Nemuro rolling down a road to nowhere

By Mark Brazil | Apr 5, 2000

We may think of America as the land of the automobile, but for a place that both produces them and is constantly involved in road works for them, we need look no further than Japan.

Automobiles clog the narrow streets and winding roads. Many of us want them, but we all suffer the consequences of having too many. Without the urban and suburban zoning found in many developed countries, planning roads to serve both industry and residents in the same area is a nightmare, and as with the railway system the approach seems strictly ad hoc. The existing line or road is no longer fast enough or wide enough, so rather than widening it, let’s add another one. In this way, precious land resources are frittered away.

In some areas, the need for additional highways is self-evident; in others they are merely schemes to keep the construction industry busy and hence happy. Sometimes, though, one wonders what madness can be afoot. I am thinking of Nemuro, in the extreme southeast corner of Hokkaido. There, plans to construct an additional stretch of four-lane highway 7 km long are raising a stink on an international scale.

A two-lane road currently serves to connect Nemuro to Kushiro. For those of you who have not had the good fortune to travel this road, it is quiet, an easy drive for anyone from Honshu because it is so uncrowded. It passes through attractive farmland and forest, and as one travels eastwards along it the traffic thins ever further until at times one may have the whole road to one’s self. Sika deer graze alongside it. I have seen cranes, swans, eagles and geese while driving this road, and there are countless numbers of small birds in the roadside forests.

Given that Route 44 already exists, and given that it is hardly crowded with traffic (after all there are not that many people who wish to travel to Nemuro), the new plans beg rather a lot of questions. First, why does the small city of Nemuro, with its steadily declining population of just about 35,000 people, situated as far away from a major population center as possible in Japan, warrant a major highway? Secondly, where is the road going? Thirdly, what of its environmental impact? Fourthly, will it just end at 7 km or will that trigger a spate of construction?

The 7 km are from Honioi to Onneto in Nemuro, but the planned track follows a completely separate route from the current route 44, through virgin countryside. An interchange planned at Onetto will destroy one of the most attractive pieces of coastal marshland in Hokkaido, an area home to many of Hokkaido’s special natural monuments: the Japanese crane, Blakiston’s fish owl, white-tailed eagle and black woodpecker. Many local and unusual plants, birds and mammals also occur in the area.

Only 7 km, just west of Nemuro City, but it is the thin end of the wedge. In fact it is the preliminary phase in the projected construction of a four-lane highway all the way to the port city of Kushiro, 120 km to the west. As the road extends it will carve through some of the best crane and fish owl habitat in east Hokkaido, destroying wetlands and forests. Species that will feel its impact include Latham’s snipe, a species covered under migratory bird treaties, which breeds here and winters as far away as Australia.

Environmental impact assessments found that the new road plan presented no problems — but then, they were performed by the same bureau that is planning the road, the Bureau of Hokkaido Development. Local naturalists and conservationists disagree and call for independent appraisal of the road.

They also offer a reasonable solution: Assuming that traffic flows to the declining city of Nemuro might possibly increase, widening and improving the current Route 44 would minimize the impact on wildlife and scenery while improving travel times.

It is an interesting question whether retailers in Nemuro will be happy to find their already declining base of shoppers tempted away to the much better supplied city of Kushiro. If, as is projected, the new high-speed road cuts travel times between the cities to just over an hour, then many shoppers might head for Kushiro instead of purchasing locally. That would trigger another round of shop closures, and accelerate Nemuro’s decline. Moreover, if the city becomes less popular as a result, who, other than the construction industry, benefits from the new road?

Four-lane highways with 100-km speed limits are few in Japan, and in the northern island of Hokkaido such highways currently serve only the western region, extending out from the capital Sapporo to other major population centers, where 3-4 million of the island’s total of 5 million people live. Traffic volumes in and around the major population centers are an issue and considerable road development is taking place to alleviate it. Eastern Hokkaido, however, 350 km away from the main population area, is a rural area rich in wildlife, with a low human population density and relatively little traffic.

Despite the lack of highways, and despite extremely low speed limits, typically 50 km on open roads, in rural areas traffic commonly moves at 80-100 km. Road beds are poorly built, surfaces poorly maintained and ravaged by freezing and frosting during the long winters, combining to make the current road network appear dated. Upgrading the current road system makes some sense. Extending huge highways to remote corners where they can only do harm does not.