The Tokyo Countryside Gap

Lully Miura

JSPS Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo

The Tokyo-Countryside gap has, once again, captured center stage in Japanese politics. For Prime Minister Abe, the story around addressing the gap is about bringing the fruits of “Abenomics”, the administration’s cornerstone economic policy to fight deflation, to every corner of the nation. The political target is to win the regional elections scheduled in April, 2015. The PM appointed Shigeru Ishiba, one of the most influential figures within the LDP and potentially Abe’s biggest rival, to head the effort. The appointment likely symbolizes both the importance and the difficulty of addressing the gap.

Addressing the gap, historically, has been almost synonymous to LDP politics. The LDP has pledged time and time again to address the gap, since the last Tokyo Olympics in 1964! Japan’s post war rebuild and economic development required it to strengthen its industrial sector. This required a large inflows into the cities. The countryside, then heavily dependent on agriculture, supported this inflow through productivity improvements. Tractors and chemical fertilizers, allowed farmers to produce the same output with a fraction of labor input.

From a political standpoint, the countryside has always been LDP’s stronghold. The LDP made its mission to both industrialize Japan and support its political base in the countryside. What this meant in reality, was to address, or at least make political postures to address the ever widening gap between Tokyo and the countryside. The LDP’s favored tactic was to through money at the problem. The tactic did not truly address the gap, as the countryside’s economy grew more dependent on Tokyo, but it helped politically in the short term. This all started to reverse during the Koizumi administration in the early 2000’s as the burden of continuing to address the gap was fiscally impossible. Tokyo had run out of money.

Needless to say, the most important perspective when thinking about the Tokyo-countryside gap, or of “local autonomy”, is on deciding where the power of policy making and the means (i.e. tax source) to do so is vested. The issue of deciding which government (central or municipal) should control what has seen a series of political compromises and minor modifications that created a complicated and bizarre system. The debate has become so complicated that it is now difficult to grasp in its entirety, and is prone to instantaneous feuds between the bureaucracies.

Prior to its post-war rebuild, modernizing Japan was first and foremost about concentrating power to the central government. The Meiji Restoration, starting in 1867, can be regarded as a revolution that transferred power from the feudal clans to central government. And during the 20th Century, almost all the developed nations in the world followed the same course of power transition. The strengthening of military power through the two world wars plus the cold war, and the forming of the welfare state that progressed in the background inevitably contributed to increasing the role of the central government.

The turn of the tide came during the late 70’s and 80’s, creating a wave of decentralization efforts to correct excessive centralization. In Japan, decentralization proceeded in the past decade or so at a very slow pace, producing some positive effects. However, the Japanese economy slowed down while the population aged and the birth rate fell further. The situation in the countryside grew worse and worse, despite signs of improvement through decentralizing efforts.

Common across countries such as the US, China, Germany and eventually India, that are expected to generate highly value-added outputs in the 21st Century is that they are all decentralized states. Of course, these countries have followed a different path of development to get where they are today. Some have adopted a federal system, while others have developed multiple centers within their borders owing to their imperial past. But they all share the common denominator that their overall national power has been bolstered by these internal centers competing with each other and enhancing their distinctive strengths respectively. Simply put, the cause for decentralization boils down to promoting competition between the empowered internal sub-centers. If the 270 clans had to confront the Western Powers separately in the 19th century, Japan would have surely been colonized in no time. The reality was that Japan barely managed to pull through this ordeal by uniting and building a powerful centralized government.

As many scholars specializing in economics and business administration suggest, economies in the information age, generate “wealth” more through the competition between innovative groups and the sharing of free ideas, rather than by concentrating capital and labor. Decentralization in Japan is all about breaking away from the mechanism of governing the whole country based on an introspective logic from Tokyo. Revitalizing the countryside, and the nation as a whole, is a result of friendly competition between multiple regional centers taking an inventive approach to inspire and stimulate each other.

What is also important for these regional centers to keep in mind is not to limit the scope of this healthy competition to just within the national borders. For instance, Japan’s southern island of Kyushu should not only compete with nearby domestic provinces like Chugoku or Shikoku, but also aim at compete with the southern regions of South Korea just across the Tsushima Strait, and with Shanghai and the entire province of Jiangsu on the other side of the East China Sea.

There is an inevitable disparity between urban and rural areas, As long as one of the biggest raison d’etre of the modern state is to guarantee a certain level of welfare to its people, it would be a matter of course to adjust the imbalance of wealth (i.e. financial resources) distributed nationwide. The real challenge in this endeavor is to prevent this adjustment from being made solely at the discretion of those with power in the central government.

There are encouraging examples of success in the countryside, but they are the few exemptions. There are numerous spots where one finds nature’s true beauty and unique indigenous culture. But it is difficult to find hope in the rural areas of Japan as a whole. The landscape along the main national roads is simply aesthetically unattractive. What you see along these roads are chain stores that keep on getting replaced, if not, old buildings that have been abandoned by those store owners who failed to find their replacements.

The young have to find jobs in manufacturing and construction sectors where future prospects are grim, or in service sectors that only offer non-permanent positions. The fastest growing sector is welfare-related services, taking care of the old. The term ‘hope” refers to the feeling one holds that tomorrow will be better than today. The fact that the young are leaving eloquently portrays how little hope there exists.
When compared to countries such as the UK, France, and Germany, with similar levels of economic development, one finds itself in rural areas quickly after leaving the city. There is little or no noteworthy industry other than agriculture, which supports the rest of the region. Although Japan’s countryside cannot be easily compared to other countries, due to its mountainous terrain, one interesting perspective is that the Japanese countryside, in fact, holds larger regional populations. In Japan, it has been only one or two generations since the influx into the cities began in conjunction with urbanization. Unlike the European countries that spent several centuries developing their urban and rural areas, Japan’s rural area is not yet truly rural.

This was made possible through LDP’s policy, as explained earlier, that called for the equal development of the countryside. LDP’s support of the countryside came in the form of budgetary handouts to municipal governments and local industries. The aim was to protect local communities and villages. However, most villages are now disappearing, with no job opportunities for the young the main labor force needed to re-create the communities. LDP’s countryside policy did not address the need of its inhabitants, and consequently led to the loss of whole communities.

This is why funds allocated to the countryside must be used to protect its people longer term. Reality is harsh as these funds are, in fact, the “cost to retreat”. Although a certain level of welfare must be guaranteed to its citizens, the state no longer has the financial ability to provide adequate administrative services in all villages. Simply put, some villages are simply not going to survive.

It is high time to step away from discussing the Tokyo-countryside gap in the context of conflict and sacrifice that result only in the preservation of the status quo. Decentralization has to be about hope that creates exciting new industries, and builds sustainable communities under an autonomous decision-making by the municipal governments. It has to be about lending support to the truly disadvantaged, and not to the well connected cronies of the central government. If the administration’s intent to address the gap is genuine, that is the only way.