Towns, cities need vision to halt decline

Dear Prime Minister Naoto Kan,

I do a bit of work with a small city in central Japan that — like many small Japanese cities — no longer has a main shopping street and feels like a ghost town after dark. Yet the town — Kasai City, in Hyogo Prefecture — is unlike many others in that it remains relatively prosperous, largely because Osaka and Kobe are only around an hour away, providing plenty of economic opportunity for the city’s (small) army of commuters.

The impact of Japan’s postbubble economic doldrums is not so easy to see in Tokyo, which has recorded very respectable growth of 6.9 percent over the past decade, and seen the addition of nearly a million new residents. Head out from the capital, however, and the main streets of the country’s small- and medium-size towns and cities tell a different story.

By 2050, Japan’s population is expected to fall by 20 percent, and already rural populations skew far older than the national average. With young people moving to the city, and old people (inevitably) dying, Japan’s small- and medium-size towns and cities are in trouble.

Bringing me back to that small city in central Japan I have occasion to visit. Largely for selfish reasons, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how life — my life — could be improved there.

Kasai — which unlike many Japanese cities is quite beautifully situated — needs good restaurants, including places that offer al fresco dining. It needs bars, including a jazz bar run by an obsessive collector of rare vinyl, and a country and western or rock and roll “live house” that attracts a regular slate of great bands from all around central Japan.

It needs public recreation facilities that welcome residents and attract nonresidents from nearby towns and cities. It needs cultural events that surpass the usual boring city hall auditorium offerings.

Most of all, it needs a center, a focal point for economic and social activity. At the moment, again like so many towns and cities around Japan, there is a train station, surrounded by convenience stores and chain coffee shops, and an Aeon shopping center.

I have nothing against Aeon, which offers an enormous range of goods at reasonable prices, and presumably also offers hundreds of jobs, but the one-stop shopping model that is the foundation of Aeon’s (and its competitors’) success makes it very difficult for other businesses to survive.

Difficult, but not impossible. And therein lies the problem. Time and time again, not just in Japan but around the world, when megastores such as Aeon set up shop, local business owners protest, then fold their tents and . . . retire. Not always true, but mostly.

I’d like to see business owners put up more of a struggle. I’d like to see them figure out how not only to survive, but also to thrive.

I’d like to see communities come together to support locally owned businesses, creating and implementing development strategies that attract and retain residents, and attract and retain businesses.

With the bursting of its economic bubble in 1989, Japan learned that growth is not inevitable. Neither, however, is decline inevitable.

The foundations of “sustainability” are the choices communities make about how they operate, comprising the vision, policy and practice that enable them to adapt to continuous challenges and to thrive.

Development strategy provides a road map to initiatives that will obtain the best returns for the community, returns which can and should be measured on the basis of the economic, environmental and social benefits they bring to community members.

Many communities, of course, don’t have in place mechanisms that allow community members to participate actively in the development process. Elections are held, officials appointed, policies implemented, or not, and the cycle is repeated.

Returning to my daydreams about Kasai City, I’d like to see it rezone its “old town” to permit the establishment of restaurants and bars. I’d like to see it offer economic incentives to young artists and craftsmen from around the prefecture, inviting them to set up a creative colony that would be a magnet for regional tourism.

I’d like to see someone establish an annual music festival, or sports event, sufficiently unique and fun that it attracts attention from around the country. I’d like to see an annual film festival, or in summer, a weekly outdoor movie screening open to the entire community. And I’d like to see a weekly farmer’s market, and a monthly crafts market.

None of these things is impossible, or even particularly difficult to imagine. And none of them requires tilting at the windmill of Aeon or its competitors.

Aeon succeeds because its scale permits it to offer a wide range of goods at competitive prices. Nearly all of the small businesspeople who protest its arrival end up shopping there, because it makes good economic sense.

But there is more to community — and more to Japan! — than train stations, megastores, gas stations and convenience stores. Livable, sustainable communities succeed in balancing and developing the interests of citizens, businesses and the environment. They engage community members in a continuous process of evaluating past and current policies and planning for the future.

I work to help cities such as Kasai figure out how they can survive — and thrive — in the post-shogun, post-bubble world. And a handful of municipal leaders are doing exciting things that are lifting their towns and cities out of the socioeconomic funk that has gripped Japan for the past nearly 20 years.

Many more leaders, however, and the citizens they represent, are at a loss. They have no idea how to reinvent themselves, and they see municipal — and societal — decline as inevitable . . . shoganai.

The government can help these communities, by offering tax breaks to encourage entrepreneurship and the establishment of new businesses; by creating incentives for communities to redesign municipal services to save money, e.g. by cooperating with neighboring municipalities; by providing a focal point for best practice sharing; and by helping develop a national framework within which local governments and citizen groups can identify priorities, set goals, direct public investments, set contexts for private investment, and structure the delivery of public goods and services.

Yes, we can.


Roberto De Vido is a founder of Near Futures, which provides community development assessment and solutions services to communities and businesses in Japan. He can be reached at robertodevido@nearfutures.jp. Send submissions for Hotline to Nagatacho of between 500 and 600 words to community@japantimes.co.jp