A former coal-mining town in Hokkaido is taking unprecedented measures to combat its biggest challenge: a devastating shrinking of its population. Its success could decide the future for hundreds of other local governments waging the same battle for survival.
Since its peak in the post-war economic boom of the 1960s, the population of Yubari, a town just over an hour’s drive east of Sapporo known better for growing luxury melons costing millions of yen, has plunged by over 90 percent to just 9,000 as seniors died and young people moved to bigger cities. Ten years ago, it became Japan’s first municipality to declare bankruptcy.
To keep from becoming a so-called ghost town — when a city ceases to function due to a precipitous decline in population and is ultimately abandoned — Yubari embarked on a drastic experiment. City officials began merging schools, slashing government jobs and salaries, halting funds for public swimming pools, toilets and parks, curtailing services such as bus routes and snow removal, and downgrading the local hospital to a clinic. The most drastic measure has been the forced relocation of hundreds of residents from public housing on the city’s outskirts to blocks of new, low-rise apartments closer to the city center.
“Yubari can potentially lead the example of a real-time compact city,” said Yoshio Kurihara, senior researcher at Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute in Tokyo, who called Yubari’s experiment an “extremely important” model for Japan. “Successful results from the city’s trial can be applied on a nationwide scale.”
By 2040, about half of Japan’s municipalities, or 896 towns and cities, will be on a course to future extinction as their numbers of women of reproductive age drop below levels needed to sustain them, according Japan Policy Council projections. More than 20 percent of residential areas in Japan will become ghost towns by 2050, the land ministry forecasts. And data from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research show that a 16 percent population decline will take place nationwide within 25 years, with 20 percent of municipalities experiencing a drop below 5,000 people. The “compact city” solution is being considered as a model for survival by areas facing depopulation.
Some small towns and cities in rural prefectures have been experimenting with merging to reduce public administration costs. That has led to a small local government looking after a large area, making it difficult to provide services to remote residents.
Authorities in prefectures such as Aomori and Toyama also have been trying to implement the compact city strategy, but they have faced strong resistance from residents to relocate even after improving transportation and commercial infrastructure to lure people into central areas. That makes the Yubari experiment, largely being carried out with public support, unique.
“Yubari’s example can definitely be applied to other municipalities,” Kurihara said. “Yubari shows what the future holds and offers hints.”
Residents had initially reacted negatively to the relocation plan, according to Tsuyoshi Setoguchi, a professor specializing in urban planning at Hokkaido University, who was involved in creating and implementing Yubari’s compact city plan. He and his students met with relocated residents over the course of a year to provide details of the plan and convince them of the benefits.
“Their first reaction was, ‘We are old and are gone in 10 years so why not leave us alone,’ or that to move was too tiresome at that point in their lives,” said Setoguchi, noting that a survey of a group of relocated residents he conducted showed they gave an above-average rating to their new environment.
“Many expressed the merits of being able to live in an assembled community, which provided a sense of security and helped cut costs such as heating.”
Some residents complained about the environment for raising children, with public parks suffering from funding cuts and kids having to leave town for high school. Yet for others, a new home is an upgrade.
Yoneo Watabiki, 76, who spent a third of his life working at the coal mines, said he had no qualms about leaving the public housing, made of wood, where he’d lived with his family for decades.
“I am glad I moved,” Watabiki said. “Now I have a bath in my own house and don’t have to go to public bathhouses. I can take a shower when I want to.”
Another resident, Kiyoshi Yanagihara, 97, who moved to Yubari to work in the mines after completing military service in 1943, said he also enjoys having a more convenient place to bathe, as well as a nearby food cooperative and neighbors who cook for each other.
“The current residence is very comfortable compared with the previous one — like heaven and hell,” he said. “I don’t feel lonely because the people I’ve lived with for 20 and 30 years have all relocated together.”
Since starting the relocation process in 2010, Yubari had moved 275 households, or 5 percent of the total, as of 2015. As a result, the cost of maintaining and managing public housing has fallen to about ¥70 million annually from about ¥100 million six years ago. The plan is to construct 33 more low-rise blocks for public housing by 2020, as well as build or renovate low-rent apartment blocks for at least 800 workers who commute from the outskirts. By 2019, the city plans a complex to potentially house government offices, a library, a cafe, a child care center and other facilities.
These days, the outskirts of Yubari are dotted with vacated, decrepit buildings. Faded billboards of old movies such as “Roman Holiday” (released in 1953) can be seen downtown near a now-deserted entertainment area where closed cafes and karaoke bars provide a glimpse of the hustle-bustle of days of old. The lively town was a coal capital in Japan, and its population grew to 117,000 in the 1960s. Yubari has been in slow decline over the past 50 years. The last mine closed in 1990.
Its 9,000 people are collectively the country’s most aged, with those 65 and older accounting for 48 percent of its residents. Yubari’s population is expected to further halve over the next 10 years.
Through cost-cutting measures, Yubari has paid back about a third of its debt accrued through bond issuance, but still has to repay ¥25 billion by March 2027. The city’s revenue has dwindled by about two-thirds since 2009.
Yubari Mayor Naomichi Suzuki, 35, said the city is looking to tap revenue from national resources, namely coal-bed methane from the former mines.
“It’s important to balance the defensive policy of the compact city plan with an offensive one of lifting revenue,” he said in an interview.
Even though the population outlook looks grim, the city’s youngest-ever mayor, who took office in 2011, says there are other ways to build a successful community.
“Child care is a top priority, and we are rapidly building low-rent houses for the young, because a favorable environment for them is key to the city’s sustainability,” he said. “Yubari’s population will likely fall by half 10 years from now, but population isn’t everything. I want to assess by whether people feel happy remaining here.”