Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rural and Urban? Think Again

Is it my imagination, or do I keep seeing English-language commentary about the rural-urban dichotomy in Japan? Specifically:
Rural (conservative, communal, loyal) Japan is losing out to (liberal, individualist, fickle) urban Japan economically (less income, fewer jobs) and demographically (fewer, older). The collateral argument is that rural Japan is overrepresented in the Diet, skewing public policy in favor of preserving an aging, decaying society.
There is a measure of truth to this line of argument, but it does the injustice of obscuring the much broader narrative:
Japan is a profoundly urban nation, where the agricultural (and forestry and fisheries) population is only a small fraction of the total even in the poorest provinces. Japan’s problem, as any one of you who reads Japanese will know, is the growing gulf between the center (中央) and the regions (地方).
Center and region, of course, depend on where you (literally) are coming from. Take Tokyo. From an Omotesando perspective—okay, even from a Tachikawa perspective—my neighborhood definitely belongs to the boondocks. But a 20 year old in Gifu might happily trade his lot for a freeter existence (and second guitar in an indies band) and a one-room apartment near my local train station. No, it’s not about foreclosed farms in North Dakota, it’s the shuttered storefronts on Main Street, Youngstown.

Pockets of vibrant anomalies aside—broadcast TV does not lack for anecdotes of successful municipalities and even prefectures—and barring massive fiscal transfers to the periphery—as advocated in principle by the DPJ manifesto—nobody has offered the general public a credible course of action that will stem this tide…assuming that it is a desirable course of action.


Jan Moren said...

You're right about the terminology. I don't think that in most cases people really specifically mean farming, forestry and fishing when they use "rural". Often it's really a sloppy shorthand for "smaller-scale, peripheral, regional", where a whole region may be characterized as "rural" simply by virtue of having a relatively larger proportion of such activities than the large population centers.

I'm not really sure "regions" would really cut it either; you're in some danger of creating a circular definition, where "regional" is any place with regional problems and "center" are the places that don't. After all, Sapporo is most definitely "region" rather than "center", but would arguably be an urban area rather than the (relatively speaking) rural Hokkaido in general, and notably its problems look more like those of the other urban centers rather than the rural regional ones like Aomori.

"active" regions and "static" ones might be better, though there's the risk again of making a definition to suit one's conclusions, as does "growing" and "stagnating" and their equivalents.

Jun Okumura said...

You're absolutely right, Janne. "Periphery" doesn't quite cut it either. I see "regions" as a passable, all-purpose translation for chihō (地方). The important thing is to be clear and consistent in defining the terms that one uses.

PaxAmericana said...

Is it true that no-one has put forward a credible course of action to help the chiho? I would assume there are ideas to get parts of government to spread out or incentives to have universities leave Tokyo or how about a reverse shogun policy by requiring bureaucrats to spend one year in Tokyo leaving their family in the chiho and then one year in the chiho leaving their family in Tokyo?

Maybe some ideas aren't exactly serious, but is there really no-one with some half-sane ideas to do this? From personal experience in the non-Tokyo business world, I can say that needless trips to Tokyo were a big burden. That was the real mudazukai, along with the testaments to man's stupidity in absurd construction projects.

Jun Okumura said...

Pax Americana:

One problem in dealing with the chihō problem is that one man’s chihō is another man’s chūō. I can assure you that Tokyo looked quite the chūō when I was growing up in Osaka. (And Osaka’s fate in the post-bubble years give credence to that perception.) The problems of Gifu’s decaying main street is a different issue from the village of 70-, 80-somethings in the Hida mountainsides. And so on.

It’s like squaring a million circles under political constraints. The first order of the day, I’ve come to believe, is disaggregating the question.

PaxAmericana said...


It is interesting that more terms aren't used in the discussion. I would think provincial or regional key cities might be appropriate for dealing with some of the different problems.

When I lived in Kyoto, I considered Osaka to be chiho, because it wasn't Tokyo. It always seemed that the powers-that-be in Tokyo could sell Osaka down the river with, say, outsourcing, but the powers-that-be in Osaka couldn't sell Tokyo down the river.

Jun Okumura said...

Other terms are used, Paxy. For example, for chihō alone, we also contrast it with 都市 (the city), 都市部 (urban areas), 東京 (Tokyo, which covers your Osaka, I think). Maintaining consistency in an single argument, let alone an entire debate, can be quite a chore. I sometimes long for the days of yore, when everybody who was anybody lived (or longed to live) in the 都, or Kyoto, as opposed to 雛, the boondocks, or the rest of the known world—if there ever was such a time.

And I take your point about selling Osaka down the drain. So much of the nation’s elite have their lives and those of their families wrapped in and around Tokyo. And I imagine it’s happening from the other end, as there’s increasingly more Kansai-passing going on in Kyushu and Shikoku these days.

Why doesn’t Japan have a Seattle? Or Tampa? Etc.?