Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that regional revitalization, which he put on his administration’s agenda five years ago, will continue to be the top priority policy challenge. Still, the government’s regional revitalization initiative — aimed at reversing the population flight to Tokyo and depopulation in many other parts of the country — is deemed to have achieved little over the past five years. Most of the policy targets set in the initiatives remain out of reach, and the government has given up on its goal of balancing the population flow into and out of the greater Tokyo area by 2020 as the net inflow into the area accelerates instead of slowing down.

Reversing this demographic trend will require a steady long-term policy endeavor. Quick results may be hard to achieve and persistent policy efforts will be crucial. But they must build on an assessment as to whether the steps being taken are addressing the right problems and how effective they are in changing the trend. To continue the agenda, the government needs to examine why the measures taken so far have had poor outcomes.

Regional revitalization was placed high on the agenda of the administration five years ago amid growing fears that, together with the rapid aging and decline of Japan’s population, the unabated concentration of people and resources in the capital area would cause the nation’s other regions to fall behind and even leave the very survival of depopulated municipalities in doubt in the not-so-distant future. The government sought to halt the population flight to Tokyo by creating jobs in other parts of the country.

Following the first-phase efforts from fiscal 2015 to 2019, the government says it will beef up the measures in the next five years from 2020 to fight the concentration in Tokyo. It is now also calling for increasing the number of people who live in urban districts but interact with rural areas in ways such as taking second jobs in those areas. While the government appears to see such people as potential future migrants to rural areas, the near-term effect of such a program may be in question.

In the first five years of its efforts, the government sought to reduce to zero the net annual inflow of people to the greater Tokyo area (also comprising Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures) by 2020. In fact, the net population inflow to the capital area accelerated to reach nearly 140,000 in 2018, compared with some 100,000 in 2013. Last year, about 490,000 people — equivalent to the population of prefectural capitals such as Kanazawa and Oita — resettled in greater Tokyo from other parts of the country, as opposed to some 350,000 who moved out of the capital area. About half of the net inflow to greater Tokyo are young people who moved into the area to enter universities or begin jobs. To reverse the population flight it is essential to increase employment opportunities in other parts of the country for youths who otherwise may move to the capital.

Since 2015, the government’s scheme aimed at encouraging companies to move their operations out of Tokyo offered tax incentives to those that either shifted their core functions such as business planning away from central Tokyo or expanded the operations of their headquarters already located in other parts of the country. The policy carried a target of 7,500 firms using the tax incentives to increase their operations outside of central Tokyo and create 40,000 new jobs by 2020.

As of April, however, the tax incentive was used in only 320 cases (including in the planned expansion of the firms’ operations) and is expected to generate some 14,000 jobs. With the economic recovery in recent years, greater numbers of firms moved their key operations to Tokyo and the inflow of people to the capital area accelerated in pursuit of jobs offered by major companies as they made record profits. Women are said to outnumber men in the net population inflow to greater Tokyo — an indication of the abundant offers of higher paying service sector jobs in the metropolitan area that are popular among female workers.

Another key measure that was hoped to help reverse the movement of people into the capital area was the relocation of national government functions out of Tokyo. But little has been achieved on this front except for the plan to move the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto by 2021 and to “upgrade” the Cultural Affairs Agency’s ad hoc facility in Tokushima Prefecture into a permanent office next year. While the concentration of government organizations in Tokyo is also deemed a risk in terms of sustaining the government’s functions in the event the capital is hit by a big disaster such as a mega-quake, resistance is said to remain strong among the central bureaucracy to being relocated to other parts of the country.

Efforts toward regional revitalization should be continued. But it must be reexamined whether the steps being taken are effective in advancing this goal.

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