A steep decline in gas stations across the nation has left large numbers of municipalities with few or no such facilities, creating a situation where local residents may find it exceedingly difficult to fill up their vehicles, farming machines or heating units. The depletion of such basic services could further erode the foundations of rural depopulated communities and, if left unattended, exacerbate the various woes already experienced by these areas. The government and municipalities should work together with local businesses as well as community residents to devise an organized response to the problem.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the number of gas stations nationwide has been declining since hitting a peak of 60,421 in fiscal 1994. At the end of last March, the number had fallen to 31,467, or nearly half the peak of 22 years earlier. Behind the fall is the worsening business environment and tightening competition among gas station operators.
Demand for motor vehicles is declining as Japan’s population rapidly ages and shrinks, and today’s dwindling ranks of young people show less interest in driving than previous generations. On top of this, the rise of fuel-efficient cars and an increase in the use of electric vehicles have likewise reduced demand for gasoline, the sales of which has been falling since its peak in 2011, sinking to 53 million kiloliters in 2016, a decline of 7.5 percent over four years.
As of the end of March, there were 302 cities, towns and villages nationwide that had three or less gas stations. The number of such municipalities — about 18 percent of the total 1,718 municipalities across the country — increased by 14 from the preceding year. Among them were 75 municipalities that had only one gas station each. Twelve towns and villages have no gas stations.
There are a variety of reasons that gas station operators give up. Many owners are aging — about 40 percent of those operating in municipalities with three or fewer stations are reportedly 60 or older — and have trouble finding successors in their family-run business. In addition, a 2011 amendment to the Fire Service Act required operators of gas stations to renovate underground fuel tanks in use for 40 years or longer by February 2013, and the huge cost of such improvements led many operators to shutter their businesses instead. According to a METI survey, operators of about 30 percent of some 1,400 gas stations in the nation’s depopulated areas are either contemplating shutting down their business or have little prospect for continuing their operations.
In addition to serving the daily needs of local communities, gas stations can operate as fuel-supply hubs for residents in the event power and gas supplies are crippled in major disasters such as earthquakes, as well as for emergency vehicles and rescue workers. When the Kumamoto earthquakes struck in April 2016, oil wholesalers prioritized sales to government-designated gas stations in the region, which serviced police and fire-fighting vehicles, and supplied fuel to evacuation shelters, hospitals and power supply vehicles. The ability of gas stations to fulfill such emergency functions will decline as their numbers drop.
METI reportedly plans to compile a guideline by the end of March to help sustain the operation of gas stations in rural depopulated areas. By highlighting examples of gas stations that have successfully diversified their business and streamlined their operations, the ministry hopes to establish a model for survival for struggling operators. In prefectures such as Hokkaido, Wakayama and Kagoshima, some municipal governments have taken over the operations of gas stations in view of the functions of these facilities as basic community infrastructure.
It will also be important to involve local interested parties, including residents and businesses, as well as gas station operators and oil wholesalers, in the efforts to address the problem of gas stations disappearing from rural municipalities. One idea may be to rebuild the gas stations in such areas as bases that provide wider services for local residents, such as venues for daily communication among elderly members of the community as well as providing shopping services for residents in remote areas who lack the means of transportation to go shopping in town. Getting gas station operators to play more diverse roles to serve local needs would both contribute to revitalizing communities and help ensure the sustainability of the gas stations themselves.