When the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly broached the subject of renaming Ibaraki Airport as “Tokyo North Airport” last year, the debate touched a raw nerve for residents in the much-maligned prefecture.

The idea was to raise the profile of the airport by advertising its relative proximity to Tokyo, even if that meant sacrificing any mention of Ibaraki altogether. But the idea upset some locals, who took to social media to complain that officials were essentially failing to display any pride in their own prefecture.

In the end, a panel of experts tasked with debating the rebranding landed on what appeared to be a compromise: The airport, about 100 km from Tokyo, will continue to be referred to as Ibaraki Kuko (Ibaraki Airport) domestically, but its English name would change. Candidates included “Tokyo Metropolitan/Ibaraki Airport,” “Tokyo North Airport” and “Metropolitan/Ibaraki Airport,” among others.

Ibaraki native Ryu Ogitsu, 33, says he can partially understand how officials might want to efface their own prefecture’s name and instead bring “Tokyo” to the fore. He speaks from experience: When he was briefly studying at a Tokyo vocational school around the age of 20, Ogitsu would rather brazenly lie about where he grew up.

“Of all the prefectures in the greater Tokyo area, Ibaraki, I think, has a reputation of being the most uncultivated one,” he said.

“So when people asked me where my hometown was, I would sometimes tell them I’m from Chiba — I mean, at least they’ve got Disneyland there. I didn’t want them to think I was from some out of the way place.”

The controversy over Ibaraki Airport’s new sobriquet has highlighted an image problem that has long been the Achilles’ heel of a prefecture otherwise blessed with abundant nature, easy access to Tokyo and a high standard of living.

Its inability to effectively promote its positive aspects has been made painfully clear over and over again by a high-profile survey that has ranked Ibaraki as the “least attractive” prefecture for seven straight years. Today, the prefecture is seeking to turn its reputation around by rolling out a batch of unorthodox image-makeover campaigns that center around self-deprecating humor. The campaigns have had little success.

Ibaraki's giant Buddha statue known as the Ushiku Daibutsu | GETTY IMAGES
Ibaraki’s giant Buddha statue known as the Ushiku Daibutsu | GETTY IMAGES

The least attractive

Located northeast of Tokyo and home to nearly 3 million people, Ibaraki is the 11th most populous prefecture and one of the seven that makes up the Kanto region.

Recent years have seen the southern part of the prefecture thrive as a bedroom community after accessibility to central Tokyo significantly improved with the development of the Tsukuba Express railway line. It’s also the nation’s third-largest agricultural producer, and boasts the 10th highest per capita income in Japan.

But despite those rosy numbers, Ibaraki has the dubious distinction of ranking at the bottom of an annual survey released by Brand Research Institute, a Tokyo-based consultancy, almost every year since 2009. The popular internet-based poll asks respondents to grade each prefecture based on “attractiveness.”

Ironically, it may actually be Ibaraki’s intrinsic livability that has worked against the prefecture in the ranking, institute head Akio Tanaka said.

Ibaraki Prefecture boasts sightseeing spots such as Fukuroda Falls, but some say they aren’t strong enough to define Ibaraki’s image. | KYODO
Ibaraki Prefecture boasts sightseeing spots such as Fukuroda Falls, but some say they aren’t strong enough to define Ibaraki’s image. | KYODO

“Ibaraki is wealthy and nature-abundant, has a large population and is prosperous in terms of agriculture and manufacturing,” Tanaka said. “It has been so privileged in many ways that, I think, it has lacked a sense of crisis that it has to do something to improve its brand.”

Unlike Ibaraki, prefectures such as Hokkaido and Okinawa, for example, face inherent disadvantages — namely the sheer costs of shipping products to Tokyo — which has, in turn, made them focus on refining the “brand” of what they create to offset the weaknesses associated with their far-off locations, Tanaka said.

While Ibaraki is the nation’s biggest producer of melons, the fruit is more likely to be associated with Hokkaido, which has carved out a strong brand centering around its exquisite Yubari King melons, he said. Hokkaido and Okinawa regularly dominate the top spots in the poll.

Another contributing factor is the lack of a “singular city that defines the image of Ibaraki,” the branding expert said.

Ibaraki has a larger population than Kyoto Prefecture, a perennial leader in the ranking. But when it comes to cities, Mito, Ibaraki’s capital and home to about 270,000 people, has only a fraction of the name-recognition of Kyoto, which boasts a population of 1.5 million.

Another good example is Ishikawa Prefecture, on the coast of the Sea of Japan, whose “entire image is bolstered” by its capital, Kanazawa — a tourist destination famed for samurai-era castles and aesthetic landscape gardens — where nearly half of the prefecture’s population lives, Tanaka said.

