Regional revitalization project enters final half

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Odagiri, left, and Kajiyama

The Yomiuri ShimbunAiming to establish a flow of young people into regional areas across the country, the government’s regional revitalization plan, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has again positioned as the cornerstone of domestic affairs in the current Diet session, is entering its second phase.

With the fiscal 2020 target approaching, several performance indicators have been set, including balancing the numbers of people moving in and out of rural areas and the Tokyo metropolitan area. The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed two experts for their assessments of the current situation and issues to be addressed.

(From the Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 26, 2018)

Foster human resources in regions

Hiroshi Kajiyama

Regional Revitalization Minister

The government launched a regional revitalization plan in 2015 as a sustained measure to maintain the vitality of the nation and the population at around 100 million through 2060.

Based on the comprehensive strategies devised by 47 prefectural governments and 1,718 municipalities, the state government has supported efforts toward regional recovery.

Some municipalities had sensed the impending population crisis and started managing falling numbers prior to the central government’s plan. Such municipalities had eagerly awaited the assistance and are now making use of the state support measures.

My hometown of Hitachiota in Ibaraki Prefecture has boosted the number of households with children by launching a series of policies such as offering newlyweds rent subsidies and expanding hours at day care centers to include early mornings and Saturdays.

With this fiscal year marking the mid-point of the government’s five-year plan, we reviewed various policies. Certain results were achieved over the past two years, such as the creation of secure jobs in regional areas and an increase in the rate of mothers who continue to work before and after giving birth to their first child, a precondition to satisfying the younger generation’s hopes of marriage and starting families.

On the other hand, we haven’t yet achieved “a flow of new people into regional areas,” which is vital to rectifying the problem of Tokyo’s densely concentrated population.

According to statistics on domestic population migration based on resident registrations, Tokyo area’s population increased by 120,000 new residents in 2016, up 20,000 from 2013 with 100,000. Most of them were young people aged from 15 to 29. The challenge over the next two years until fiscal 2020 will be how to create a movement of people from big cities to regional areas in parallel with key life milestones.

In fiscal 2018, we will see the promotion of regional universities — which play a role to create industries and foster human resources active in regional areas — and a radical increase of regional migration (see below) through “U-turns” and “I-turns.”

To offer urban residents an opportunity to play active roles in regional areas, prefectural governments established human resource centers to help match professionals with positions in local companies. Efforts must also be stepped up to provide such information as cost-of-living comparisons between Tokyo and other areas, and to convey the differences in the quality of life in regional areas.

To achieve these goals, we need more success stories about regional revitalization within local areas.

About a quarter of municipalities are yet to apply for grants to promote regional revitalization. There are differences in enthusiasm among municipalities, and the central government must offer solid support.

It is extremely challenging to balance the movement of people in and out of Tokyo and regional areas, but it must be balanced eventually.

That’s because it’s impossible to support the “roof,” or Japan, with only Tokyo as its sole “pillar.” We must build pillars of regions — whether they are short or narrow — to bolster the weight of the roof, or the Japanese economy. Otherwise, Japan will end up being lopsided.

Regional revitalization is one of the most crucial tasks under the Abe administration. There is a misconception that things are moving backwards, but this is not true.

Many of the government’s policies are linked to regional revitalization, including Abe’s goals to promote dynamic engagement of all citizens and work style reform. If workers can have more spare time through labor reform, they’ll have more time to look after their children and become involved in their local communities.

It is impossible to solve every issue in five years. Regional revitalization is a long-term policy progressing toward 2060. The biggest goal of the five-year plan, I believe, is to make residents aware of the necessity of regional revitalization and help regional municipalities be ready to face continuous population decline.

■Regional migration

Three categorizations are typically used to describe regional migration. “U-turn” includes those returning to their hometowns; “I-turn” includes those moving from their rural hometowns to another rural area; and “J-turn” includes those who have moved from their rural hometowns to a big city and later returned to a place near their hometowns. The central government uses the annual number of people that public institutions help with their regional relocations as a performance indicator, hoping to meet 11,000 cases in fiscal 2020. But the achievement rate in fiscal 2016 was 62 percent with 6,800 cases.

