A recent survey of the leaders of 1,741 cities and towns in Japan showed a whopping 65 percent consider their population decline as “extremely serious”, and another 26 percent as “somewhat serious”. Current immigration policies set by the national government leave all but seven (out of 47) prefectures showing annual losses in population.
So what can the local leaders do?
Vie with each other, of course, to keep all of their own people and steal a few from their neighbours. Those that succeed can maintain their communities and sometimes make interesting improvements. Those that do not (unfortunately, the majority) fall into a downward spiral, unable to take care of themselves well, let alone attract others.
We’ve got what you want
The city of Akashi, for instance, had 290,000 residents in 2013. That number has grown every year since then, to its current 300,000. Most of the influx has been from nearby Kobe and Osaka, notably people between 25 and 30, a good age bracket to aim for if you want demographic stability throughout future decades.
So what has lured these newcomers? Akashi’s “Five Free Programs”, all aimed at young parents. Free medical services for all children, for instance. Add to that free nursery school for second and subsequent children.
Families with children from three months to one year old can receive monthly visits from municipal staff to receive childcare-related items and counselling.
Lunch is free for junior high school students (grades seven to nine). So is admission to public pools and museums for any minor that resides in the city.
Akashi has the advantage of being linked by public transit routes to much larger urban areas and can thus serve as a suburb. People can go to work in Osaka, for instance, and come home to Akashi. Not surprisingly, depopulation woes are more acute in more remote areas. You could buy a home in such villages easily enough (even subsidized by the government), but then what would you do for a living?
The city of Taketa (population 25,000) in the southernmost main island of Kyushu has been leveraging crafts to this end, such as woodworking, fabric dying and paper craft. Not that you have to be an artist to live there, but once a core industry is secured other businesses can find a minimum of clients, too. That region is scenic enough, not lacking in mountains, creeks and hot springs; Kyushu ranks reasonably highly in health care and child rearing infrastructure as well. No mega-mall, no professional baseball stadium, no glitzy concerts, no choice of international cuisine or four-year university, but one can have a home and make a living.
And to show how aggressive the scramble for residents has become, the small town of Taketa has opened an office in Tokyo to assist weary city-dwellers in making the move.
Falling short of youth and funds, some cities cope by more efficiently meeting the needs of their ageing citizenry. The Economist recently showcased Toyama in this regard. Its current population stands at about 390,000, down only 0.47 percent from a year earlier. More importantly than the slow rate of decrease, though, is its “dumpling and skewer” approach to urban planning, which makes the city area, at least, easier to service.
“Dumplings on a skewer” is a metaphor taken from popular Japanese sweets, the dumplings being, in this case, dense hubs, which are connected by a light rail transit line. Before this policy was implemented, only 28 percent of residents lived near public transportation lines, compared to around 40 percent today (neighbourhoods in central areas, in fact, are showing population growth). This makes it convenient for elderly people go out more often (using senior discount passes), which has been shown to lower the need for nursing care. Most of the places they would want to frequent – clinics, shopping areas, museums, spas, exercise clubs – are easy to access.
The governor claims that increased tax revenues from the city will better enable the prefecture to service other areas as well. It remains to be seen how well that will play out as rural schools, clinics and infrastructure increasingly feel the pinch. In fact, nothing is guaranteed for the future of the refurbished city, either – perhaps indicative of this is its state-of-the-art senior citizen centre, built on what once was a primary school.
Resorts that had their lifeblood sucked from them during the Covid pandemic discovered an untapped resource in white collar workers that needed a refreshing place to do their telecommuting. Entire towns quickly upgraded their internet capacities and continue to cater to Japanese taking a “workation”, or even international “digital nomads”.
Such quaint little pockets of countryside life dot the archipelago, where nooks and crannies in the middle of nowhere can be converted into a tourist-friendly “town of photographs”. The short- to mid-term guests that come and go do not often become integrated in any permanent way, but they provide a livelihood for locals that sometimes have little else to rely on.
Restructuring is never simple. Revenues have to be re-allocated, meaning someone’s pet project gets shelved; properties are abandoned or requisitioned; large swaths of the populace have to reframe the way they see their hometowns and careers. That cannot be helped, though, and measures to make that more palatable are welcome.