Kansai’s corporate titans gathered in Kyoto earlier this month for their annual retreat, formally known as the Kansai Economic Forum. While there was no shortage of the usual slightly daft old men with slightly daft ideas, this year saw two important, positive changes.
The first was that the old men decided they were tired of critics banging on about the lack of women in what has always been an old boys’ club. At this year’s forum, in the conference rooms and in front of the smoked salmon buffet tables, women were far more visible.
The second change was an unprecedented sense of urgency in addressing issues the good ol’ boys (and girls) have long worried about: a declining population, especially in rural areas, a Tokyo-centric economy and local economic revitalization.
Longstanding concerns such as the declining birthrate and aging society, as well as an intense concentration of people in the Tokyo region and what it means for Japan’s future economy, are finally getting some attention. Local governments from Okinawa to Hokkaido have tried to solve the problems by giving away land, offering tax credits to young families and firms, and concocting all manner of PR schemes to convince people to abandon the urban rat race and enjoy a higher quality of life in their locality.
These and countless other programs to keep younger Japanese in particular from running off to Tokyo or, less so, Kansai have failed. The reasons for the continued migration of people to urban areas, particularly Tokyo, are said to be economical. Or political. Or cultural. All true.
But there is another, less obvious, reason neither Kansai’s corporate mandarins nor local politicians mentioned: the weather, and modern attitudes toward it.
The Kansai Economic Forum took place on a day when the national media squawked that the sky was, quite literally, falling in Tokyo — specifically, 3 cm of snow. If you’re from snow country, you might snicker at such reports. If you’re not from snow country (i.e. from Tokyo or Osaka), however, that’s reason for panic.
For such people, snow is as scary as heavy rain and cold wind. It makes a mess of designer-label clothing and expensive hairdos. It turns shiny tile floors into slippery zones where you might break an arm. It means trains to and from work might be delayed or canceled.
And then there’s the fact houses in Kanto and Kansai are not constructed for bone-cold weather. People from Hokkaido are often shocked to discover the well-insulated homes they grew up in are in short supply down south. No wonder in Osaka, once the temperature drops below 15 degrees Celsius (not Fahrenheit), the phrase most often heard is meccha samui (“It’s really cold”).
Traditional Japanese art and literature may celebrate the four seasons, but modern advertising mostly prefers selling spring’s cherry blossoms, the hot summer sun and autumn’s leaves. No wonder few in Kansai or Tokyo can envision life, as opposed to a weekend ski trip, in winter.
Local governments themselves have also failed to convey to potential residents the real lifestyles of those living outside uber-convenient and comparatively mild Tokyo and Kansai. PR materials abound with glossy photos of smiling villagers enjoying bucolic lifestyles — in spring, summer and fall, that is. Winter, if it is mentioned, is a magical world in white under deep blue skies.
Nice — if the intent is to attract tourists. But as long as policies for rural revitalization and decentralization from Tokyo fail to address legitimate concerns about the realities of life in weather conditions different from Tokyo and Osaka, no one should expect them to succeed.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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