Directed by Ibaraki-based filmmaker Takashi Iitsuka, the short puppet film series 'Ibaraki Police Frontier Defense Force' is full of self-deprecating humor that often underpins the prefecture's public relations campaigns. | COURTESY OF TAKASHI IITSUKA
Directed by Ibaraki-based filmmaker Takashi Iitsuka, the short puppet film series ‘Ibaraki Police Frontier Defense Force’ is full of self-deprecating humor that often underpins the prefecture’s public relations campaigns. | COURTESY OF TAKASHI IITSUKA

Frustrated officials

Ibaraki-based financial analyst Keisuke Nakahara agrees, citing the lack of a well-known tourist site.

“When people think about the ‘attractiveness’ of a place, the first thing that pops up in their mind is usually some tourist spot or local delicacy, such as the vast expanse of nature in Hokkaido, historical sites in Kyoto or beautiful oceans in Okinawa,” Nakahara said.

Although Ibaraki does boast sightseeing spots such as Fukuroda Falls and the giant Buddha statue known as the Ushiku Daibutsu, “they aren’t strong enough to define Ibaraki’s image,” Nakahara said. The prefecture is famous for being the No.1 producer of natto fermented soybeans, but “these aren’t something everyone likes to eat,” he said.

One possible solution, he said, is for officials to highlight more of the state-of-the-art scientific technology associated with the city of Tsukuba, a research and education community that has hosted both Group of Seven and Group of 20 international conferences in the past.

Still, the vague concept of “attractiveness” has made it a daunting task for Ibaraki officials to pinpoint the reason behind their prefecture’s atrocious performance in the headline-making rankings each year.

Last year, a dismayed Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa made no secret of his irritation at the ranking, saying its unflattering portrayal of his prefecture has been “significantly undermining the reputation of Ibaraki.”

Public image strategy official Takayuki Aoki said he doesn’t take the survey too seriously, given its unofficial nature. Nonetheless, he says he is worried about what role it could play in accelerating an exodus of youth and depopulation in his prefecture.

“If Ibaraki continues to be labeled as unattractive, I wonder if it might make some of our young population want to leave, or conversely, discourage migration into our prefecture,” he said.

“I don’t think the current situation with the ranking should continue.”

Self-deprecating campaign

But despite Oigawa’s proclaimed displeasure with the poll’s results, the prefecture has frequently parodied its cellar-dweller reputation in its public relations strategy — almost exceedingly so.

In 2013, the prefecture tied up with prominent Yoshimoto Kogyo comedians to roll out a campaign provocatively dubbed “Namennayo Ibaraki” (“don’t you dare underestimate Ibaraki”). The slang “Namennayo,” a signature phrase often employed by punks when picking a fight, was Ibaraki’s way of jokingly telling the rest of the nation to stop making a mockery of the prefecture.

A hint of self-derision was also palpable in a 2014 puppet film series broadcast on Ibakira TV, the prefecture’s official video-streaming site, that portrayed a police force trying to defend Ibaraki — “the last remaining frontier” — against invaders.

When Ibaraki became the first prefecture to launch an official “virtual” YouTuber in 2018, the fictional anchorwoman known as Hiyori Ibara went out of her way to emphasize in her first appearance as the so-called VTuber that Ibaraki has been placing dead last in the branding poll every year, deploring the result in a comically exaggerated manner.

Miki Tonomura, head of Osaka-based public relations consultancy TM Office, said such self-deprecating humor is a popular PR technique befitting the mentality of Japanese, who often use self-debasement as a way to show humbleness and win approval from others.

Hiyori Ibara became the nation's first 'virtual' YouTuber created by a prefecture in 2018 as part of Ibaraki's unorthodox public relations campaign. | COURTESY OF IBARAKI PREFECTURE
Hiyori Ibara became the nation’s first ‘virtual’ YouTuber created by a prefecture in 2018 as part of Ibaraki’s unorthodox public relations campaign. | COURTESY OF IBARAKI PREFECTURE

Finishing last, she said, also gives municipalities a good excuse to secure budgets and experiment with bold initiatives under the pretense of overcoming their supposed flaws.

“Being ranked rock bottom is actually a good status for Ibaraki,” Tonomura said.

“If they edged up a few places to become the 45th or 46th most attractive prefecture, that wouldn’t be nearly as punchy as them being the 47th, and wouldn’t give them a solid PR base,” she said.

“I bet part of them thinks they actually want to retain the last-place ranking.”

Looking back on those youthful days when he used to feel ashamed of his hometown, Ibaraki native Ogitsu says he feels more at ease with his identity today.

Getting a driver’s license has allowed him to explore sightseeing and dating spots in the prefecture that he previously didn’t know about, and made him further appreciate the fact that Ibaraki has both a beach and mountains — a luxury not enjoyed by its neighboring rivals Tochigi and Gunma.

He also likes having a house with a spacious yard where he can play catch and have BBQs. Ogitsu’s story is not out of the ordinary: In fact, Ibaraki boasts the biggest average land size for houses of all prefectures.

“If I could go back in time, I’d want to tell my old self, ‘don’t write off Ibaraki as some lame, rural area when you know nothing about it,’” he said.

“I can say this proudly now: I love Ibaraki.”

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