Staff writer

IZUMISANO, Osaka Pref. — Closed shutters and modest storefronts line the street adjacent to the train station here, prompting few to so much as glance at what once was a brisk shopping district.

“There was a time when all those streets were filled with shoppers — factory workers here and those coming all the way from other cities,” says Shuzo Kurumano, director of Chuo Shotengai Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai, one of the seven cooperatives running the Izumisano shopping district.

“It was so crowded that you had to elbow your way through,” he recalls. “But the best days are long gone for this shopping district.”

The plight of Izumisano is not isolated as the growing number of traditional downtown arcades are fast falling into decay with one shop after another closing down.

The so-called hollowing out of downtowns has now become an epidemic, with roughly 90 percent of the total 18,000 traditional shopping districts nationwide facing some sort of problem, according to the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

If no measures are taken, the JCCI warns, not only economic vitality but also the sense of community will disappear from local towns and cities.

The sense of crisis is growing especially strong now that the central government is moving to further ease the Large-Scale Retail Store Law, which restricts the operating hours of large retailers as well as the opening of new stores.

“Local shopping districts are declining for a number of reasons, such as the aging of shop owners and their lack of successors, rapid motorization and other changes in people’s lifestyles,” a JCCI official says.

But as he sees it, one of the biggest factors behind the syndrome is the growing presence of giant shopping centers in suburban areas that draw consumers away from traditional shopping districts.

“Those suburban shopping centers surely benefit consumers,” he says, “and it would be wrong for us to attempt to stop them. But it is also necessary to consider the needs of the elderly and those with physical handicaps, who cannot drive cars.

“Only when we have both big suburban shopping centers and neighborhood shops can we say that we fulfill all consumers’ needs.”

Echoing concerns held by local shop owners, and in an apparent attempt to pave the way for further easing of the LSRS law, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party put together a proposal last month calling for the revitalization of traditional shopping districts.

Likewise, a joint committee formed by two government advisory panels — the Industrial Structure Council and the Small and Medium Enterprise Policymaking Council — is set to compile an interim report by Aug. 21 to propose policy guidelines for revitalizing shopping districts.

The proposal, along with the LDP’s paper, will be reflected when the Ministry of International Trade and Industry makes its budget request for fiscal 1998 at the end of this month.

It remains uncertain, however, whether the government’s efforts — whatever they may be — can change the dire reality facing Japan’s downtown areas.

In the case of Izumisano, three powerful retailers — Daiei, Nichii and Konan — are planning to open stores in 1999, adding some 80,000 sq. meters in retail floor space within 5 km from Nankai Izumisano Station.

That will, no doubt, be another major blow to the local shopping district where closed doors already are conspicuous.

Located along a major road connecting Osaka and Wakayama cities, downtown Izumisano grew on the nation’s postwar economic expansion, with its streets filled with a number of textile factory workers.

The situation for local shops, however, took a turn for the worse in the late 1960s when a Nichii supermarket went up right in front of the station.

Then came the oil crisis of 1973 that devastated the local textile industries, followed by the asset-inflated bubble economy in the late 1980s. The speculative land boom during the era drove a number of local residents — primary customers — out of town to the suburbs.

Riding on the rapid pace of motorization, large retailers such as Nichii are now relocating out of downtowns to outlying areas in search for large vacant lots once occupied by textile factories.

To be sure, it is not that local shop owners are sitting idly while their districts decay; some are making desperate efforts to reverse the trend.

Two of the seven shopping district cooperatives in Izumisano have recently reconstructed an arcade covering a 163 meter-long street and renamed it Tsubasa Dori (Wing Street) in hope of drawing a new flow of shoppers from Kansai International Airport, which is only 10 minutes away by local train.

The 300 million yen project, along with other promotion measures such as trading stamps, have paid dividends, bringing back the hustle and bustle to the street.

Kurumano, who has been the driving force behind the project, however, sounds far from optimistic.

“Things are good for now while my generation remains active,” he says, “but in the next 15 years or so, I’m afraid more than 65 percent of the shops will close down because of a lack of successors.”

Alarmed at the situation, the Construction Ministry has embarked on a major policy shift to concentrate on redeveloping traditional downtown districts.

“Until now, we’ve focused on development of new towns in suburban areas to deal with growing urban populations,” a ministry official said. “But now the problem is in downtown areas that are fast losing vitality.”

Meanwhile, MITI has been advocating the perception of so-called town management, that is, to provide support to entire revitalization plans rather than giving subsidies to individual projects such as constructing arcades and staging events.

But to make the system work, the ministry says, local communities — the local government, shop owners and residents — must take the initiative and come up with a clear consensus on what they hope for in their own town.

That, however, could prove an impossible task.

As Kurumano of Izumisano points out, it is becoming increasingly difficult to form a consensus on any revitalization project now that more and more shop owners are feeling too old to make any changes.

And that is exactly why an old shopping arcade on the same street as the the newly refurbished Tsubasa Dori in Izumisano remains shabby and dark with dirt-stained sheets dangling from old arcade frames.

“We know that all of us, the seven cooperatives in this district, should be joining forces to revitalize the whole area,” Kurumano says, “but it’s just impossible because we don’t have many young people.”

Takeo Tanaka, director of a Towa-Ginza shopping district promotion cooperative in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, said that nothing will change if everyone waits for a unanimous consensus.

“You’ve got to join hands with those having enthusiasm and push for changes,” he says. “That’s about the only way to survive.”

Thus, Tanaka, together with some other shop owners, set up a company called Amour Towa Co. in June 1990 and have since launched a series of projects to maintain vitality in their shopping district.

The company took over operation of a fish shop and another store when their owners were ready to close the doors. It also runs a restaurant at a nearby public hospital and provides catering services to local schools and elderly people in the area.

Amour Towa’s attempt, considered to be fairly successful, however, has both its limits and negative aspects, Tanaka says.

“In a way, the situation is getting worse,” he says, “because our community has been split into two groups, those cooperating with the company and those not.”

Administrators, for their part, have no illusions either.

“There are a total of 3,300 cities, towns and villages in Japan and we cannot save them all,” a MITI official says. “What we can do is to give them a dream by making a few truly successful examples.”

The government plans to pick up some enthusiastic communities as model towns, make intensive investments and implement every possible measure to restore vitality there.

“Then,” the MITI official says, “hopefully other communities will start making efforts to help themselves.”

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