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Top>Research>Political Studies of Power Through Yamba —Regional Development Sites and the State—


Hideo Nakazawa

Hideo Nakazawa [Profile]

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Political Studies of Power Through Yamba

—Regional Development Sites and the State—

Hideo Nakazawa
Professor of Political Sociology and Regional Sociology, Faculty of Law, Chuo University

What is Power?

If asked to name only one basic concept of political studies, many political scientists would mention power. In the same way that the essence of economics lies in money, politics is built around power. Regardless of the many political and sociological scholars debating power, there is no definition to this concept that satisfies all. On the other hand, in everyday relationships, we can frequently see people forcing others to listen to what they have to say -exercising power-. We usually don't consider this to be actual power.

But since last year, through various events that have occurred with the change of government, we have been presented with opportunities to think about the enormous power of the state that has been difficult to realize in everyday life.

A Half Century of Yamba

As many readers know through media reports, the under-construction Yamba Dam in Naganohara Town of Agatsuma County in Gunma Prefecture has cost a total of about 500 billion yen. In the 42 years under-construction since the official announcement of the project in 1967, the originally envisaged flood control and irrigation work has been undertaken, leading to the problem of whether the dam is actually needed or not. As opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) used the dam as a prime example of wasteful public works, and immediately after taking power in September, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Maehara proclaimed a “halt in operations as stated in the manifesto.” The partially constructed bridge in photograph 1 (taken in September 2009) was to link the two sides after the lake level was raised on completion of the dam. Public spending, excluding the actual structure itself, has already exceeded 340 billion yen. This bridge pier was presented as a perfect image for the media, and was used by the Hatoyama government to get across their basic policy of shifting from concrete to the people.

But what surprised those without knowledge of the local situation was a statement from the head of a group of local leaders, politicians and citizens from dam site areas, called the Countermeasures for the Five Flood-Risk Areas of Yamba Dam Committee, not welcoming the halt to construction, but pressing the minister to “withdraw his statement and continue with the original construction plans.” On the weekend of the cancellation proclamation, Maehara was unable to hold talks with those affected, as they boycotted his visit to Naganohara. Later at the Naganohara town office, a protest call was lodged, asking the town hall if they “were going to ignore the will of the people who voted the DPJ into power.” On the other hand, a debate also developed where “taking into consideration the costs involved to halt the project, it would be more economical to continue the construction.”1

1 In response to this, when looking at other dam projects, the general pattern is that when the construction period is extended, the budget is inflated with additional expenses, leading to the presumption that the original estimate will not be enough, and it would be better to halt the project with minimal losses. Since the Tokaido Shinkansen project (1964), it has been commonplace in Japanese public works projects to keep the original estimate low and present a final figure well over that when the project is completed.

Photograph1 (Taken by the author, September 2009)

While this is an example of the symbol of a new government taking the spotlight, it is a shame there was little mention in the media of the contradictory situation of why people from villages to be submerged at the bottom of the lake were strongly pushing for the dam construction to be completed. To answer this question, one must understand the historical facts of the area. There are many articles by journalists and people concerned spanning over the half century since the project began. In the beginning there was vehement local opposition, but as generations passed, with terms attached, the side in favor of the project gained momentum, the town and council also approved the proposal, and in 1987, an official preparatory investigation was approved. The region was split into those for and against, with serious confrontations spanning over generations. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry in charge of the plan continuously showed indecisiveness and backpedaled on its promises, further widening the gap between the two sides (Yoshio Hagiwara, 1996 The Yamba Dam Conflict Iwanami Shoten 2)

In a media lacking deep investigative research in the matter, on NHK's Hot Pursuit! A to Z, broadcast on October 10, 2009, voices of people concerned with the current state of affairs were aired. A hotel owner who had continued to oppose the plan with his father began to think, “We can only accept the construction now,” leading to a confrontation and split from his father. Following his father's death, he started to make plans for a new building after the submergence and relocation of the hotel. With outlook for the hotel relocation and the present ageing building is not repaired, customers have begun to drift away. In an interview during the program, the hotel owner commented, “It's a tragedy that, by avoiding the flooding of the town, those who should be most pleased with the withdrawing of the plan can't be happy.”

2 This book was not written by a dam opponent, but a recollection of a prominent local and his efforts to realize the dam project. Hagiwara's summary is as follows. “When looking back at the history of the Yamba Dam, notification of the government's decision for the dam construction, made with little consideration for the people living there, was common practice. This is how the fate of whether the weaker civilians would survive or not was placed. “On the face of it, the state won't force the project on us. They will put pressure on us and wait for the locals to wilt.” (p.123)

“Subjection” of Power

In the background of this tragedy we can witness the workings of power. Over 42 years, the state's determination to build a dam on this land firmed, and even without being hard-pressed to find similar cases throughout Japan, the people were resigned to the fact that the dam would be built. In areas to be flooded, such as the Kawara-yu district of Naganohara, the number of people, consequently planning new lives under the assumption that a dam will be built, increased. These people became subjects, vigorously encouraging promoters of the dam project, shouting their opposition to the halting of construction.

