took a nap at the Park Hyatt hotel [one of the most luxurious in Tokyo]. The noise probably echoed through the entire floor. . . . Late that night, she returned to her husband."

Since the campaign, he's been steadily dating a Japan Airlines flight attendant, traveling with her to Europe for a week over the New Year's holiday. Is he monogamous now? He won't exactly say. "The most important thing is there are no secrets," he replied. "It's up to the local people to judge whether it's good or bad. Some politicians and actors pretend to have good behavior but it's totally different."

His love life seems to be accepted in Nagano. "He's a writer," said Keiko Fujii, 58, the proprietor of a 350-year-old inn. "I don't believe a lot of what he writes--some of it might be fiction. He's seeing his girlfriend in the open, and since it's all out in the open, we can accept it."

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Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.

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