National | Outlook 2020

Japan's pressing regional affairs to unfold quietly in shadow of Olympics

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

This year, all attention will turn to the 2020 Olympics, with politicians, business leaders and the media talking about how to ensure its success, what it means for Japan domestically and internationally and how to avert a post-Olympic economic slump.

Outside the seven prefectures in the Kanto region centered on Tokyo, however, the high drama of the games will be absent with the notable exceptions of Hokkaido (marathons and soccer), Fukushima (baseball and softball) and Miyagi (soccer).

With that in mind, here are some issues that parts of the rest of Japan will face in 2020 and official plans to deal with them.

Demographic crisis

From Hokkaido to Okinawa, governments are fighting to stay optimistic and energetic in the face of ever-increasing aging, declining populations and the flight of younger residents and businesses to Tokyo and other major cities.

In late December, the government unveiled a five-year plan for regional revitalization aimed at easing the overconcentration of resources in Tokyo and the Kanto region by early 2025. Financial assistance will be available for some startups relocating outside of Tokyo, and the plan calls for the greater use of artificial intelligence in those areas of the country where it would be difficult to relocate or in which the needed number of employees can’t be found.

Improving communications in isolated regions by installing more optical fiber networks is also a top priority, especially for local leaders.

“Optical fiber networks are already set up in large cities and some prefectures, but not in many regions, especially mountainous and depopulated areas,” said National Governors’ Association head Kamon Iizumi.

Japan will likely see stronger typhoons and hotter summers as the effects of climate change grow. Disaster relief is expected to be a top priority for municipal and prefectural governments across the nation in 2020. | KYODO
Japan will likely see stronger typhoons and hotter summers as the effects of climate change grow. Disaster relief is expected to be a top priority for municipal and prefectural governments across the nation in 2020. | KYODO

Disaster relief

Following two major typhoons that pounded Kanto, especially Chiba Prefecture, deluges and mudslides in Kyushu, and summertime highs over 40 degrees in many parts of the country last year, countermeasures for natural disasters at a time when their intensity is predicted to grow due to climate change has become a top priority for municipal leaders.

While most local governments have evacuation plans on paper, central government support for everything from bolstering local transportation against flooding and mudslide damage to deploying rescue vehicles and helicopters for those injured formed a large part of the wish list the national governors’ association presented to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe government for 2020.

Attention on the need for disaster preparedness at the local level is expected to be especially strong this month, when Japan observes the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which badly damaged Kobe and surrounding areas.

Overtourism vs ‘undertourism’

In Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Fukuoka and especially Kyoto, grumbling about large numbers of tourists crowding the streets and subways, and their behavior at temples, shrines and other historical sites, continues. But many places that have not benefited from the tourism boom to the same extent see 2020 and the Olympics as a chance to siphon off tourists who would otherwise stay in only one or two major cities.

To this end, central government assistance in upgrading the local transport and accommodations infrastructure, adding more signs in foreign languages at local points of interest and promoting local culture, especially food, remain key goals for 2020.

For parts of the country where complaints about tourists are especially acute, this year may be spent on designing and erecting multilingual signs or recording public address announcements that specify how to behave.

“One of the ways we are dealing with the large influx of foreign tourists is through education, and putting up signs around tourist areas about appropriate behavior,” said Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa at a recent tourism conference in his city.

On the other hand, other parts of the prefecture where the popular city is situated are fighting for a piece of the tourist pie. Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki is anxious to ensure that a larger portion of the 52 million visitors the prefectural capital attracted in 2018, including day-trippers, spend some of their time and money outside the city limits.

Under the concept of “one more Kyoto,” the prefecture is working with the city and the tourist industry to get people interested in other parts of the prefecture. For example, Nishiwaki hopes more tourists will visit the port city of Maizuru on the Sea of Japan coast, where the number of cruises — although still fewer than in some other ports — has been increasing, as well as Kyoto’s Amanohashidate region.

“The northern part of Kyoto Prefecture has a low recognition level. Even though lots of people come any number of times to the Kyoto city area, they don’t visit the northern part of the prefecture as often. There’s still not enough publicity for the area,” Nishiwaki told reporters last year in announcing plans to beef up promotional efforts.

Race for casino license

By the second half of 2021, the central government is expected to award three cities licenses to build Japan’s first casino resorts. With Hokkaido dropping out recently, the remaining candidates include Osaka, Wakayama, Nagasaki and Yokohama.

But the December arrest of Liberal Democratic Party Lower House politician Tsukasa Akimoto on suspicion of casino-related bribery involving Chinese sports lottery company 500.com, as well as raids on two other LDP lawmakers for similar suspicions, with possibly more to come, mean that candidate sites will have to monitor public opinion much more carefully before formally applying for a casino resort license in 2021.

Osaka merger proposal

For Osaka, 2020 means another public referendum on whether to merge the city’s wards into four large semi-autonomous districts.

It’s a move that has long been controversial, but one supporters say is needed to reduce costs and make more efficient use of resources. But opponents fear that merging will widen economic disparities in the city. Expect lots of political wrangling and debate over the issue until voters decide, probably in November, whether it’s a good idea.

Other issues that will attract attention in 2020 range from rebuilding gutted Shuri Castle in Okinawa and wrangling over the offshore replacement runway being built there off Henoko for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, to Hokkaido’s promotion of agricultural exports in the face of a new trade deal with the United States that will make American farm products cheaper and more widely available. And in Fukushima Prefecture of course, many towns are still facing the monumental task of rebuilding and recovering from the March 11, 2011, mega-quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

So while the Tokyo Olympics is without a doubt Japan’s most internationally prominent event in 2020 and will generate nationwide interest and excitement, other parts of Japan will deal with general and specific issues that may not get the same national attention but will be of particular concern to residents affected by them.