Monday, January 21, 2013

Toward Hinohara

On Saturday the editors of The Japan Times -- a peculiar fraternity on the best of days -- published what can only be considered a transcendental editorial on rural depopulation.

Transcendental, that is, in terms of its stupidity, none of the facts revealed being particularly surprising and none of the remedies suggested being reasonable.

Nevertheless, the editorial (Link) is instructive in its replication of the fanciful domestic discussion on rural depopulation. Rather than accept the emptying of the countryside as a natural process, the editors find all kinds of external or structural weaknesses, including government action/inaction, to blame. Some of the cause-and-effect relations found are truly peculiar (The 2008 Lehman Shock closed factories in rural Japan?).

The unspoken faith (The Great Lie told? - Ed.) is that if residents of rural areas face their problems squarely, solutions can be found to rural decline.

Poppycock. What needs to be face squarely is that almost nothing can be done to reverse the emptying out of the countryside.

For not even the Tokyo Metropolitan District can get rural life right.

It is generally known that the gateway and window into Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan District, is the great outlier among Japanese prefectures. All but a handful are depopulating due to increased morbidity and emigration. Tokyo, however, just keeps on growing. After dipping below 11.59 million persons in 1996, Tokyo has found a way to accommodate 1.64 million new residents, its population, according to Tokyo Metropolitan Government statistics, standing at 13,228,912 on December 1. (Link)

Whereas the population of the TMD is getting older, like everywhere else in Japan, the population of children is at least stable. The number of children in 0~14 years-of-age cohort did collapse from 2,155,242 in 1985 to only 1,427,229 in 2001. Ever since, however, the number of children has been growing, if only slightly, keeping the schools open and day care center builders employed.

Despite the big rise in the population and stability in the numbers of children, the TMD is undergoing rural depopulation. The 1.6 million new TMD residents have not been absorbed primarily by the suburbs. Instead, population growth has occurred in the TMD's core. In 1996, the population of the inner 23 wards was 7,846,487. In December 2012 it was 9,007,407. In raw numbers, 75% of the growth in the TMD population has been accommodated in the already most densely populated third of the District (the purple area in this map). More people live in the 23 wards than at time in Edo/Tokyo's crowded history.

Despite the significant population increase of the TMD as a whole, a well-funded and responsive local government and highly developed public transportation, highway and high-speed telecommunications networks that would ostensibly would allow anyone access to all the amenities of contemporary life, the population of the TMD's exurbs is shrinking. The extreme western, mountainous county (郡) part of the TMD has seen its population fall from 61,297 in 1996 to 58,232 at the end of last year -- a small decrease, to be sure, but still counter to the general population trend.

Moreover, the least populated areas of the least populated region are losing population the fastest.

The loneliest place in Tokyo is Hinohara Village (檜原村) -- the orange area in the below map:

Hinohara covers 5% of the TMD's total land area. It is, however, home to only 2,526 persons (1,262 men; 1,264 women) -- 0.02% of the TMD's total. While the average density in the TMD is 6,044 persons per square kilometer (Toshima Ward tops the list of municipalities at 22,161 persons per square kilometer) the number of Hinohara residents per square kilometer is fewer than 25.

In 1985, Hinohara's population stood at 3,914:

681 children (0~14 years of age)
2471 working age adults (15~64 years of age)
762 seniors (65 years and older)

In early 2012, Hinohara had 2,597 residents:

172 children (less than 7% of the total)
1,313 working age adults
1,1112 seniors (43% of the total)

Yes, you read the above correctly: the population pyramid in the TMD's not unpretty (the touted Sengen Trail is a disappointment but the hike up Makiyoseyama is one of the Kanto's best day trips) hinterland is more skewed toward the gray than those of Japan's famously dying rural prefectures. And yes, the town lost 71 residents last year -- a 2.7% drop. Since 1985, the town's population has shrunk by more than a third.

It is not as if Hinohara Village were the end of the world. By local bus and trains, Hinohara's town hall is little more than an hour and half out of Shinjuku. By private car the trip might take about the same amount of time.

Yet despite being not just connected to the metropole but in the metropole, Hinohara, the community, is evaporating. Without immigration, its population will halve over the next 20 years.

Stabilize the population of Akita? Stabilize Saga? Stabilize Hokkaido?

