"Dan-goh", with the second syllable pronounced long. If you pronounce it short, it will mean "sweet rice-flour dumplings", which look like these in the photo.
So what is "dango"? It is a long-standing business practice in Japan across many, many industries but particularly heavily used in the construction industry whereby the competitors get together and arrange who will win the bid and at what price. It's a fine example of "give and take", or "I scratch your back and you'll scratch my back later". A contractor who is not to get the job this time is scheduled to get the next one, or a contractor who is to get the job promises to subcontract or form a joint venture with a competitor. No one will underbid. Industrial harmony. The winner is pre-selected, and to make up the appearance (and to make the selection committee look like it is doing the job) the bidders often craft their bids that are intentionally inferior to the bid by the pre-selected winner.
In exchange for the orderly market, it usually ends up costing the taxpayers a bit more and enriching those local government officials with strong ties to these colluding companies.
Now, Miyagi Prefecture, whose governor's idea of "recovery" is to build a memorial museum and memorial park for the March 11 disaster, has started to solicit bidding on the disaster debris cleanup jobs. With huge amount of money to be spent freely (remember, now it's the national government paying for the cleanup) to the tune of 240 billion yen (US$3.13 billion) - the largest project size for Miyagi Prefecture - the nation's construction industry got in shape quickly to do the "dango" to divvy up the money and help clean up the disaster debris, which is likely to be pretty radioactive.
Radiation? What radiation? We have the "dango" to do.
From Asahi Shinbun (5:01AM JST 8/24/2011):
Miyagi Prefecture announced on August 23 that the cleanup of disaster debris in the Ishinomaki district will be awarded to the joint venture of 9 companies headed by Kajima, one of the largest general contractors in Japan. The project cost will be about 240 billion yen [US$3.13 billion], the largest ever for the prefecture. The selection committee made of experts chose between the two joint ventures who submitted the proposals.
The prefecture was reportedly informed of a "dango" taking place, where the Kajima JV's winning the contract had been predetermined by the participants even before the proposals were submitted to the selection committee.
Miyagi Prefecture has 15 million tonnes of disaster debris, which is equal to 23 years worth of regular garbage in the prefecture.
More and much more to come. The debris cleanup, which was going nowhere at all after 5 months since the March 11 triple disaster, will be done very quickly now that the big contractors are assured of the big money. Already, also in Miyagi Prefecture, a big paper company has signed a contract with the prefectural government to burn the disaster debris for the company's thermal power generation to power the company's plant in Ishinomaki City. The excess electricity will sold to Tohoku Electric, according to Kahoku Shinpo (in Japanese; 8/23/2011).
They're going to burn the radioactive debris to generate electricity, and they will get paid for taking the debris as fuel.
And these general contractors in joint ventures will burn, bury, and burn more, with the help of junior JV partners which often include small construction firms owned and operated by the senior officials in the local municipalities, including mayors.
The other JV who supposedly lost out on this bid will surely get their job for the next round of disaster debris cleanup, because that's the whole point of "dango" - secure job for everyone, over time.
Professor Kodama of Tokyo University warned against this very "dango" in his testimony in the Diet. Ah but Japan is finally on the way to recovery. "Dango" collusion is back! Radioactive or not.