New Kochi governor hopes local produce lifts rural economy

by Hiroko Nakata

Kochi Gov. Masanao Ozaki, who took office in December as the nation’s youngest governor, is well aware he cannot emulate what his Miyazaki counterpart, Hideo Higashikokubaru, has achieved over the past year.

The popular TV comedian-turned-governor Higashikokubaru grabbed the media’s attention last year following his stunning poll win last January. He has since used his massive media exposure and frequent appearances on TV talk shows to plug his prefecture and its local products to a national audience.

But this tack won’t work for every governor, the 40-year-old Ozaki said in a recent interview. “I’m not well-known like Gov. Higashikokubaru, so I’m not planning to tread the same path.”

Instead, Ozaki said he would use his experience as an ex-Finance Ministry official to find out what kind of support Kochi requires from the central government and explain its local needs to bureaucrats in Tokyo.

Ozaki won a landslide over three contenders in the election Nov. 25 and took office Dec. 7.

His victory was noteworthy not only because he became the nation’s youngest governor but also because he took over the job from his high-profile predecessor, Daijiro Hashimoto.

Hashimoto, a half brother of the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was widely known as a reformer who pursued administrative transparency and emphasized local initiatives over reliance on Tokyo during his 16 years in office. However, Kochi remains one of the poorest prefectures.

Its economy, which has relied heavily on public works spending, has missed out on the nation’s prolonged growth in recent years. Continuing depopulation has hurt the primary industries in Kochi, which lacks large-scale manufacturing businesses.

The ratio of job offers to seekers has hovered around 0.5 — less than half the national average. About 44 percent of graduates from high schools in 2006 left the prefecture to get jobs — up from 36.7 percent the year before, according to official data.

The prefectural government faces a severe fiscal situation, with some forecasts showing it may face a revenue shortfall of about ¥40 billion by the middle of the next decade.

“The country’s overall economy has revived, but the gap between big cities and rural areas is widening,” Ozaki said. “This will become a bigger problem for the whole country in the future.”

Ozaki said he wants to start efforts to revive Kochi’s economy by helping farmers produce brand products with the potential to appeal to customers outside the prefecture. Local officials will cooperate with nongovernmental groups and youth groups to nurture such products and seek central government support where necessary, he said.

Ozaki said his Finance Ministry stint made him aware that central government bureaucrats do not understand regional problems in detail when they distribute subsidies and tax grants to prefectures and municipalities. It is important that local-level officials, including himself, spell out their true needs, he said.

The next step will be to pair up local producers and wholesalers in big cities for the opportunity to market regional products to urban consumers, Ozaki said.

One successful example is local vinegar products mixed with “yuzu” citrus, which have become popular in some Tokyo supermarkets. Another example is bottled deep-seawater, Ozaki said. It contains more minerals and has a cleaner taste than natural bottled spring water.

He said small-scale farmers in Kochi need to combine their lots and organize bigger groups to minimize distribution costs. The high transportation costs in the mountainous prefecture, where 83 percent of the land is covered by forests, pose an additional disadvantage to local farmers, he pointed out.

The governor admitted there is no simple remedy for Kochi’s fiscal woes. Efforts should start by cutting back on public expenditures by outsourcing some of the prefecture’s operations and selling unused assets such as vacant land, he said.

Ozaki hopes that if the economy revives, Kochi could serve as a model for other rural areas hurting from the widening wealth gap with cities.

“If I can prove that Kochi Prefecture can rejuvenate itself, I believe other regions in Japan will be able to follow,” he said.