How one Hokkaido town curbed population decline in graying Japan

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In early August, as much of the country suffered through some of its hottest temperatures on record, a small town in Hokkaido welcomed visitors from around the world to an annual photography festival that celebrated the outdoors.

Under sunny skies and low humidity, with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s, young amateur photographers from Japan and abroad journeyed to the small town of Higashikawa for the 4th International High School Students’ Photo Festival Exchange.

For about a week, 21 teams, including 18 from abroad, would wander around the farms, fields and forested areas of the central Hokkaido town of just under 8,200 in search of the perfect snapshot.

Higashikawa, located about 15 minutes by car from Asahikawa Airport, has positioned itself as “The Town of Photography,” especially during summer. It has hosted various photo events, including the National High School Photography Championships — dubbed the “Koshien tournament of photography” in reference to the famed high school baseball tournaments — that has been running under its current name since 1994 and has drawn student photographers nationwide.

While Hokkaido is full of natural beauty and picturesque towns, what makes Higashikawa unique is that its population has been growing steadily at a time when many rural municipalities across the graying country are struggling to find innovative ways to reverse long-term population declines. Since 2013, the population has grown 5.2 percent and has attracted new, younger residents.

Mayor Ichiroh Matsuoka jokes that Genghis Khan (Japanese-style grilled lamb) summer parties are a popular draw for prospective residents, but on a more serious note he says there are attractive social programs and natural conditions that have played a factor in the town’s population growth these past 15 years.

Matsuoka notes that the high quality of the municipality’s water has spurred some residents to open their own organic coffee shops.

“In particular, water from nearby Mount Asahidake in Daisetuzan National Park is pure, calcium-rich and has a very good balance of minerals. Of course, local agricultural products like rice and vegetables are also of high quality, as judged by not only people in Hokkaido but other parts of Japan and the world,” Matsuoka said.

“Another major reason for our success is there is a strong sense of taking on new challenges, of doing new things, among local bureaucrats and residents. For families with children, Higashikawa’s school system is quite good,” he added.

Higashikawa drew international attention when it opened the country’s first-ever publicly run Japanese-language school for foreign students in October 2015 inside a defunct elementary school. The idea was not just to train the students to be able to communicate in the language with Japanese firms in major cities or their home country, but to also encourage at least some of them to live in Higashikawa and start their own businesses and families.

The effort is paying off. There are 326 foreign nationals living in Higashikawa at present, up from 50 in 2013, with most of them hailing from East and Southeast Asia. Students are encouraged to participate in local festivals, try their hand at farming and study with local craftspeople and artists.

“The students choose Higashikawa because of its international environment, and the fact there is a dormitory and they can get some financial support. Many of them are from warm or tropical climates, but they have managed to deal with Higashikawa’s winters,” said Mika Moriyama, a local Japanese-language teacher.

Moriyama, originally from the Tokyo area, moved to Higashikawa to pursue her passion of basket weaving and is now involved in the local arts scene.

“There is a supportive atmosphere here, and the environment makes it a great place to live. The fact that the area is also partially in a national forest means that urban expansion of the kind you see in other places isn’t allowed,” she said.

The town has been touted as a regional revitalization success story by both the Japanese media and government. But the real question is whether its achievement can be repeated in other parts of the country.

In 2014, as Higashikawa’s population increase was getting more media attention, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government created new laws aimed at revitalizing rural areas.

This included funding for various consulting firms to work with town and village heads and councils to come up with projects that the central government would assist with, in the hope of attracting new residents and businesses.

With the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election looming next month, Abe’s regional revitalization policy is once again in the spotlight.

Hokkaido University professors and regional policy experts Shuji Koiso and Yuichi Murakami, along with Mikane Yamazaki, co-authored a book published in July that analyzed the results of Abe’s regional revitalization policy.

“A lot of cities, towns, and villages demanded the same kinds of projects be funded, and asked for help with developing and promoting local products or for policies to attract people from elsewhere. But the central government gradually began seeking independent projects that were not the same as those being tried elsewhere,” said Koiso. This led local governments to ask that they be allowed to pursue projects they wanted, rather than those pushed by the central government, he added.

Koiso believes Higashikawa can serve as an example to other local governments, but changes won’t happen quickly.

Noting that the high school photography contest has been running since 1994, Koiso said, “the critical fact is that Higashikawa has its own, continuous policy.

“Mayor Matsuoka has a rebellious spirit to not rely on the central government or the Hokkaido Prefectural Government. A lot of different policy ideas are created there. This makes the town more attractive, creating a virtuous circle that attracts outsiders,” Koiso said.

Murakami said that Higashikawa’s example can inspire others but copying it would be difficult and other local governments need to make their own plans.

“Since a lot of local governments don’t have Higashikawa’s natural beauty, they’ll have to accept that, in reality over the long term, their populations will decrease. For that reason, it will be necessary to have their own countermeasures, or to seek them from the central government,” Murakami said.

Yusuke Yamashita, an urban society professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and the author of a book published in June that asserts that urban ways of thinking are destroying the country’s rural regions, takes a broader, historical view of how Japan’s towns and villages ended up in their current situation.

“Population flows are like balls on a billiard table. People in remote areas outside a mountain village move to the village center. People from villages and small towns move to midsized cities, and people from midsized cities go to larger cities. The way these people flow has also created regional gaps,” he said.

Yamashita believes the real problem stems from a decline in fertility rates, and the need to reverse it. People choosing to relocate to smaller towns like Higashikawa is fine, he said, but for other towns migration might be a short-term fix to a long-term problem if new residents are senior citizens.

“The point is, can a society be rebuilt where people support each other and there is a balance between young and old, men and women, all with different roles? The situation in modern Japan is that this kind of balance (in rural areas) has collapsed,” he said.

While specific policy measures from the central government are needed — as well as financial assistance, realistic demographic and economic forecasts, and all manner of hard data and evidence — Koiso remarked that it’s not about what looks good on paper in Tokyo, but about regional attitudes.

“I’ve been involved in regional policies in and out of Japan for a long time. The most important thing is breeding motivation in local residents. A policy handed down from the central government won’t do that. Efforts born from everyone discussing things and sharing their concerns are strong and sustainable,” he said.