Commentary / Japan | Commentary

Making Tokyo more competitive

by Haruaki Deguchi

As the nation’s population rapidly ages with ever-fewer births, the decline of Japan’s outlying regions continues. The population exodus from rural regions to the Tokyo metropolitan area — mainly involving youths — remains unabated. It almost appears that the nation’s key public functions are being concentrated solely in Tokyo.

Under such circumstances, regional revitalization has been put on the nation’s key policy agenda to stop the concentration of population and resources in the capital. However, policy challenges confronting Tokyo itself are rarely discussed, as if they exist in a vacuum. This situation is hardly tenable when we consider the long-term interests of the nation.

Tokyo has three major problems that must be overcome.

First, there is concern that the nation’s capital is losing in the competition with other cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Japan is the only Asian member of the Group of Seven major advanced countries, and Tokyo is the most vibrant city in this country. The greater Tokyo area, which includes the capital’s neighboring prefectures, is the world’s largest metropolis with a population topping 40 million. Its mild climate makes Tokyo a far more comfortable place to live than Singapore or Hong Kong.

There seem to be no factors that put Tokyo at a disadvantage against these cities: not state power, population or natural conditions. Nevertheless, most global companies have their Asia headquarters in Singapore or Hong Kong, and only a few are based in Tokyo. Moreover, Singapore and Hong Kong are not Tokyo’s only rivals as Beijing and Shanghai are rapidly catching up. If Tokyo is losing out to these big cities in Asia, does Japan have a bright future?

Tokyo’s competitiveness will decrease even further unless drastic measures are taken to improve its infrastructure and satisfy the world’s business elites working in their companies’ global headquarters. Tokyo losing out in a global competition among big cities is equal to Japan itself losing out.

Examples include an offshore expansion of Haneda Airport, creating a 24-hour airport with double or triple the capacity of those in Singapore or Hong Kong, simplifying procedures for setting up businesses here (and allowing the whole procedure to be done in English), inviting highly competitive international schools from around the world, and improving housing services for international residents.

Second, the nation’s fertility rate — the root cause of the aging population with an ever-declining number of children — is 1.4 births per woman, considerably lower than the government’s target of 1.8. But the figure is even lower in Tokyo at 1.1. Some scholars argue that young people in Tokyo should be resettled in rural regions where the fertility rate is relatively higher because they think that the concentration of young people in Tokyo is pushing down the nation’s overall birthrate. But is that correct?

If the population keeps flowing into Tokyo because the nation’s key functions are concentrated in the capital, then that is a natural phenomenon driven by economic forces and it would be hard to artificially halt the trend. A better solution to the problem would be to take radical steps to boost the fertility rate in Tokyo.

To improve the fertility rate in the capital, there is a lot that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government alone can do. It can start by introducing a quota system in every possible area to eliminate gender disparity: the root cause of the sluggish birthrate. To change people’s mindsets, it should be thoroughly taught in schools that child-rearing, housework and nursing care are not a “woman’s job,” but something that must equally shared by both men and women and supported by society as a whole.

All the children of parents who wish to use day-care services should be accepted as a public duty, leaving no child on a waiting list. Employers would be prohibited from suspending the careers of women taking child-rearing leave or demoting them. Through these steps, Tokyo should aim to become easiest city in the world to have babies.

Third, Beijing is pushing a project to create a Chinese version of Silicon Valley in its Zhongguancun area. History shows that the quickest way to create an attractive city is to invite highly motivated youths from around the world who can generate new industries and cultures that will energize the city. Other major cities around the world — Istanbul, London, New York, etc. — are all making such efforts.

Fortunately, Tokyo has a fairly large-scale public institution: Tokyo Metropolitan University. The university can serve as the core institution of a project to build Tokyo’s own version of Silicon Valley. It can do this by holding its entrance exams in English, immediately starting the school year in the fall, and offering generous scholarship programs to attract excellent students from across the globe. Such an endeavor would quickly turn Tokyo into a more vibrant city.

As long as Japan’s biggest city remains hesitant, there’s no chance that the whole nation can regain its vitality. Improving Tokyo would never be in conflict with regional revitalization efforts. If Tokyo charges ahead, that would stimulate other regions to work out their own strategies so as not to lag behind.

Only when Tokyo and other regions of the country compete will the future of Japan become brighter. Tokyo should not worry that its own development efforts will impede regional revitalization. It needs to draw up a post-Olympic/Paralympic grand design for its future. What city will lead Japan if its capital won’t?

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.