August 27, 2012

Build it and they won't come

During Japan's real estate bubble (that popped more than decade before the bust on this side of the Pacific, again proving that all we learn from history is that nobody learns anything from history), real estate speculators poured millions into one lost cause after another.

Full of faith that dancing Keynesian sugar plum fairies could resurrect any flailing local economy, it was almost as if rat holes were dug so more money could be poured down them. At least the housing bubble in the U.S. resulted in houses getting built that people actually lived in.

Part of the blame can perhaps be traced back to the Joban Hawaiian Center, which opened in 1966 in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. The wild idea of turning a shuttered mining town into a resort destination was wildly successful and inspired a very cute movie, Hula Girls.

The 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi disasters shut it down for a year, during which time its dancing troupes went on tour. It reopened in February to great fanfare. (In any case, it sure doesn't hurt having a few dozen very attractive hula dancing girls on hand.)

Alas, another tried and true rule of human nature is that exceptions prove the rule that, because they are exceptional, exceptions don't prove anything. Most similarly-inspired swing-for-the-fences attempts since at reviving Japan's withering exurban economies have failed.

Perhaps the craziest rat hole of them all was the Kashiwazaki "Turkish Culture Village." You didn't know that what the world needed was a Turkish Culture Village in the middle of rural Japan? Neither, as it turned out, did the Japanese, who stayed away in droves.

The worst of three bad ideas, the Niigata "Russia Village" and "Gulliver's Kingdom" being the other two (the latter could plausible look good on paper), the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, as Spike Japan explains in the following beauty of a single sentence paragraph,

was a demented brainchild--perhaps the most demented brainchild, although the competition is brutal--of a man fiercely philoprogenitive of demented brainchildren, Ryutaro Omori (1928-2004), the boss of Niigata Chuo Bank, a second-tier regional bank that had only graduated from mutual savings & loan to orthodox bank status in 1989, a man so tone-deaf to the clanging cymbals of the economic orchestra that he failed to hear that the Bubble had burst and, brimful with all the champagne optimism of which our species is so effortlessly capable, decided in the early 1990s to finance not one, but three theme parks, inspired by his Golden Ring concept, in which he pictured a great golden ring laid across the map of central Honshu and in which the theme parks, running in an arc from Niigata in the northwest to Mount Fuji in the southeast, would sparkle like diamonds on a ring.

Seeing is believing, so I direct you to Spike Japan's two-part illustrated exploration of this economic disaster here and here (and its head-scratching but actual connection to the local nuclear power plant).

And then the next time some well-meaning politician or crony capitalist promises that just a few more billion dollars sucked out of the public purse will "turn this baby around," think back upon these examples.

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