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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007

MEDIA MIX

It's where you live, and not where you're at, for those bureaucrats


Last week, the Cabinet rejected a recommendation from the National Personnel Authority to raise bonuses and special allowances for some government employees, believing that the public, disillusioned by a constant stream of money scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats, wouldn't stand for it. But even before these scandals the citizenry resented the kind of perks that public workers enjoy as a matter of course. It's resentment born of envy: How else to explain why college graduates continually list government service as their top career choice even though everyone knows it's as dull as dirt.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has staked his career on sticking it to the central government, so he has no problem exploiting this attitude. In September, at the urging of his feisty new vice-governor, Fukuchiji Inose, he visited the site of a planned residence for Upper House members in the expensive Kioi-cho neighborhood of Chiyoda Ward. Construction was supposed to begin last July, but in May neighbors filed a petition to stop it and a month later Inose came out against the residence himself. The petitioners would seem to have the law on their side since the property in question comes under a local "scenic area" regulation that prohibits the building of any structure taller than 15 meters unless it serves the "public benefit." The new residence would be 56 meters high, and, according to Inose, such a "luxury dormitory" offers no "public benefit."

A group of reporters accompanied the governor on his tour of the leafy vacant lot. In the shadow of the high-rise Akasaka Prince Hotel, he talked about preserving Tokyo's green spaces and natural environment, but the reporters knew what he really wanted to say. They dashed back to their offices and wrote stories about spoiled politicians paying peanuts for fabulous digs in the city center.

Because it owns the land it plans to build on, the government does not really require Tokyo's permission to develop it, and two years ago the Metropolitan Government approved the construction. It has never, in fact, blocked the central government from building anything. Last week, however, the government submitted a new plan for the building that reduced the height slightly and made some of the rooms smaller. Inose said he's still against the construction, though it isn't clear how he intends to stop it.

Given the ruling coalition's poor showing in the last general election, the government would probably like to present a more conciliatory image, especially since it's already received grief from the media about the deluxe residence for Lower House members that opened in Akasaka last spring. The average rent for residents there is ¥92,000, or one-fifth the area's market rate for an apartment of comparable size (80 sq. meters). The press scrutiny was so intense that some assemblypersons have hesitated to move in, according to the Asahi Shimbun, and at present one-third of the units are vacant, "including the one where agricultural minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka killed himself." A few lawmakers said that they might actually move in if the rents were increased to market levels since then they couldn't be targets of criticism.

Supposedly, Diet members use the residences during the week and return to their home prefectures on the weekend. They're not necessarily for families, and many that are still in use are hardly what you could call luxurious. The units in a current residence for Upper House members in Kioi-cho, which was built in 1969 and lies adjacent to the lot Ishihara visited, are less than 40 sq. meters each, and they have no private baths. That's probably why it looks vacant. Politicians only use these facilities for sleeping. The newer buildings are considered long-overdue upgrades.

But why do public servants need subsidized housing in the first place? Except for Japan, only Russia, China and North Korea provide residences for their legislators. American congressmen and senators have to find their own housing in Washington. British parliamentarians from outside London receive a housing allowance but not a house. In France, politicians can charge the government up to ¥5,300 a night for hotel stays when they're in Paris for government business.

What really steams the public are residences for civil servants. Subsidized housing for government employees in central Tokyo is designed for families, meaning they're permanent residences. The ostensible reason for this "benefit" is that public workers need to be close to their offices in case there's an emergency.

Last year, in the face of criticism, a government committee tried to gloss over the subsidized-housing controversy by pointing out that a bureaucrat on average pays about ¥50,000 a month for an apartment, while a private employee who lives in a company apartment pays only ¥25,000. They were trying to say that civil servants don't get such a big break, but they were looking at the controversy from the wrong angle. Government housing is subsidized by taxpayers, while corporate housing is subsidized by the companies themselves.

However, the perk may soon lose its glamour. The central government has decided to sell two-thirds of the land it owns in central Tokyo to help offset the budget deficit, and they're already moving some people to the suburbs. Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori once said, "If you get rid of government housing in Tokyo, nobody will want to be a bureaucrat." Civil servants are prisoners of their own inflated self-worth: I'm special, so I deserve to live in Aoyama, even if my place is smaller than a chicken coop. It's the Japanese housing situation in a nutshell: Location is paramount, and quality-of-life can wait until I retire. But there's an even bigger enigma that no one talks about. Why would anyone want to live in a building full of co-workers?



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