According to Max Weber, power is the workings to “realize your intentions by breaking down the resistance of others”3. In this way, when moving others to oppose their intentions, rather than using blatant candy and whip methods such as violence and intimidation, threats or large-sum compensation, it is more effective and long-lasting to set a scene where opponents make the moves and become flag bearers for the power. This is because the pawns, who are being used by the outspoken power, will feel a twinge of conscience, or have been reduced to feeling powerless, distrustful or rebellious. At this point, they may oppose the power over a long term, or at least act aggressively against the hopes of power. Here we can see that the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry (formerly the Construction Ministry) used high-order power to transform the attitude of locals to that of the dam promoters. In English, the word subject can mean nucleus, as well as the opposite, subjugation and follower. The word subject itself, which is supposed to be a nucleus with an autonomous purpose, has in some point in time, been implanted with the internalized intentions to follow someone. It may be the opposite of that or not, but this philosophical debate should be left to specialist writings 4. Once the citizens have become subjects, they will promote the ideas of the power, putting away the need for candy and whips, and making all talks proceed rapidly. Sociologist Takashi Machimura calls this phenomenon of acceptance by the locals of development projects and becoming project promotion agents for the state agenda, development subjection. (Development Time. Development Space Tokyo University Press, 2006)

3 M. Weber, translated by Ikutaro Shimizu Essays in Sociology Iwanami Bunko, Original Printing 1922. The translated version states power as all possibility removing resistance in society to realize personal ambitions. (p.86)
4 J. Butler, 1997, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press.

Then we can understand why the Yamba locals, who were subjected to the dam construction, protested against Maehara's halting of the project plan. The Developmental Subjection broke down parent-child and community relationships, squandering close to a lifetime of work and finally the locals were left out on a limb. The people in positions to use power must possess a strong resolution after collecting ample information and carefully thinking over the plans. I feel that, from time to time in this case, the Hatoyama administration was not prepared to wield such important power.

The Essence of Power and the Local Lifeworld

To quickly add, the essence of the Yamba Dam problem transcends the dimension of whether the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is at fault, or the DPJ. Even if there wasn't a change of government, due to economic reasons or environmental change factors, there have continuously been many examples of dam projects being dropped since the 1990s, so it is difficult to say whether the Yamba Dam project would continue as the exception. In relation to the local region, the over-sized state power, which changes their mind because of external factors, always possesses an arbitrary character, susceptible to suddenly betraying the locals. State power has its own agenda, desires and logic, and, as Heaven's vengeance is slow but sure, one would be considered delusional to hope that it will always keep its promises. As written in political study textbooks, because it is in politics where the management of a few policies to summarize the interests of many, or where the power lies to distribute limited resources, we would never be able to produce a situation where all local regions in the country make a profit. Furthermore, the order of priority for the interest summary and power allocation is variable. If a change of government regularly took place, people would learn that. But, bearing in mind that because an extremely high percentage of state proposed projects have been realized (due to strong consistencies in the policy implementation process), in a way, people have not experienced a feeling of being betrayed.

Conversely, because power is something that can change one's character, we can understand the need for citizen participation and decentralization of power in order to regulate it. If the power surrounding the dam construction had been spread among the local bodies, we may have been dealing with a slightly more detailed change in the atmosphere. Throughout the process of the decision and implementation of dam construction, if there was a process of involving the public from various standpoints and information sharing, we could have corrected the course during the 42 years. In postwar Japan, in the broad sense of energy-related policy, including dams, in decision-making and execution processes, it can be said we have come up short in terms of participation cycles and power decentralization measures. In these conditions, the local community of the chosen site has latently been carrying their own fate at the mercy of the state. In the latter half of the 20th century, it can also be said that through development subjection, this destiny has simply been covered up.

The state power of a mature society must change its goals, not by pumping large amounts of funds into large-scale projects that the locals can't control, but by plotting a course for decentralization in decision making, and producing an environment which displays the intellect of the local bodies and people. If these matters aren't taken up in the 21st century, the tragedies of the past will be repeated.

Hideo Nakazawa
Professor of Political Sociology and Regional Sociology, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Born in Tokyo. Graduated from Tokyo University in 1994. Received his Doctorate in Sociology from Tokyo University in 2001. Entered his current position in 2009 after spending time as a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Information, Sapporo Gakuin University, and as associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities, Chiba University. Is a member of The Japan Sociological Society and is the chair of Research Committee Japan Association of Regional and Community Studies. Major publications include Local Referendum Movements and the Local Regime (Harvest), and Environmental Sociology (coauthor, Yukaikaku). The former title received the 5th The Japan Sociological Society Promotion Award and the 32nd Tokyo Municipal Research Institute Fujita Award.