At a talk in Tokyo on Dec. 19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed to "Insta-bae," or "looking good on Instagram," as a key to regional revitalization -- but his comment has been met with widespread skepticism.
The prime minister spoke of "dormant gems existing all over Japan," and a desire to "increase scenery that looks good on Instagram." But can social networking services (SNS) such as Instagram really do that much for towns and villages across the country that are struggling to survive?
"Insta-bae" refers to day-to-day photos that are impressive when uploaded on Instagram. The phrase is so commonly used in Japanese society that it was chosen as the grand buzzword of 2017. However, given the concept's emphasis on surface beauty and flamboyance, some people have commented that "Insta-bae" also has some negative aspects.
During his talk, Abe referred to the Yuya district in Nagato, a city in his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, emphasizing that its "Insta-bae" scenery attracts "500,000 visitors a year to a town with just 20,000 people." He spoke about making revisions to the Act on Protection of Cultural Properties to spur tourism and revitalize towns, and hailed possible "tea ceremonies in pit dwellings" and "yoga sessions at archaeological 'power spots'" as major attractions.
However, not everyone is convinced.
"Does Abe have any idea about the value of cultural assets?" asks critic Eiko Oya. She compares Abe's attitude to that of the former regional revitalization minister Kozo Yamamoto, who controversially said in April that curators are "a cancer" with no mind for promoting tourism and that they should be banished. Oya adds, "The 'Insta-bae' concept is OK, but is it really something the prime minister of a country should be singing and dancing about?"
Meanwhile, TV producer and personality Dave Spector states, "Regions across Japan are making perfectly good use of SNS without having to be told. But users have high standards, and it doesn't always go smoothly," he says. "More importantly, Abe has only posted one photo onto Instagram since kicking off his account. He should practice what he preaches, before telling others what to do." Spector further points out, "Scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as a 'power spot.'"
Abe's emphasis on superficial beauty had existed long before the concept of "Insta-bae" came along. In his book, "Atarshii kuni e" (Toward a new nation), published in 2013, Abe refers to natural scenery in the city of Nagato, such as the Torii gates of a Shinto shrine that reach the sea and the resplendent rice terraces, writing, "Whenever the terraces are filled with water, the moonlight and fires lit far away to lure fish at night can be seen reflected in all the individual terraces. It is a breathtaking sight."
However, a Nagato municipal assembly member who expresses pride in the fact that the local landscape has been described in the prime minister's book also points out, "Abe might have his constituency here -- but he was born and raised in Tokyo. Does he have any idea how difficult it is to maintain those terraces? He looks at this area like a tourist."
The assembly member adds, "Agricultural land here is becoming increasingly derelict due to the aging of workers. I want Abe not just to look at the surface beauty, but also to know the realities of the area, including the negative aspects."
Meanwhile, the lamentations of an 82-year-old local resident who works on one of the terraces praised by Abe do not sound like anything that "Insta-bae" could overcome. "There's nobody around here to keep the terraces going. They simply won't last."