New basic principles in the central government's policy aimed at revitalizing local economies have given the public the impression that the government has backed down from its goal of rectifying the lopsided concentration of the population in Japan's capital.
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked on the revitalization of local economies under a five-year plan that began in fiscal 2015. The government has spent over 800 billion yen in taxpayers' money to subsidize projects implemented by local bodies to vitalize their local economies.
However, these efforts have not produced tangible results. In particular, the government has failed to achieve its goal of striking a balance between population inflows and outflows in the Tokyo metropolitan area and regional areas across the country, which it hoped to accomplish by 2020. People who moved into Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures outnumbered those who moved out of the metropolitan area by some 140,000 in 2018, demonstrating that the population concentration in Tokyo is progressing.
The government will extend the period for implementing its policy of revitalizing local economies by five years after fiscal 2020. The new basic principles will serve as guidelines for measures to be implemented under the policy over the ensuing five years. Nevertheless, they do not specify the target year for achieving a balance between population influxes and outflows even though they state that the government will work toward that goal.
The new principles state that Japan should attach more importance to urban dwellers' interaction with people in regional areas on weekends and other occasions without moving into such areas. It is a good idea, but it appears that the government has only made the proposal because of a lack of progress in rectifying the population concentration in Tokyo.
First and foremost, the government should examine the efficacy of the policy measures it has implemented so far to rectify the population concentration. These include efforts to look for potential tourism resources, which have helped increase the number of inbound tourists, but questions remain as to how far such efforts have contributed to maintaining balanced populations.
The government attributes the influx of people into the Tokyo metropolitan area largely to the movement of younger women from key regional cities, such as the central Japan city of Nagoya and Sendai in northeastern Japan.
Since the environment for childrearing in Tokyo is tough, the concentration of women in the capital has caused the nationwide birth rate to decline.
Critics have pointed out that there are not enough regular jobs for women in regional areas. Therefore, the government needs to rework its strategy to help balance populations.
What must be kept in mind is that local governments also need to respond to the ongoing population decline. It is becoming increasingly difficult for local bodies in depopulated areas to run waterworks on their own. The operation of elementary schools is similarly getting more and more difficult. Officials urgently need to work out measures to help such local governments to downscale and streamline local communities amid a spike in the number of vacant lots and houses.
It is essential to implement measures to slow down population declines in regional areas as much as possible. At the same time, the central and local governments must squarely face the fact that the population fall is inevitable.