OSAKA – Imagine, if you will, Japan in 2060.
Against all odds, the country has accomplished the goal set out nearly a half century before by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to keep the population from dropping below 100 million. Before the Abe government took action way back in 2016, official figures showed that, without drastic countermeasures, Japan would have shrunk from about 128 million in 2010 to about 86 million by 2060.
That’s good news in Kansai, now a quasi-autonomous bloc in western Japan consisting of eight former prefectures that serves as the nation’s official backup capital.
During the months of the year when members of the ruling and opposition parties convene at the Diet’s Osaka Annex to debate legislation, they meet with bureaucrats from the Cultural Affairs Agency and other ministries located in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokushima. They also get, when they check media reports of their deliberations, a very different perspective on the nation and the world than they get when they’re in Tokyo.
Despite the initially heated opposition from Tokyo-centric bureaucrats and businesses who didn’t want to move to “the sticks” of Kansai, travel between Kanto and Kansai is faster than ever. The maglev train now whisks passengers between Tokyo and Osaka in an hour.
For those seeking a rural getaway, the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line can speed Kansai residents to Kyoto Prefecture’s coastal town of Maizuru on the Sea of Japan. It’s now a major East Asian trading port serving the Kansai canton, and an important terminal for liquefied natural gas, which has, along with renewable energy, largely replaced the idled nuclear plants on Fukui’s coast — Kansai’s main energy source.
Meanwhile, on the southern side of the bloc, in an integrated port area with light regulations and an excellent train and road system that runs from Kobe all the way down to Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, ships arriving from all over the world unload their freight. While much of that cargo is food from Trans-Pacific Partnership member countries, nobody in Kansai’s agriculture sector is complaining.
That’s because “local production, local consumption” of farm products has been encouraged for decades, leading to a rebirth in local agriculture to accompany the expansion of new industries, especially biotech, health and IT, that grew out of the 2016 initiatives.
But it’s not just local residents consuming Kansai’s agricultural products. The overseas tourism boom has continued uninterrupted for a half century, and tourists, especially Asian gourmands, now seek out Kansai-made goodies in duty-free shops all over the region. They’re getting harder to find, though, because production just can’t keep up with demand. But life is quite good, overall, for Kansai’s population, which, in 2060, stands at about 17.5 million.
Is this some sort of Utopian fantasy?
In Kansai, leaders are now pushing these ideas as part of a long-term strategy to combat depopulation.
Earlier this month, the Union of Kansai Governments, the eight-prefecture organization of governors and mayors from Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Sakai, released their vision for the future of the region’s population.
To ensure the population will be stabilized by 2060, they suggested many of the above steps and more. At the same time, the city and prefecture of Osaka are pushing harder than ever to get Osaka designated as the backup capital in case a disaster disables Tokyo.
The Kansai Union notes that official figures show the population of its eight prefectural members (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Wakayama, Shiga, Tokushima and Tottori) will decline from about 22.2 million in 2010 to about 14.7 million by 2060, a loss of one-third.
Worse, the under-15 population in Kansai is expected to fall 53 percent from what it was in 2010. Most crucially, the group between the ages of 15 and 65 — Kansai’s tax-paying workforce — is expected to shrink 46 percent over the same period. These two demographic trends will take place as Kansai’s over-65 population peaks from around 5.1 million in 2010 to 6.7 million in 2040, before falling back to 5.8 million by 2060.
Abe’s government has set a population goal for Japan of 100 million by 2060. The union suggests that, based on the national 2010 figures, when the population of the eight prefectures accounted for 17.4 percent of Japan’s total, the same percentage should be used as the ideal population ratio in 2060.
In other words, the population of the eight prefectures should would be at least 17.4 million people in 2060.
To accomplish this, the union released a wish list of public works projects to be completed. These include completing the maglev line to Osaka, completion of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line extension to Osaka, creation of a mega port along the Osaka Bay area, and the strengthening of Maizuru port, which the Kyoto governor sees as a major LNG hub that can supply the entire region.
“It’s necessary for the Kansai region to come up with a long-term vision for how we’ll deal with the population problem,” union President and Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said in introducing the report.
Meanwhile, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui is still pushing to turn Osaka into a true backup capital. Some in Osaka Ishin no Kai, the new political party Matsui helped found, favor the idea of holding legislative sessions at an “Osaka annex” that would be considered an arm of the Diet. The prefecture also wants some Tokyo-based ministries and agencies to relocate there, especially the patent office.
“The backup capital of Osaka would also serve as the capital of western Japan, very important if a natural disaster strikes Tokyo,” Matsui said earlier this month.
But beyond practical measures, those favoring Osaka as the backup capital are also pushing for something deeper: a basic change in the nation’s Tokyo-based mentality. Abe adviser and Osaka Ishin mentor Taichi Sakaiya points out that this slant is particularly pervasive in the media.
“Newspapers don’t have political bureaus in Osaka. They only have general news sections, for local news. The base mentality of Tokyo’s media is that news from regions like Osaka should only be about local accidents and crimes, elections, sports news and traditional festivals,” Sakaiya said.
The ideas for public works projects presented earlier this month for developing the region are not new.
But now, with concern mounting in Kansai about what Japan’s population decline means locally, leaders are finally getting around to presenting suggestions for the future that, however idealistic or unrealistic they may appear in 2016, are the foundation of serious discussions about life in 2060, when there will be far fewer people here.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.