Business

Small Saitama town embraces sharing economy in bid to battle demographic drain

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Yokoze, a quiet, scenic town of around 8,400 in the mountainous Chichibu region in Saitama Prefecture, isn’t immune to the sweeping demographic change impacting hundreds of rural municipalities across Japan.

The town’s population has been shrinking for the past two decades as its residents age. It’s one of 869 municipalities the Japan Policy Council think tank warned could “vanish” in the near future due to fewer births.

When Yoshinari Tomita was elected mayor of Yokoze three years ago, he decided to experiment with a new tool to reinvigorate the town he grew up in: the so-called sharing economy.

He launched a website called Yokolab in a bid to seek out public-private projects that could help showcase the town and attract more tourists. The town partnered with Tabica, a service run by Gaiax Co. which introduces people to the daily lives and customs of various communities through guides and workshops. It also teamed up with space-sharing service provider Space Market Inc. to make use of idle public facilities in the town.

“The point is to not spend money. It’s a small town and our budget is limited so we need to think of measures that don’t require capital,” Tomita said during an interview Wednesday with The Japan Times on the sidelines of Share Summit 2017, a two-day event hosted by the Sharing Economy Association, Japan.

“So far we’re seeing more tourists and more young folks visiting our town. In the long term I hope we see more people interested in moving in to our town,” he said.

Yokoze was one of the 15 municipalities recognized as “Sharing Cities” by the association for experimenting with sharing economy-type services to revive their locales. The event, which lasts until Thursday, focuses on how communities and local governments are turning to the concept of sharing to meet various challenges, and features a roster of experts from both the public and private sectors.

“Municipal administration may have arguably been the most remote field from the sharing economy,” said Masanobu Ogura, a Lower House lawmaker who serves as parliamentary vice-minister for internal affairs and communications.

“But in rural areas we are seeing depopulation increase the number of idle properties and shrink employment, while issues of public transportation persist. Our feeling that the sharing economy could be useful in solving these problems has been growing stronger every year,” he said.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a positive stance toward the sharing economy, hoping it could alleviate some of the nation’s challenges — including a shortage of workers and a growing number of vacant properties. In June the government passed a law taking effect next year that gives the green light to Airbnb-type private short-term lodging services. However, other segments still face hurdles. Ride-hailing services like Uber, for example, are up against fierce resistance from the taxi industry.

Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable, a nonprofit website that tracks the sharing economy industry, said partnerships across local communities and public and private institutions are necessary for the sharing city concept to really take off.

“What’s really interesting is how the practice of sharing in rural areas is old as ever — sharing is ancient,” he said.

Gorenflo said farmlands and irrigation systems, for example, are often treated as shared property and managed collectively.

“But when you start to take that idea into the city, it’s a more crowded institutional space. You’re not isolated, and you have to make links with the other sectors of society — make productive links with business and government,” he said.

Tomita hopes his efforts to reach out to the public for ideas will spark more interest in the town, whose relative close proximity to Tokyo — around 70 minutes by train — he considers an asset.

In the one year since he launched Yokolab, he said the town has received 42 proposals for collaborative projects, of which 22 are up and running.

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