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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 10:15 07/09/2007
July 2, 2007

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.

Hard knocks

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 centenary.

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 considerable hardship.

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 income.

"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.

Inevitable migration?

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 inevitable phenomenon.

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.)

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