By Eddie Watson
A lot of us know Japan as the country where a large majority of the population is either a 2D anime character or a creepy robot, where the game shows are hilariously weird, and where the TV commercials are just bizarre.
To many outside the country, Japan starts and ends with Tokyo. More specifically, it starts and ends with Shibuya scramble (it’s just a crossing, why do you feel the need to take a video of it). For avid skiers, Niseko and Hakuba are popular destinations (mostly because you will never have to utter a single Japanese word at these popular Australian ski resorts). Even for the Japanophiles, Japan doesn’t extend much beyond culturally rich cities such as Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nara, or budding metropolises like Osaka and Nagoya.
And the reality for a lot of regional Japanese people is that, in fact, this picture of Japan is not far from the truth. Despite an overwhelmingly large population, Japan is really not that populated past the big cities and tourist destinations. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism revealed last year that the total area of uninhabited land in Japan will increase from roughly 50% today to almost 62% by 2050. In the past 60 years, the internal migration into the greater Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka areas has been astounding. From 1955 through to 1970 alone, 5,016,904 people migrated into Greater Tokyo, 618,247 into Greater Nagoya, and 2,188,272 into Greater Osaka. That’s 7,823,423 people leaving the regional areas in the space of 15 years (to put that into perspective that’s more than the population of Brisbane and Sydney put together, packing their bags and moving out). Alternatively, if Donald Trump successfully deports every Mexican in Texas to Mexico, you’d see something similar in terms of numbers.
This has a huge impact on regional productivity, with Tokyo at the top (at 109 million yen/capita) having nearly double the productivity of Tottori Prefecture at the bottom (60 million yen/capita). Well known prefectures such as Osaka and Kyoto also sit comfortably above the national average of 82 million yen/capita. What you can expect is a continued spiral of increased productivity due to a sturdy economic system powered by millions of employees, in turn drawing more people to urban centres seeking better education, and better employment opportunities, leading once again to increased economic growth. The fact that 70% of Japan’s businesses are based in Tokyo is a testament to this. Compare that with 39% of Australian businesses being based in Sydney, and a meagre 9% of US businesses in New York City.
There are broadly two problems if this cycle continues. The first is that the birth rate in Japan is in fast decline. Data suggests that birth rates are greater in the regional areas compared with Tokyo (for example, the aforementioned Tottori Prefecture has a birth rate of 1.60 compared to 1.15 in Tokyo). People are also both more likely to get married, and marry earlier outside of Tokyo. A lot of this can be attributed to the lifestyle differences that exist between rural and urban areas. Namely, men in the cities watch so much anime that they’d rather marry a 2D waifu than leave their room and actually meet real women (here and more seriously, here). That means that as the regional areas rapidly drain of people, birth rates will continue to fall, leading to a population crisis in the near future. To scare the politicians even more, the average age in Japan is already 46.1 years old (sorry to all you Japanophiles out there looking for a Japanese hubbie/wifie).
The second is that life expectancy in Japan is also ridiculously high. It’s 80.5 years for males and 86.83 years for females, and when you realise that soon a vast majority of the population will be eligible for pension AND healthy enough to live on it for another 15 odd years, it becomes problematic that the labour force is shrinking rather than growing. Add to that the fact that the PM Shinzo Abe has doubled down on Abenomics, pumping more cash into pension rather than increasing child care and parental support on the assumption that pensioners are significant drivers of consumption, and it becomes clear that what initially seems just like a regional decay problem is in fact something far more sinister.
As the people who flocked to the cities grow older, concerns also arise about healthcare and nursing. For example, Tokyo has and probably always will be a commercial and entertainment centre rather than a happy post-retirement retreat. It has very few facilities to cater for elderly citizens, and this creates another worry for the aging population.
Furthermore, for a culturally anti-immigrant country like Japan, the hopes of pumping up the labour force with foreign workers has bipartisan opposition (if you thought Bill Shorten was bad, wait til you see the state of Japan’s opposition; the ruling LDP has been in power for pretty much all of the 60 years since 1955).
This leaves the only viable option to be regional revitalisation. Get people back into the countryside, and get them to start making more babies. Additionally, there is a need to disperse the economic concentration in Tokyo to other regional centres. Agricultural reform and the promotion of a new approach to product marketing – creating a brand image surrounding the prefecture-of-origin – all aim to increase economic activity in traditionally self-sustaining regions.
If you tune into Japanese TV these days, you’re likely to see less weird game shows with subtle sexist and racist undertones, and more shows promoting the beauty and serenity of countryside living. Towns have taken on individual projects, each organised by the residents with the hopes of increasing the attractiveness of their home. Some have targeted single parent families with the possibility of a caring and close-knit community. Others have tried to increase local tourism by creating cheaper options for overnight stays, with the hopes that tourists will continue to come back, or even stay longer. At the same time, they have asked for new residents to give something back to the community – a quid pro quo. Single mothers and fathers are asked to work at nursing homes to care for elderly residents; a tough job which has very few people working very long hours with very little help. Willingness to participate in revitalisation is sought from all sides – much like it was sought in the aftermath of the war when Tokyo, having been burnt to the ground, had to be rebuilt.