The risks posed by population overconcentration in big metropolitan areas in times of major disasters such as mega-earthquakes have long been highlighted. The COVID-19 crisis once again exposed the vulnerabilities of Tokyo, which accounted for one-third of Japan’s new coronavirus infections even though it is home to roughly one-tenth of the nation’s population. It’s time to get serious about reversing the population influx to Tokyo by taking the failure of the Abe administration’s “regional revitalization” policy into account.
As the nation’s population rapidly ages and shrinks, only seven of the 47 prefectures — notably the greater Tokyo area (also including the adjacent prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba) — saw a year-on-year population increase as of last October. In its bid to halt the population exodus from other parts of the country, the government sought to eliminate the net population inflow into greater Tokyo by 2020. Instead, the net inflow to the capital area has accelerated — reaching nearly 150,000 in 2019. Tokyo’s population kept increasing even during the COVID-19 crisis, topping 14 million at the beginning of May.
The people flowing into the Tokyo metropolitan area are drawn by its employment opportunities. A large number of them are youths who are entering universities or starting jobs. About half of Japan’s big companies are headquartered in the greater Tokyo area, which accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
That’s also the area where the COVID-19 state of emergency was first declared in early April — and where it was finally lifted in late May. Roughly half the new coronavirus infections in the country emerged in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. While social distancing is still necessary to guard against second-wave infections as economic activities are gradually normalized, it’s a tougher challenge in Japan’s crowded big urban areas, where heavily packed commuter trains are the norm — a situation that was only temporarily eased when people began working from home during the state of emergency.
It’s been long warned that an overconcentration of people, business and other resources in the Tokyo metropolitan area poses the grave risk of the nation’s economy becoming paralyzed if the capital area is devastated in a major disaster such as a much-feared mega-earthquake that directly hits Tokyo, which would result in huge casualties and economic damage. The concentration of much of the central government’s bureaucracy in the capital could cripple its ability to deal with such a disaster.
The key to reversing the population flight to Tokyo is creating more jobs in other parts of the country. But the government’s program to encourage Tokyo-based businesses to relocate outside of the capital through tax incentives has had few takers. In fact, a larger number of firms have instead moved to Tokyo, where business demand is higher and the labor pool is larger. The Abe administration’s bid to relocate some of the national government functions outside of Tokyo — also meant to set examples for the private sector to reverse the population flow — has made little headway, except for a planned move of the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto, due to resistance from the bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the nation’s demographic woes have raised doubts about the sustainability of municipal governments in rural depopulated regions. With the population and tax revenue falling, it is expected that many small towns and villages will be unable to continue administrative services for residents or maintain basic infrastructures in the not so distant future. Efforts to resolve the problem by creating regional networks of municipalities to provide administrative services have not made much progress. In many of these areas it is even becoming increasingly tough to sustain local assemblies — the foundation of local autonomy — in their current form.
The COVID-19 crisis should prompt renewed action to address the overconcentration of people and business in the Tokyo metropolitan area. People and businesses are attracted to Tokyo because it makes more economic sense. But the pandemic has shed light on the dangers of an excessive concentration of population in the capital area. The curbs on social and economic activities during the state of emergency also opened the possibilities of alternative ways of work, such as teleworking and online meetings, which allow people to do their jobs from anywhere. Providing support for these new ways of working is one of the things the government can do to reverse the trend.
The Japan Times Editorial Board