Tell me how to stabilize Hinohara Village first.

The Hossawa waterfall, frozen
Hinohara Village, Tokyo Metropolitan District
January 20, 2013
Image credit: MTC


Troy said...

I had a coworker who took over a semi-abandoned mountain house in this area and I visited a couple of times.

Not a terrible place to live if you like solitude.

But that's the problem, the value of a given spot of ground, and the quality of life it affords, is relative to its access to the wider community, and development in Hinohara is greatly limited by the (raised) geography of the Okutama mountains.

It's 4 hrs and ¥2000 yen to get to Shinjuku and back -- with a tablet computer and a seat maybe that's not too bad, but there's just too much friction involved in getting to/from Hinohara regularly.

Doesn't help that there's nothing PAST Hinohara, just more Okutama nature.

People were driven up into the hills due to overcrowding (aforementioned mountain house had the typical accoutrements of the era to produce charcoal and silk), but they can come back down now.

Or could if housing wasn't so damn expensive still.

My great hope for Japan is that their onging depopulation actually eliminates the scarcity rents in housing, a dynamic that is NOT present in other successful national economies (Netherlands and Denmark especially).

MTC said...

Troy -

You are correct in pointing out that Hinohara is on the way to nowhere: beyond it there is only the upper Tamagawa watershed and the mountainous north of Yamanashi Prefecture.

Housing costs in the TMD are still high but prices for land and homes in the the rest of the country is becoming halfway reasonable...albeing only in halfway fashion.

Troy said...

It's a tough life up in those mountains. The soil is poor and the only economic activity is centered on catching what yen is passing on through.

That's the story of Japan, though. The nation is 80% the size of Sweden but has 12X the population to feed. This overcrowding pushed millions of families into economically marginal locations in the 19th and 20th centuries (and out to Manchuria, Hawaii, and the USA, but that is another story).

But from what I see Japan worked very hard and smart in the latter half of the 20th century and was able to bank so much of that production (instead of blowing it on consumption of imports).

Trade surpluses are magical things, LOL.

Prosperity wasn't evenly distributed in Japan, but jobs were not scarce for the postwar baby boom, as Japan's export-oriented GDP grew in the umbrella of the Pax Americana of the 1960s-1980s.

So now it comes that Japan has a NIIP of several trillion dollars, putting it in the top 10 in terms of savings/GDP.

But this great wealth can only help Hinohara indirectly, via "stimulus" spending to keep money flowing into the local economy.

But IMV Hinohara is an economic backwater and can and should be allowed to decay away.

Same story with so much of rural Japan. At the end of the day every economy, local or national, has to balance its accounts of wealth created vs. wealth consumed.

With Japan's population of age 25-45 falling from 35M now to 25M by 2030, marginal places are just going to have to be abandoned, or should be at least.

I'm actually looking at semi-retiring to Izu or the Odawara area. If I'm going to be an hour+ from civilization I'm going to want some ocean views!

Andrew Sutter said...

I agree that there might not be a lot of hope for Hinohara, and that the JT's idea that saving rural areas is up to the local inhabitants is silly. But the last two paragraphs of the post are something of a non sequitur, and some of its other assumptions are too pessimistic.

The non sequitur comes from conflating "rural" life with village life. The inability to save a village doesn't necessarily say anything about whether there can be repopulation at the prefectural level. Regional cities are, or can become again, centers of economic activity. Policies that favor the development of prefectural capitals and small-medium-sized cities in prefectures like those in Tokhoku or Shikoku ought to take precedence over stabilizing Hinohara Village.

The depopulation of the outer prefectures is anything but a "natural" process. It's the result of years of policies that were deliberately intended to concentrate population in a few metropolitan areas, e.g., the importation of Tohoku youth to work in factories, and the obsession with high-speed rail networks that continues to this day. As Daniel Cohen observes in Globalization and Its Enemies, such transportation links are almost never symmetrical: they always cause a net drain toward the metropolis.

A real difficulty of the repopulation of the outer regions is that this can't be accomplished by a discrete set of policies. The rural issue is throughly entwined with agricultural, child-care, employment, education and other policies, and even with the current constitutional structure of Japan's political institutions. I've tossed out some initial ideas elsewhere about how this cluster of problems might be approached. As much as I share the post's despair in Japan's current political class when it comes to being able to address this issue, I don't think "nature" or anything else makes it impossible to at least stem the depopulation trend within a 20- to 30-year timeframe, at the prefectural and small-medium urban level.

