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What’s needed for regional revitalization

by Ichiro Asahina

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will hold its presidential election next month. Under Japan’s parliamentary Cabinet system, the head of the LDP — which now has a majority of seats in both chambers of the Diet — is assured of being elected prime minister. In the upcoming race, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the current LDP president, is favored to win a landslide victory over Shigeru Ishiba, a former state minister for regional revitalization who will probably be the only candidate challenging Abe.

A landslide win is forecast for Abe because almost all of the LDP’s major factions have expressed support for his re-election to a third term. More than 320 (approximately 80 percent) of the LDP’s 405 Diet members have reportedly decided to vote for Abe, while Ishiba has so far secured only 40 to 50 votes, or a mere 10 percent of the total.

That said, Ishiba still has a slight chance to become the next LDP chief and prime minister. If he wins overwhelming support among local members of the LDP, he might eliminate Abe’s lead. This time, the number of votes allocated to the party’s local members has been bumped up from 300 to 405 — equal to the allocation for Diet members. In a runoff to be held in the event that no candidate gets a majority vote in the first stage, 47 local votes (the number of prefectures in Japan) will be counted in addition to the 405 votes by the Diet members.

In the last LDP presidential race held in 2012 (no election was held in 2015 when nobody emerged to challenge Abe), Ishiba outperformed Abe in the first stage thanks to the many local votes he won, but he finally lost to Abe in a runoff in which local votes were not taken into account under the party’s rules at that time.

Why is Ishiba deemed more popular than Abe among the LDP’s local members? It is said that he often visits rural areas of the country because he admires the late Kakuei Tanaka, who is still remembered as one of the most popular prime ministers. Ishiba occasionally quotes Tanaka’s remark: “We can never get more ballots than the number of people we actually shake hands with.”

Some might say that since local LDP supporters are making much of next year’s Upper House election, they need a new face to lead the party in the election. People at large seem to be getting fed up with Abe, whose approval ratings in recent media polls were lower than his disapproval ratings. Many point out that Ishiba was the first regional revitalization minister — a position newly launched in 2014. He kept that position for about two years and this seems to give him an advantage in rural areas. Many people probably do not even know who the regional revitalization minister is now, but Ishiba, as the first person to hold the position, was different.

These theories may sound plausible to some extent to explain Ishiba’s advantage over Abe among local LDP members. However, are they persuasive enough? I think Ishiba will not win even the local LDP vote. He would probably get at most 10 to 20 percent support among LDP members in rural areas because it’s obvious that he did not achieve any prominent results in regional revitalization while he was in charge.

We should not overlook the fact that Abe tapped Ishiba as regional revitalization minister in 2014 even though he initially wanted him to be a special minister for national security.

Municipalities at risk of disappearing due to depopulation suddenly emerged as a major issue after the publication of a May 2014 report by a think tank led by former Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda. According to the report, almost half the municipalities across Japan (896 out of around 1,800) are deemed to be at risk of disappearing because the number of women of optimal child-bearing age (in their 20s and 30s) in those municipalities was projected to fall by half by 2040.

With pressure building for the government to deal with the issue, Abe knew he could not ignore it. But he was also aware of the difficulties involved in tackling it, which I believe led him to assign Ishiba to be the minister in charge. Abe knew that Ishiba would be unable to produce sufficient results in a short time and also understood that public opinion would support his tapping of Ishiba for the task. In the end, Ishiba could not achieve any tangible results before leaving the post in 2016.

The revitalization of Japan’s rural areas is indeed one of the most difficult policy tasks facing the government. In recent decades, regional revitalization has been pursued with the primary goal of preventing or easing excessive concentration of the population in Tokyo.

The Tanaka administration’s “Reorganization of the Japanese Archipelago” project was followed by Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira’s “Garden City State” plan — both in the 1970s — then came Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s rural area revitalization project in the late 1980s.

One of the common features of these plans was to allocate sufficient money from the national government to rural areas, especially in the last version by Takeshita.

Since the 1990s, the national government has strongly pushed for the decentralization of administrative powers to local governments so they could deal with their problems themselves. Those efforts, however, were not effective enough and often done just halfway to reverse the rural areas’ decline.

The situation surrounding many of Japan’s rural areas has become even more severe now. Even Tokyo is not immune to the demographic challenges confronting the nation — with its population forecast to rapidly age and begin declining between 2020 and 2025.

As regional revitalization minister, Ishiba created a new system of grants from national to local governments, but that appeared just to follow past policies and outdated methods.

Aside from the typical policy of allocating more money to rural areas, Ishiba took some initiatives in measures to revive the rural areas. I took notice of three of them: 1) urging “active senior citizens” to relocate to rural areas to build new communities (Continuing Care Retirement Community); 2) establishing corporations in rural areas to promote and sell local goods and tourism (Destination Management Organization); and 3) building a new system for local government officials and citizens by using big data (Regional Economy Society Analyzing System). Unfortunately for Ishiba, it takes a long time for such policies to produce tangible effects.

In my opinion, what’s most needed for regional revitalization is to attract talented people to rural communities, especially those who can serve as leaders in the initial phase. A leader in this context is not someone who can effectively lead others, but somebody who can take the risk to introduce drastic action to change the present situation. People who can think on their own would be able to come up with a genuine local identity that would make residents proud of their hometown.

To attract potential leaders to rural areas, it will be essential for the next president of the ruling party to aggressively promote decentralization, in particular in transferring tax revenue sources to municipalities. “Local autonomy by local leaders” should be the key concept for the next state of regional revitalization.

Ichiro Asahina is the chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based think tank Aoyama Shachu Corp.