Monday, November 19, 2007

The Decline of the Japanese Countryside

There's been a lot in the news lately about two population trends in Japan. One trend is the disappearing countryside and rural towns in Japan. The other trend is the declining birth rate and the resulting decline in total population. Many commentators take it for given that one is the cause for the other. I'm going to maintain here that it is not; instead it is the third - largely silent - trend of urbanization that is the main cause.

The reason for this long post is that Shisaku, an always interesting blog on political life in Japan, posted a series of posts (here, here and here) which I replied to. I realized, however, that I hadn't really formulated my thoughts on this in a clear manner and came off as somewhat disjointed. So here an attempt to argue my standpoint at length.

In short, I will argue that population decline is not connected to the disappearing countryside while urbanisation is; that population decline is unlikely to be a truly long-term trend or all that serious if it is; that none of these trends are actually large-scale bad; and that far from making Japan a population basket-case these trends are simply making Japan become more like most other industrialised countries in the world.

First, though, a disclaimer: I am not a social scientist of any kind. I don't actually know any more about this than any random guy pontificating in a bar. But I am an academic in a different field however, so writing belaboured, authoritative-sounding prose comes naturally. Which may lure the unwary to falsely conclude that I seem to know what I am talking about. I don't.

I will talk about population decline and urbanization in later posts - the whole thing gets too long otherwise - but first, the depopulation of the countryside.

Most famous lately has been the town of Yubari in Hokkaido. It is a former mining town that tried to spend itself out of a declining population and financial difficulties. By the time it went bancrupt it had spent billions of yen on various well-meant but ultimately doomed projects and is now forced to close all non-essential services including six out of seven schools and the hospital and lay off the majority of all town employees (the largest employer in town after the mine closed).

The problem for Yubari is of course that it only became a town only because of the mine, and without it the town really doesn't have any particular economic reason to exist anymore. With most service now trimmed off - and to be fair it was all scaled for a long-gone population several times the current size - and employment crashing, it now risks following a lot of other similar towns in Japan into oblivion.

And indeed, as Shisaku posts above, many other small communities are struggling or already dying. In the news a year or two ago was a small village that decided to disband and sell the land to become a landfill. The villagers were all old and frail and expected to need to move to the nearby city soon in any case, and the landfill operator preferred to use an area already marked by human use over unspoiled countryside. But for every village you hear about in the news there are many that silently succumb to depopulation and old age.

So, what could the causes be, and what can be done about it? The next post will be a look at the other recent headline trend: population decline.

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