The Tone Canal

One in an Occasional Look at Japan's Public Works Projects

Arriving at my office in the newsroom after lunch has many advantages. Aside from the obvious; the fully stocked polyester tie racks in the train stations and the missed early morning surprise visits from my loan brokers, perhaps most important is that junior reporter Junko is usually far too busy to bore me with one of her lectures on morality, general decency, and other tired and useless...

"So what brings you here today?" came a female voice. I knew it was her. I didn't need to look - a lack of subtlety marks her presence like a crack on my skull did my ex-wife. But I always look anyway.

I slowly raised my head up from my work towards the doorway where she was standing. At the time, my smoke was dangling from my mouth and I was leaning over my trashcan removing encrusted grass and mud from my left golf spike with a tee. "Oh, I had some business this morning," I said. "I went out for an early morning round."

"You and your drinking," she said, a little exasperated. But like her inability to be delicate with conversation, a little disappointment in my habits is never surprising either.

"Actually I was out playing golf in Chiba with one of our linotype operators from the 14th floor." I held up my now clean spike as evidence. "But now that you mention it, we didn't exactly allow anybody to play through on the 19th hole..."

"Why wasn't he working today?"

"Uh...He's sick."

"He's what!"

"Hell, I don't know! What am I, his mother?" I pulled out my pack of grits from the top drawer of my desk in anticipation of this inquisition continuing and started on my right. "Funny thing though. Since a roundtrip fare across the Aqualine Expressway to Chiba runs $60, we parked at the Daikoku Parking Area near Kawasaki and carpooled across. Saved some dough."

"Yes, some of Japan's recent transportation projects have made little sense as far as their ability to serve the public properly. For example, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the recently completed 1.78 km toll-free Tsunoshima Bridge cost $149 million and it only serves the 996 people living on Tsunoshima."

"Is that right?" I asked.

"But it wasn't always like that. The Tone Canal, also in Chiba, played a valuable role in transporting cargo in the 19th century before later being surpassed in efficiency by advances made in rail and road methods in the mid 20th century."

I replaced my dieing smoke with a fresh one and settled back in my chair.

Designed by Dutch civil engineer Rouwenhorst Mulder and constructed under the toil and sweat of some 2.2 million laborers between 1888 and 1890, the Tone Canal was used for 50 years to quickly shuttle products originating from Japan's northern reaches down south. Today, with only a small fraction of the water flowing past its banks from urban runoff, a tour of the canal shows just how difficult this task must have been. It also shows that, while presently not operating as originally intended, the twisting waterway is still providing a valuable service.

The eight-kilometer canal provided a navigable connection between two parallel flowing rivers - the Tone and Edo - and joined the cities of Kashiwa and Matsudo. The opening of the passage was necessitated by the desire to create a faster and easier means of shipping perishable seafood products and staples (rice and timber) from the northern Tohoku and Hokkaido regions to Tokyo.

For two kilometers before its downstream junction with the Edo, the original landscape on which the canal was constructed is readily visible. At this point, both sides of this straight section abut large and flat rice fields and factory complexes. With the grass-covered embankments rising approximately forty feet and the bottom widths extending twice that, it is easy to develop an appreciation for the tremendous amount of soil that had to be transported during the construction.

More so, considering the modern conveniences not available back then; the diesel backhoe, the sub-contraction of cheap foreign labor, and the fast food outlet (not to mention the convenience store). Though staring upstream from atop one of the embankments through the factory haze and beyond the few stray fishermen does explain the need to utilize 2.2 million pairs of hands, what did a lunch break look like back then?

But lunch breaks today are undoubtedly a different story. Upstream, where the canal crosses the Noda Line at Unga Station, the landscape and environment provide quite a contrast to that of its industrial and agricultural cousin downstream.

Here and further upstream, the canal is a winding conduit with large trees and homes from many periods occupying the spaces just beyond its banks. It is a setting that could easily be confused for a natural river, not a scene created by shovel, hoe, and beast of burden over a hundred years prior.

During a typical midday scene, many residents from the surrounding neighborhoods can be seen utilizing the canal's meandering paved trails by walking dogs, playing with their children, tending nearby gardens, flying model airplanes, or even trying out some new sax parts to anyone that cares to lend an ear. Government funding, though limited, has enhanced the experience with the placement of wood viewing stations interspersed along the canal with the message: kawa wa mirarete utsukushikunaru (take care of the river and it becomes beautiful).

Indeed, care of the river has been undertaken. The continual need to swat at rather thick swarms of harmless insects, however, does prove to be distracting from time to time. But beauty is to be had nonetheless. Thick cattails and reeds rise from its bed, algae and grass cling to its embankments, and various waterfowl swim on its water surface. Additionally, small pontoon bridges allow for easy pedestrian access across the slow moving ten-meter bottom width. This scene has further been improved by local folks who have blended small rock and flower gardens into the sides of selected portions of the embankments.

At its peak, 100 vessels navigated the waterway each day. Later, after being rendered obsolete, the canal was used for flood control and as a water source for Chiba Prefecture. Today, its predominant use is for the aforementioned recreational opportunities and, as a result, perhaps the ideal place to practice one's short game should access to a golf course prove overly expensive.

I set down my clean right spike and stubbed out my smoke.

"Did I tell you that I really had my putts draining right into the center of the cup on the back nine today?" I asked. I thought about using my empty coffee cup at the edge of my desk as a visual aid but I didn't want to spook her, like a hunter might when releasing the safety on his rifle, and send her fleeing.

"Also there is a commemorative plaque on one of the banks of the canal to honor Mulder's work. But it is strange that there is no mention of the 2.2 million workers," she said rather quickly, apparently not listening to me.

"But," I added, "I didn't put one in the drink today. Not one." At that, she turned and abruptly left the room. I pulled out my lighter and spun my chair around to face the window.

Times are certainly shaping up to be rather dire when she can correctly correlate my metaphors to a request for a cup of coffee. From now, a new tact will be necessary.

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