The regional revitalization initiative launched by the Abe administration five years ago has sought to reverse the concentration of the nation’s population in the greater Tokyo area and reinvigorate the economies in rural parts of the country facing long-term depopulation. The ruling as well as most of the opposition parties have included measures to boost regional economies in their campaign promises for the July 21 Upper House election — which testifies to the continuing plight of many parts of the country that suffer from population drain and the decline of key local industries.

The latest demographic data from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry indicate that as far as the figures show, the government’s regional revitalization programs have not borne much fruit. As the Japanese population as of Jan. 1 was a record 430,000 smaller than a year earlier — the 10th annual decline in a row — only the five prefectures of Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Okinawa saw a population rise, with the number of Japanese in each of the other 42 prefectures falling.

The government’s initiative set a target of balancing out the inflow and outflow of people for the greater Tokyo area (also comprising the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa) by 2020. Measures spelled out to reverse the flow into the Tokyo metropolitan area included relocating central government functions out of Tokyo, revamping universities outside of the capital area, government grants aimed at promoting local industries in rural areas and attracting more businesses there, and tax incentives for companies that move their headquarters functions out of central Tokyo.

Despite these measures, however, the concentration of population and resources in the capital area has in fact accelerated. In 2018, the net inflow of people into the greater Tokyo area hit nearly 140,000, an increase of some 14,000 from the previous year, with young people and women accounting for the bulk of the growth. Last month, the government adopted an outline of regional revitalization measures to be taken in the next five years, but the target of eliminating the net inflow to Tokyo by 2020 is no longer on the agenda.

The extended boom cycle of the economy and the brisk earnings of big companies have brought more people into the Tokyo metropolitan area, which offers a greater choice of well-paying jobs than the rest of the country. The trend is likely to continue for some time. The number of firms that used the tax incentives to move their headquarters out of Tokyo has remained small. The relocation of central government functions outside of Tokyo, which was hoped to set the example for private sector companies to follow, has had disappointing results. No major government institutions are moving out of the capital except for the planned transfer of the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto. The rest of the central bureaucracy remains reluctant to be transferred out of Tokyo, where they conduct the lion’s share of their operations.

What was conspicuous in the latest demographic data was the population decline in the nation’s two other big metropolitan areas — the Nagoya area (comprising Aichi, Gifu and Mie prefectures) and Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Nara). The 0.06 percent fall in Aichi marked the first time on record that the prefecture — home to Toyota Motor Corp., the nation’s leading manufacturing firm — has suffered a year-on-year population decline. The population of Japanese in the three big metropolitan areas combined also declined for the first time, despite an increase of some 80,000 in the greater Tokyo area. The demographic pattern of people concentrating in the Tokyo area amid the decline in the national population continues.

To halt the movement to Tokyo and bring in new settlers, more jobs need to be created in the regional areas and new money-making industries established to close the income gap with urban areas, leading to a virtuous cycle of increased tax revenue enabling rural municipalities to revamp administrative services and help bring in more residents. In fact, the demographic data show that a total of 176 cities, towns and villages — or about 10 percent of all municipalities across the country — have managed to increase their population of Japanese for three years in a row. The internal affairs ministry cited the examples of some municipalities that managed to increase their population through such steps as free medical services, increased availability of day care for children, and inviting businesses to set up local operations. The national government should be assisting the municipalities with such initiatives by decentralizing administrative powers and financial resources.

The government needs to review its regional revitalization efforts over the past five years to see if it’s taking the right steps to achieve the intended goal. All of the parties in the campaign should also explore what effective measures can be taken to reverse the accelerating population concentration in Tokyo.

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