Escape from Tokyo: State pay out to leave the city.

It should come as an interesting development, to those who read my previous article on Mie, and the effects of urbanisation on rural Japan, that the Japanese government has hinted at plans to subsidise migration and repatriation to the more remote prefectures.

It has been suggested that a payment of 3 million Yen could be made to individuals prepared to relocate outside of Tokyo’s 23 wards, for the ostensible purpose of starting business operations or taking up employment. Though this policy is in its infancy, it does represent possibly the first attempt by a developed nation to address the issue of urbanisation in such a way. Undoubtably the phenomenon is accelerated in Japan, to the degree where such an initiative is required, though the impact this could have for future policy making around the world is considerable.

Since the 2014 report, published by Hiroya Masuda, highlighted the sheer scale of urbanisation and depopulation in Japan, the ruling LDP has committed itself towards addressing the issue. The growing overpopulation of Tokyo has also put a tremendous strain on the city’s resources and infrastructure, making a solution all the more important.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set the target of rebalancing internal migration by 2020, with this policy almost certainly being a major step towards doing so. Nevertheless, laudable though this is in its premise, one is inclined to question its potential for success. And there are number of reasons to be sceptical of this.

Though some effort was initially made, through the introduction of a ‘Regional Revitalisation Minister’ for example, the government’s 5-year plan is now reaching its end, and has yielded little in the way of tangible results. In fact, Abe has been increasingly criticised for ignoring the issue altogether. The start date for the ‘get out of Tokyo’ initiative is slated for some time 2019, leaving only a small window for success—typically these experiments take years to analyse in terms of merit and success. As things stand today, the target deadline of 2020 looks increasingly unlikely.

The policy itself has also come under scrutiny from both the public and private sector. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike remains unconvinced over the potential for such payments to make a difference.  Indeed, currently there are no stipulations as to how far one needs actually to relocate from Tokyo in order to qualify for the subsidy. Furthermore, it seems to me that without some equal effort to address the reasons why people leave their hometowns in the first place, these payments (however generous) seem unlikely to have the desired effect.

It is worth noting, however, that there does seem to be some enthusiasm for such a payment, as well as an apparent growing desire among Tokyoites to at least consider the prospect of country life—according to the MLIT, 23% of those polled were receptive to the idea of leaving the city. Many of those polled seem to be migrants to Tokyo, rather than native citizens, pining for a quieter life. In any case, caution is always advised when using polls to interpret future behaviour.

Ichiro Asahina, CEO of the Aoyama Shachu think tank, believes that the best means of regional revitalisation is to attract talented leaders to local government and business. Through fresh ideas and innovative thinking, alongside further decentralisation, the tide of stagnation may be turned. There may well be some truth to this, after all, revitalisation efforts seem to have largely failed in the past due to outdated methods, and a money hose with no direction.

There are in fact many initiatives at both the central and local level, with the purpose of tackling the depopulation and overcrowding; though this payment can be seen as an attempt to speed up, or kick start the cycle of migration and reinvestment I mentioned in my previous piece, in a particularly ‘hands on’ manner. It certainly represents a break from traditional thinking on the subject (as evidenced by the ripples it has sent through the national and international press) though it also presents a long, costly affair, with no guarantee of success at the end of it; does the state have the ability to implement it properly, or the will to see it through to the end? Only time will tell, though,  at any rate, it seems best served as part of a broad package of reforms and initiatives, promoting growth at the local level, and achieving sustainable flows of internal migration.

It has been said before, that if one should desire to see the future of western society, then they ought to look to Japan, where the unintentional outcomes (low birth rate, overcrowding, depopulation) of capitalist development have been significantly accelerated. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, though I personally find it a somewhat simplistic assumption. Nevertheless, the rest of the world will certainly be paying close attention to the outcome of this initiative.

By Benjamin Elstobb

 

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