NIIGATA, Japan and Europe need to address a common problem: the gap between an overconcentration of wealth, and amenities, in large urban areas compared with their rural communities, experts and journalists agreed at a recent conference.

The EU-Japan Journalists’ Conference in Niigata, hosted by the Delegation of the European Commission to Japan, brought together some 30 journalists, bureaucrats and scholars from Europe and Japan from April 4 to 5 to discuss ways to narrow the gaps between the regions.

In the EU, interregional gaps are a fact of life. The wealth of tiny Luxembourg, for example, is seven times greater than Romania in terms of per capita income.

In Japan, Cabinet Office statistics show Tokyo’s per capita income was the highest in the nation, at roughly ¥4.8 million in 2005, more than double the ¥2 million of lowest-ranked Okinawa.

“Local governments implement policies created by the central government, and that has hindered regional uniqueness and diversities,” said Takao Maeda, senior staff writer at the Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional newspaper based in Fukuoka.

Akira Morita, professor and director of the Todai Policy Alternative Research Institute at the University of Tokyo, said Japan has a long history of strong central government but is gradually changing.

The centralized system was originally aimed at creating a strong country to counter the European empires of the 19th century and helped Japan reinforce its military power and expand its wealth during the war, he said.

This system was maintained even after Japan’s defeat, and succeeded in redistributing wealth to slower growing regions from rapidly developing areas, Morita said.

But since Tokyo’s control was restricting local governments in many aspects, decentralization reforms began in 1995 with the establishment of the Decentralization Promotion Committee. Many of the central government’s functions were transferred to local governments, giving them more room to make their own decisions and policies.

“Other than things written in laws and government ordinances, regional governments basically became able to make and implement their own rules,” he said.

Morita, however, said Japan’s system of government still has shortfalls. Social welfare is one of them, he said.

“The question of how to provide minimum social security to all the people is the issue currently facing our nation,” Morita said. Adjoining municipalities could be more powerful, independent and sustainable if they merged their administrations and resources, he said.

Niigata Mayor Akira Shinoda suggested the duties of the central and regional governments should be more separated.

While the state handles diplomacy, defense, disaster recovery and airport administration, Shinoda said municipalities should handle issues related to their respective publics.

Vassilios Makios, professor and general director of the Hellenic Technology Clusters Initiative, Corallia, in Greece, noted that universities, tourism and the Internet can help regions develop themselves.

“Local communities are not educated enough to take care of the local problems . . . The universities can change the local societies,” Makios said, indicating universities can supply the human resources needed to support and develop small communities.

Makios also said tourism can help people further develop strength in their regions by promoting their local skills, such as cooking.

Even though each prefecture has at least one university, Takeo Niga, director of the Industrial Cluster Project Office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said the biggest problem is that many graduates tend to leave rural regions upon graduation to go where the best jobs are, in big cities.

“If we can change this, there would be more people remaining in rural regions and they would challenge new things,” Niga said.

The confab also saw successful examples of urban revitalization.

Paul Smith, executive director of Liverpool Biennial, a British international contemporary art festival held every two years, said Liverpool was successful in utilizing the city’s cultural assets. Holding the festival every two years has brought money and people to Liverpool, he said.

The festival in 2008 brought 10,000 artists and 15 million other people to the city of 440,000, he said.

Not only did the biennial have a direct economic impact on the city, but it also created other positive aspects, Smith said.

“People in the city became much more interested in culture over the period of time,” he said.

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