Rural Decay a Black Cloud over Drive for Competitiveness
Challenge of globalization leads some to call convergence of
population in cities healthy, but what about those left behind in
Japan's dying villages?
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan and a Lecturer at Waseda University)
In Japan, "marginal hamlet" is a phrase that is gradually moving
from the jargon of academics and administrators and into the public
lexicon. A marginal hamlet is defined as a village in which a
majority of the population is aged 65 or older, and where
maintaining community life - be it engaging in farm work that
requires mutual help or holding a funeral service - is no longer
feasible. Eventually, these localities are doomed to disappear.
The bleak reality in Japan is that the number of hamlets of this
sort is steadily on the rise amid the relentless advance of
depopulation in rural areas, an extension of the nation's overall
aging and population decline. According to the Ministry of Land,
Infrastructure and Transport, 62,271 hamlets in 775 villages, towns
and cities are designated as depopulated communities, of which
7,837, or 13%, are considered marginal hamlets.
The so-called marginalization of small villages is a result of the
consistent exodus of young people to cities, ongoing since the days
of high economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s. As more people
abandon village life - primarily because of an absence of job
opportunities - a vicious cycle is set in motion where it becomes
increasingly inconvenient to live in the village and population
outflow increases as a result.
In a remote mountainous district of Niigata Prefecture where I have
rented an abandoned house - and there are countless such houses -
nine out of 35 hamlets are considered marginal.
Schools that existed for more than 100 years have been closed one
after another as the number of pupils drops. One such school ended
its history several years ago, not long after celebrating its
The school song, still posted in the old schoolhouse, tells of a
history in which "parents from the four villages joined forces to
maintain the school for 100 years ... producing 2,000 graduates
through the years, always wishing to work toward building a great
country." The song, written in commemoration of the school's 100th
anniversary, vividly tells how the local community had once deeply
valued this tiny place of education, presumably through years of
Understandably, the fiscal situations of communities in the rural
areas that contain these marginal hamlets are dire. Many of them are
virtually bankrupt, barely keeping themselves above water with
subsidies or secured borrowing from the central government.
For villagers, the ongoing policy of the central government to cut
back on public works spending - started by the Junichiro Koizumi
administration with great fanfare and cheering public support - is a
serious blow. With agriculture hardly a secure source of income,
jobs like road construction - made available by public works
investment - are important sources of employment and supplementary
"Frankly," a villager confined, "we are even hoping for a natural
disaster that would result in jobs for restoration work."
In Niigata's mountains region, which is buried under heavy snow
during winter, road-clearing work constracted out by the local
government is an important source of income for small construction
firms - typically with fewer than 10 employees - that depend on
business created by public works investment. There are more than
half a million such construction companies throughout the country.
When you look at how, no matter where you go in this country, even
winding village roads or forest paths are perfectly paved, you
realize the extent to which public works investment has been
utilized. Little-used highways, bridges or airports are notorious
examples of excess in the practice of pork barrel politics.
But that is no longer the case. With the apparently endless
deterioration of the fiscal state of the central government, it has
become impossible to continue generous giveaways to local
governments and to rural areas in the form of subsidies, public
works investment and a host of invisible channels hidden in the
budgetary system. Those were the unfortunate fiscal realities that
lay beneath Koizumi's politics of reform.
The ongoing steep decline of local communities roughly overlaps with
the emergence of growing disparities in Japan's socioeconomic
situation. Although debate goes on regarding how to solve the
problem, there does not appear to be any easy answers.
One school of thought suggests that depopulation resulting from the
movement of people from the countryside to cities - metropolitan
areas in particular - is unstoppable. From the viewpoint of economic
efficiency, concentration of population in big cities like Tokyo
should not be deterred but encouraged, since it is a natural and
At a time when this country is increasingly exposed to the pressure
of competition due to globalization, concentration of the population
in Tokyo is the answer, at least according to this theory. The
nation cannot afford luxuries like trying to save the marginal
hamlets, which would run counter to the much-touted reform agenda.
The reasoning goes that unless economic efficiency and
competitiveness are enhanced and secured by the convergence of
resources in Tokyo, the nation's gross domestic product cannot be
expected to grow and the country as a whole will end up worse off.
That, in turn, could cause the disparities to widen even more.
To the advocates of this thinking, sympathy for the decaying local
economies and ensuing poverty is little more than a sentimental
attachment to the rural scenes of days gone by. They may be right,
but from the viewpoint of balanced happiness and diversity of
lifestyles, something other than just economic efficiency may have
to be considered.
At the very least, it should be mandatory that we take care of
people who are living in depopulated areas, as they wait out the
transitional period in which the concentration of people in big
cities continues until the demise of every single marginal hamlet.
But a question that must also be asked, is whether Japan will be
able to truly thrive with its population concentrated in Tokyo and
other cities and its rural areas left entirely deserted and barren.
Correction: In last month's article in this column, How far will Abe
go in defying Japan's postwar regime?, former Prime Minister
Nobusuke Kishi was erroneously described as a convicted Class-A war
criminal. In actuality, he was a suspected Class-A war criminal who
spent three years in prison.
(Originally appeared in the June 25, 2007 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)