MTC said...

Mr. Sutter -

I am not sure I understand how high speed rail could increase migration to the cities. Opening a first narrow road or single line of track opens the way for migration toward the large urban centers, certainly. However, increasing speed on an existing transportation link would tend to encourage residents to stay where they are.

Furthermore, the issue addressed by the Japan Times editorial is the survival of local communities, not a more even dispersal of population on the national level. Clearly there are ways of encouraging companies to move their functions out of the major connurbations, such as tax incentives for companies that move to second-tier cities or punitive taxes for large enterprises that maintain headquarters in the metropoles.

However, these radical measures aiming to disperse economic activity do not have much salience in terms of keeping smaller communities alive.

I look at Hinohara not because I want it saved as a community. My goal is to show that rural communities are proving to be not viable even with huge net increases of population on the prefectural level.

Andrew Sutter said...

MTC, thanks for your reply. I agree, I didn't make my point well, so let me try to clarify.

A. RAIL: I didn't mean to suggest that the impact of the shinkansen was the same in all cases, even if one could isolate it as a causal factor.

Cities that have shinkansen stations may have a different experience from those that don't. E.g., by the 1970s, station-less cities along shinkansen lines were receiving fewer tourists, while some cities with stations had an increase in tourism. The city's location also matters. A study from the 1990s suggested that Kakegawa City experienced an upturn in industrial commerce thanks to the shinkansen. That city, though, lies mid-way between Tokyo and Osaka. For a city that doesn't lie along a major axis between metropolitan areas, it could be that the opening of a shinkansen line is detrimental. E.g., Akita City saw a more than 40% drop in pedestrian traffic between the 1997 opening of a shinkansen station and 2008. Of course, while that's post hoc, it's hard to know if it's propter hoc. But becoming a shinkansen terminus didn't pump up Morioka's population or industrial activity either. Lots of other factors need to be put into play, such as the incentives you mention, and greater financial independence for prefectures and local governments.

As for whether higher-speed rail makes people stay put, this clearly isn't universally true in a net sense: some cities with shinkansen stations do experience population declines (e.g. Morioka, prior to 3/11). You might be partly right, if the presence of a rail connection slows the drain of population (e.g., from more tourism-related jobs), but the same difficulties arise to find clear evidence of causation. And as an abstract argument one could easily imagine the opposite: the fact that it only takes 2 or 3 hours to get back to see your parents, instead of 8, might encourage younger people to move away. In this connection, it's worth noting that the price of shinkansen tickets is prohibitive. Even though a Hayate takes less than 3 hours from Marunouchi to Morioka, the cost of a daily commute comes out to about ¥200,000 per *week*. Even a once-weekly roundtrip commute works out to nearly ¥100,000 per month. I'd love to spend more time in Morioka, but I can't afford to, even though I earn an above-average income (and much higher than I could earn in Morioka).

B. If populations drain from regional cities even with shinkansen stations, one wonders what good an even higher-speed rail connection between major metropolitan centers, e.g. maglev between Tokyo and Kansai, will do. When referring to the "obsession" with high-speed rail, I should have stated more clearly that I was referring to the emphasis on upgrading connections between the major centers, instead of devoting adequate funds to maintaining regional rail networks. Many local lines in Iwate and elsewhere are closing. Maybe you could say that's justified because the population is declining, but there's arguably some chicken-and-egg/positive feedback loop involved there.

2. HINOHARA & SUCH: The point that moved me to comment was your post's transition from talking about a local community Hinohara to talking about a prefecture like Saga or Niigata. Maybe there was a misunderstanding, so let's distinguish between two statements:

(A) if you can't fix a Hinohara-type rural community in Tokyo-to, you can't fix such a rural community in a rural prefecture like Saga, Niigata, etc.
(B) if you can't fix a Hinohara-type rural community in Tokyo-to, you can't fix a rural prefecture like Saga, Niigata, etc.

Questions of the "naturalness" of the process aside, I do agree that statement (A) is plausible. But I'd earlier understood your post to be saying (B), and it was this that seemed like a leap.