Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hostility Killing Rural Japan?

There's an article in Japan Times making the argument that aversion to strangers - foreigners or Japanese - is killing rural Japan. Briefly, the argument is that as small rural or regional communities do not accept or welcome outside people that move in, it greatly discourages people from doing so. As a result, people elect to move to the cities instead (where everyone is a stranger) and the countryside suffers.

On one level the author is right. The insularity and inward-looking conservatism of rural communities is indeed one reason people choose not to move in - and why young rural people elect to live and work in culturally and socially open cities instead. the overall premise is wrong, however.

First, this is not in any way, shape or form a Japanese phenomenon. Rural, small communities everywhere are insular and indifferent, even hostile, to strangers. If I would move to a village in central Sweden I would not be accepted as one of them, ever. Sure, people may be friendly, but I would not be a villager, I'd be an outsider for the rest of my life. Try to move into small communities in France, or Eastern Europe, or America - it's all the same, with only the surface attitude differing from place to place.

And it's not this hostility per se that is killing rural Japan either; it may slightly hasten the trend but it's not causing it. As I've argued before, Japan is considerably more rural than other, comparable industrial economies, and the shift to a mostly urban economy is still ongoing. Economic and social opportunities have shifted towards urban life today, and the countryside would decline whether villagers were friendly to outsiders or not. I expect the Japanese rural population to further decline by almost half, simply to bring Japan in line with the average of other industrialized economies.

Communities being friendly or hostile may affect the future of those particular communities. But it will only help decide where rural people will still live in the future, not how many rural inhabitants the country will have overall.


Taintus said...

Your analysis is interesting. I agree that insularity is not the cause of rural decline. Indeed, for a long time it could be called a social adaptation.

I also agree with your predication about the further decline of rural communities in Japan. However, I'm seeing glimmers of hope. Perhaps that's just what I want to see.

The village I live in, Otaki, has witnessed a population decline similar to other communities in Japan. Still, there are glimmers of hope.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting post.

roentarre said...

I happen to love Osaka the food city.

You have a beautiful writing for such a wonderful blog

Janne Morén said...

Taintus: insularity has indeed been beneficial for small communities for most of history. Outsiders have generally not have had good intentions when showing up after all.

And while I think this depopulation is inevitable I do not find it depressing. After all, just look at countries that have gone through this, and realize that there is vibrant countryside life there too; just not at as many locations. What I guess will tend to happen is that the least viable communities, places without viable agriculture or forestry, deep-rooted local industry or tourist draw, will tend to disappear altogether while viable communities will be able to thrive.

roentarre: Thanks for the kind words. And yes, the food is one reason I love this city too!

Anonymous said...

from Red frog: in the late 1950s my parents--civil servants- were transfered to a village 60 km away from the big town in France where they had always lived. They did have the experience of village life from the villages where their grand parents lived but that new place was something else! the very first week several local people told them they weren't welcome. Many locals even made a point of never speaking French to them. On the other hand a few families, including one who was the local miscreants and often had trouble with the police, turned out to be extremely welcoming. Nowadays many rural communities in France are doing a lot to explore their ancient history, traditional music, food etc. AND open up to the rest of the world via internet. An amazing number of villages and small towns have a yearly cultural festival that attract big crowds. Profits from these festivals help these places restore ancient buildings, maintain and improve roads and utilities etc. The major problem, and likely the same in Japan and other places, is that the production of quality foodstuff (in an ecological manner, by hand etc.) isn't profitable and at any rate too hard a job for most younger people. Having several bed-and-breakfast and also quite a few artists in town is nice but having to drive 20-50 km to buy cheap foreign-grown food in a hypermarket isn't.