Regional revitalization is one in a series of policies that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has touted as priorities for his administration. Alarmed by the nation’s declining population and exodus from rural areas to urban centers — plus a private-sector estimate that nearly half of the nation’s municipalities could disappear within a few decades — the Abe administration in 2014 introduced a law for revitalizing rural communities and creation of jobs in depopulated areas. It later adopted a comprehensive strategy for regional revitalization complete with specific goals and policy steps.
Although the policy features laudable goals, it’s questionable whether the strategy is bearing fruit. These days, Abe himself doesn’t talk much about the agenda. Voters should follow developments in this issue as a gauge to see how serious the administration is about new policy initiatives that it continues to launch one after another.
According to government statistics, the Japanese population has suffered a decline eight straight years, with the number at 125.58 million as of January, a drop of more than 300,000 from a year earlier. Of the 47 prefectures, 41 experienced year-on-year decreases, with only Tokyo and five others posting an increase. In recent years, Japan has lost roughly 300,000 people annually on a net basis. The pace of decline is estimated to accelerate in the years ahead.
Currently, the number of people moving into the greater Tokyo area, which includes Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, far surpasses those moving out. In a bid to reverse the concentration of population in the Tokyo metropolitan area and rural depopulation, the Abe administration set a goal of balancing the population flow by 2020. However, trends show that the target is out of reach. The greater Tokyo area has seen a net population inflow for 21 years in a row. The net inflow has in fact accelerated — from roughly 100,000 in 2013 to nearly 120,000 last year.
One of the measures that the administration has introduced to reverse the trend and create jobs outside the capital area offers tax incentives for companies that move their headquarters out of Tokyo’s 23 wards. But as of the end of August, only 17 businesses have applied. Businesses that move into Tokyo have outnumbered those moving out in recent years.
The administration’s efforts to move national government functions out of Tokyo — to set an example for the private sectors — have made scant progress. The only exceptions have been the decision to move the Cultural Affairs Agency — with more than 250 officials, or roughly 70 percent of its staff — to Kyoto by fiscal 2021, and the transfer of a section of the Consumer Affairs Agency, with some 50 workers, to Tokushima in July. A decision on whether to move the latter agency as a whole to Tokushima is to be made in about three years.
Accepting a proposal by the National Governors’ Association, the education ministry said in July it will not approve of an increase in the enrollment capacity of private universities and junior colleges in central Tokyo for fiscal 2018 as well as creation of new institutions in the area in 2019. But the policy — billed as a tentative measure to regulate the inflow of more young people into the capital to attend school — has met with strong opposition. Public comments on the policy charged that such a measure could restrict opportunities for youths in rural areas to study in Tokyo and that capping the enrollment capacity hampers the development of institutions of higher education. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who heads the upstart Kibo no To (Party of Hope), has joined the chorus of opposition by saying the policy ignores the key question of how to beef up higher education to increase Japan’s international competitiveness.
The Abe administration’s regional revitalization strategy ostensibly includes a mechanism to give full play to local initiatives. The national government will provide grants to local governments that work out feasible revitalization plans to cope with such issues as supporting child-rearing and helping people who want to resettle in rural areas. It has already earmarked ¥560 billion in such grants. However, the scheme is said to be unpopular with local governments because their plans must conform to rules set down by the state and must undergo strict examination.
The demographic challenges confronting the nation are indeed enormous, but the regional revitalization policy of the Abe administration has so far done little to help the situation. It is time to open the matter to more broad-based and serious discussions involving the national and local governments, political parties, the business sector and the general public.