Slowing the Population Drain From Japan’s Regions

Politics Society

Japan’s national government is finally starting to pay serious attention to the issue of regional depopulation. People continue to migrate from around the country to the three major metropolises, Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, where around half of the nation’s population is now concentrated. How major regional cities can act to counter this trend will have a great bearing on the shape of Japan’s future.

Municipalities in Jeopardy of Extinction

On May 2, 2014, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism held a briefing on the bidding process for a concession to operate Sendai Airport in Miyagi Prefecture; about 150 companies attended. Under the concession system, while ownership of the airport will remain in government hands, a private company will take charge of day-to-day operations for a set period. Miyagi Prefecture Governor Murai Yoshihiro hopes the scheme will help revitalize the area following the damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. The prefecture has set 30-year targets of annual usage by 6 million passengers and annual handling of 50,000 tons of freight.

This comes at a time when the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō is starting to shift away from its overwhelming focus on the three major metropolitan areas. Abe has announced plans to establish a regional revitalization task force in the Cabinet Secretariat in the near future to direct efforts addressing regional depopulation and related issues.

The move was foreshadowed by the release of a list of municipalities in danger of disappearing altogether. This attention-grabbing announcement came from a working group of the Japan Policy Council, a private-sector research body. The JPC group, headed by former Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Masuda Hiroya, produced a new set of projections for the population of young women in some 1,800 municipalities, basing its calculations on the assumption that the movement of people from rural areas to big cities will continue unabated. The results of its calculations indicated that in 896 of the municipalities, or about half of the total, the young female population will decline by more than 50% between now and 2040. Since the number of young women is a decisive factor in determining the size of the population in years to come, this sort of sharp decline could jeopardize the very survival of these communities.

Tokyo more than makes up for its own low birthrate by drawing people like a black hole, while provincial regions experience the negative synergy of local economic erosion and nationwide population decline. This creates what Masuda has dubbed a “polar society” characterized by extreme concentration. His group’s calculations are a wake-up call for Japan’s regions, forcing many municipalities to face up to the very real possibility of falling out of existence.

Countering Depopulation

In its recent concern with regional revitalization, the Abe administration probably has one eye on next spring’s nationwide local elections. However, there has also been genuine concern within the government that its focus on the major metropolitan areas, as instanced in the recently designated National Strategic Special Zones, is speeding up migration to Tokyo. Perhaps the appearance of the JPC group’s “endangered cities” list was seen as an opportunity for a change of course.

One essential factor when developing a regional vision for combating population decline is deciding whether to adopt a “selection and concentration” strategy of focusing resources on more promising areas. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has designated cities with over 200,000 people outside the big three metropolitan areas as regional core cities and plans to establish a system for centering medical and other facilities in these cities to serve smaller nearby municipalities. Pilot projects for this system are to be launched in nine cities, including Morioka in Iwate Prefecture, Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture, and Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has a plan to create 60–70 city groups with over 300,000 people by connecting cities involved with highways and other transport links. It remains to be seen how the government will coordinate the plans formulated independently by different ministries.

Four Regional Hub Cities

Another important point in future developments is how the large cities that form the core of regional blocs in Tōhoku, Kyūshū, and other areas come into the equation. Since the late 1970s, Sapporo, Sendai, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka have been viewed as key regional hubs. Despite depopulation elsewhere, these four cities, known collectively as “Sas-Sen-Hiro-Fuku,” have either maintained their size or continued to grow. The prefectures of which they are the capitals—Hokkaidō, Miyagi, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, respectively—account for roughly 10% of Japan’s gross domestic product and are home to about 12% of the national population. Each of these cities is an academic center hosting a major national university, and all four also have professional baseball and soccer franchises, providing each with a firm local identity. Some people in the national government see these cities as a potential breakwater to stop the flow of migrants to Tokyo.

However, voices from other prefectures warn that focusing on Sas-Sen-Hiro-Fuku and ignoring other municipalities will widen gaps within the regions where they are located. They fear a mooted regrouping of the current 46 prefectures into regional blocs, or states (shū), centered on larger cities. These hub cities could turn into population black holes drawing in people from the rest of the region the way Sapporo already does in Hokkaidō. Meanwhile, some contend that these four cities are not similar enough in population and economic power to be considered collectively.

For a decision to focus on Sas-Sen-Hiro-Fuku to be persuasive, the cities will need to gain some regional power devolved from central government and to become bases for global businesses rather than only for branch offices. This will require backing from the authorities in Tokyo.

The four cities in question will also need to come up with visions for how they can serve as locomotives of growth, working in tandem with the other prefectures in their respective regional blocs. Each of the cities has its individual potential: Sapporo as the hub of Hokkaidō, with strengths in tourism, agriculture, and fishing; Sendai as the center of post-earthquake rebuilding in Tōhoku; Hiroshima as the core of economic activities in the Seto Inland Sea area; and Fukuoka, whose location in Kyūshū allows it to serve as a convenient gateway to the rest of Asia. How they develop that potential will be key to the future shape of the Japanese nation.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 16, 2014. Banner photo: Miyagi Prefecture Governor Murai Yoshihiro speaks at an event promoting Miyagi as a tourist destination, held at the home field of the professional baseball team Tōhoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai. © Jiji.)

government Sendai local government population Sapporo Fukuoka Hiroshima