Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the collapse of rural communities - a response to Janne Morén

Three items of news, as an introduction.

The first is the LDP announcement that the top four party officers aside from the president will go on fact-finding tours to rural areas. The officers will visit local farms and speak to agricultural industry workers in order to gain a better sense of the kinds of problems that need to be addressed by legislation.

The announced schedule was:

November 10 – Chairman of the General Council Nikai Toshihirō visits Kinokawa City, Wakayama Prefecture.
November 11 – Elections Measures Council Chairman Koga Makoto visits Saga City, Saga Prefecture.
November 25 – Secretary General Ibuki Bunmei visits Hachirōgata, Akita Prefecture.
December 1 – PARC Chairman Tanigaki Sadakazu visits Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture.

These fact-finding missions tours are, of course, more of a demonstration of concern rather than a confrontation with reality. If Diet members wanted to check out local conditions, they could just take their "free travel anywhere in the green car" passes, get on a train and go, any day of the week. Indeed, the staged expression of interest in the plight of the common rural voter resembles nothing so much as PRC Premier Wen Jiabao's visits to farms and mines.

The second is the announcement from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of the approval of yet another round of municipal mergers in 2008. By July 1, 2008 the number of local municipal administrations will have shrunk to 1788, down 55% from the 3232 municipalities existing in March 1999.

Those are amazing numbers, indicating an extraordinary haste in consolidation. What I fear is that the consolidation of local administrations is paralleling consolidation in the banking industry: the quick transformation of a multiplicity of minute dysfunctional entities into a tight group of gigantic dysfunctional entities.

The third was Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Masuda Hiroya's submission on Thursday of a "Program for a Symbiosis between Major Cities and the Rural Areas" (Chihō to toshi no kyōsei puroguramu) to the prime minister’s Council on Economic & Fiscal Policy (Keizai zaisei shimon kaigi). The goal of the program, according to a Reuters report , is the "correction" (zesei) of the differences in incomes between rural and urban areas through what, from the sound of it, can only be the creation of special rural consumption tax and business tax rates.

Of course instigating a separate, lower rate of taxation in government-designated rural areas will not lead to massive tax avoidance through questionable billing practices, peculiar routing records and fishy business registrations—nor will it lead to attempts to influence, either through political pressure or bribery, the classification of particular communities as being either rural or urban.

Of course.

The above news items are a good introduction to a response to a criticism, retrieved from comments, of my sympathy for rural communities undergoing collapse.

Janne Morén writes:

Communities disappearing is distressing to watch, and even more so if you're connected to the area in some way.

But the reality is that the population numbers are flat and likely to shrink the next decade, while heavily urban areas (in Japan as elsewhere; that is a global phenomenon) continue to grow.

Bluntly, a lot of communities will die, and there is no realistic way around it. Yes, you can try to entice people to move in, but people ready to move in are overwhelmingly already living in a rural or semi-rural area elsewhere, or were already ready to move out into the countryside anyway. The effort thus mostly shifts people around, making other areas disappear all the faster.

For all the justified criticisms of the urban landscape, it is built by humans for humans, and offers both necessities, opportunities and conveniences in abundance. It is optimized for life in a way that a rural area never can be, and people recognize this. So major population centers will continue to attract people to a greater degree than rural areas, and the rural population will continue to shrink.

Except for the line claiming that most of the people ready to move into rural areas are already in rural areas, I will accept the above as true. As one city born and bred, I can attest to the suitability of cities for human habitation.

However, the problems of Japan's rural communities are worthy of the attention of the metropolitan, border-transgressing classes because:

1) The attempts to protect the rural communities from international economy are major sources of Japan's most easily mocked and self-defeating behaviors. If you want to know what those are, ask the Australians...or the Singaporeans...or the Thais. It would hardly matter so much if Japan were not such a pipsqueak in military terms and such a leviathan in economic ones.

2) Rural community collapse has been both retarded and accelerated by government intervention. I will concede that the shift from country to town in the 1950s and 1960s was structural and part of a worldwide pattern of urbanization. However, it takes a certain kind of genius to start with fertile soil, mild climate, excellent pest control, plentiful rain, a hard-working, educated rural workforce...and create an ugly, economic basket case. Japan's agricultural bureaucracy and politicians have a lot to answer for.

3) The rural areas control a lot of votes in the Diet. Even after the 1994 reforms and redistricting, the rural prefectures control a disproportionate number of Diet seats. Their access to the government purse and government attention, as the above stories indicate, remains perverse. The depth of Koizumi Jun'ichirō’s reformist fanaticism against public works is inexplicable without the recognition that urban Kanagawa's is the prefecture with the lowest level of representation in the Diet. Ozawa Ichirō's sacrifice of DPJ core principles in order to win rural votes—abandoning the only attributes differentiating the DPJ from the LDP, would be likewise inexplicable.

4) The rural townships are all our tomorrows. As noted, the population of Japan has begun to shrink. The consequence, as an American anthropologist remarked to me the other day, is that what is happening today in Akita will be happening in 2030 in Tokyo—the abandonment of housing, the collapse of local commercial districts, the inversion and tipping of the population until communities are composed primarily of old women. "When you try to bring that subject up with bureaucrats, though," the anthropologist continued, "their reaction is this." He placed his hands over his eyes.

5) The rural areas are inhabited by human beings. Despite the political and social significance of Japan's rural towns, most of what the world reads about rural areas either dismisses them as economic absurdities or populates them with charming archetypes. There are just too many more pressing, exciting stories elsewhere—of people getting their heads hacked off heads over religious differences, of new, even bigger passenger jets being flown, of more tantalizing virtual environments being sold—for professional writers to try to walk their readers through what is going on and why it might be important. Academics are making the effort but their work cycles are measured in decades and their attitudes toward information sharing remain largely medieval.

I am a believer in the analytical power of economics. I believe that demographics is destiny. I believe that our options in life cannot be disentangled with the types of technology we have at our disposal. I also believe that we tend to live the major portion of our lives interacting with narratives, caught up in stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and to others. In focusing from time to time on the problems of rural areas, I am claiming the peculiar notion that a consideration of the human scale problems of the rural areas is important to the construction of an honest understanding of Japan.


Anonymous said...

Great post, I think a lot about the rural-urban divide as well... and what all us tech-savvy urbanites would do if (when?) we had to survive without the luxuries of the big city. Not to sound like a Marxist, but it seems like we're getting further and further away from the means of production; one day all this "progress" will come back to haunt us, I have the feeling.

Lionel Dersot said...

Any serious book reading suggestion about contemporary rural Japan, in English or Japanese?

Anonymous said...

Ld-san, if you read Japanese, I highly recommend you the book written by Takayuki Ogida:
The book explores different aspects of contemporary rural Japan. It's a deep, interesting insight on rural Japan and it draws some clear distinctions between big cities and the "inaka".