■Hiroshi Kajiyama

Regional Revitalization Minister

Born in Ibaraki Prefecture, Kajiyama worked as an assistant to his father, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, and has experience in business. Now 62, he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 and became regional revitalization minister in August 2017.

Urbanites seek change of lifestyle

Tokumi Odagiri

Meiji University prof.

It’s necessary to increase the number of people moving to regional areas to reduce the population concentration in Tokyo. Some regions have experienced an ongoing trend of increasing numbers of new residents moving to the area. In the future, these regions are likely to quantitatively help counter the densely concentrated population in the metropolitan area.

Results from somewhat outdated surveys show that the number of people moving into regional areas nationwide has increased from 2,864 in fiscal 2009 to 11,735 in 2014, a four-fold increase. Even in the past few years, prefectures like Okayama and Tottori have seen steady increases.

The Chiiki Okoshi Kyoryoku Tai cooperative group, which helps residents in rural areas develop their communities over three-year periods, has contributed to such increases. The group was launched in fiscal 2009 before the central government started its regional revitalization drive. What was initially 89 people in 31 municipalities increased to 3,978 people in 886 municipalities by fiscal 2016.

About 60 percent of the group’s members ended up settling in the region they supported even after their three-year terms. The scheme drastically lowers the hurdle for people moving into rural areas.

In Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, a married couple took over a local tofu manufacturing business after their term and is now producing sweets made from tofu.

Jobs are necessary to attract young people. Starting up businesses can be an option, but there’s also a trend in which new arrivals take over local businesses suffering from a shortage of successors.

A trend of urbanites settling in rural areas has gathered pace since the 2000s. This is believed to stem from increasing desires for a change in lifestyle, as urban residents become tired of the sometimes superficial relationships established in cities and seek active social engagement that is often associated with rural communities.

In depopulated areas, population decline has been progressing for the past 50 years. Even so, people there have not given up, making continuous efforts toward regional construction. Areas that saw an increase in the number of new arrivals can be said to have benefited from the efforts of residents actively working on strengthening their communities, combined with the growing trend of young people settling in the countryside.

A present problem is the widening gap between local communities that have benefited from such a trend and those that have missed out. The central government has a responsibility to manage this issue.

The so-called Masuda Report (see below), a starting point [of the regional revitalization drive], presented the shocking prediction that “896 municipalities may disappear by 2040.” As a result of this report, some rural communities held a feeling of resignation, believing that nothing could be done, and became dependent on support from local administrations.

To increase the number of people moving from the Tokyo metropolitan area in coming years, it’s necessary to pay attention to the demographic of residents with connections to rural areas. This demographic includes people who visit a specific region regularly, show an interest in an area or actively support it. The populations comprised of this demographic exist somewhere between “nonresident populations,” which include tourists and visitors, and “resident populations” of long-term dwellers.

Moving to a completely new place is challenging, but urban residents can start by cooperating with regional revitalization in accordance with the depth of their involvement in a rural area, and such steps may eventually lead to them settling there.

Regional revitalization is indispensable if regional migration is to be promoted. Residents in rural areas need to become aware of the tasks at hand and make efforts toward addressing them. Municipalities, meanwhile, must encourage their residents to have a sense of being central players in the revitalization drive.

This takes time, but it’s not too late. The government should not be bound by the temporal goal of 2020. With its project almost half complete, the government must ensure efforts are tailored to suit situations specific to each region.

■Masuda Report

A demographic forecast published independently in May 2014 by the Japan Policy Council, which is composed of private experts and chaired by former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda. The report estimates that the number of women aged from 20 to 39 will drop by more than 50 percent in approximately half of the municipalities nationwide in 2040, and warns that population decline will accelerate, making it difficult to maintain education, welfare and other administrative services. The report motivated the government to launch its regional revitalization plan.

■Tokumi Odagiri

Meiji University prof.

Odagiri, 58, is a member of the National Land Council and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s council on depopulation. He is the author of “Nosanson wa Shometsu Shinai” (Farming and mountain villages will not disappear) and coeditor of “Sekai no Denen Kaiki” (Return to rural life in the world).

(These interviews were conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Fumihiko Abe.)Speech

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