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Editorial: Japan should squarely face reality of population decline

Japan's population decline is accelerating. The number of babies born in 2019 was fewer than expected, falling below 900,000 for the first time. This situation has raised questions as to how regional communities can be sustained.

Efforts by the Hippo neighborhood in a mountainous area of the Miyagi Prefecture town of Marumori to respond to a natural disaster last year have drawn attention from the public. The neighborhood, which has a population of only about 540, over half of whom are elderly people, is a typical marginal neighborhood that is on the verge of disappearing altogether.

The neighborhood was temporarily isolated from the rest of the town after the northeastern Japan town of Marumori was hit by record-breaking torrential rain brought by Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019, which left 10 residents dead, and traffic was cut off. However, the neighborhood association functioned properly and successfully dealt with the situation.

Local residents visited each and every single household in their respective blocks and gathered information on residents' health conditions and relief supplies they needed among other things. The association then gathered the information to respond to the disaster. By utilizing the information, local residents helped each other in providing necessary supplies. The association even used heavy machinery to reopen a road that had been blocked due to the disaster.

The municipal government of Marumori, whose population has kept declining, has been promoting self-autonomy by residents. Municipal government officials assigned to the Hippo district withdrew from the neighborhood 10 years ago, and their functions were taken over by the neighborhood association. The organization not only handles over-the-counter services for the municipal government but also runs a supermarket and gas station to fill local residents' basic demands.

"Mutual trust between residents was effective in responding to the disaster," recalls Takeshi Yoshizawa, 43, secretary-general of the neighborhood association.

The public has been aware of the seriousness of the ongoing population decline in regional Japan since a group led by former Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda warned six years before that nearly half of Japan's municipalities were at risk of disappearing.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has named regional revitalization as a key policy issue and extended financial support for local bodies' efforts to increase their populations under a five-year plan that began in 2015. The Abe government has attached importance to local governments that can earn money and placed emphasis on developing tourist attractions that can draw inbound tourists.

However, this policy measure failed to put the brakes on the population concentration in Tokyo. The government has set a numerical target in its regional revitalization policy with the aim of balancing population influxes and outflows to and from the Tokyo area and other regions. Yet the population influx into the capital area has been accelerating over the past several years.

The brakes cannot be put on the trends of mainly younger women moving into the Tokyo metropolitan area from key regional cities such as the northeastern Japan city of Sendai. This shows that the government failed to sufficiently analyze the structure that causes the population concentration in Tokyo in implementing the regional revitalization policy.

What is more problematic is that both the national and local governments have turned their eyes away from the fact that population decline is unavoidable and failed to consider effective countermeasures against the situation.

The regional revitalization policy is an attempt to slow down the population decline.

Japan's population decreased by approximately 510,000 throughout 2019 due to natural attrition. The figure is close to the population of the western Japan prefecture of Tottori, which stands at 560,000. It is unlikely that the government will achieve its goal of maintaining Japan's population at over 100 million, which the government aims for on the assumption that Japan's birth rate will be raised to 1.8. The population decline would further speed up if the number of newborn babies were to keep decreasing at a faster pace than predicted, just as was the case with 2019.

If so, there are fears that many municipal governments would not be able to maintain elementary schools and waterworks projects, which are their basic functions, on their own. The number of local government employees will decrease, forcing many local bodies to close their branch offices like the one in Hippo.

There is no time to lose. Municipal governments should join hands with neighboring local bodies to assist each other with education, medical care and other services.

Aging infrastructure that was built during the rapid economic growth period from the mid-1950s to early 1970s needs to be either scrapped or rebuilt. In parallel with choosing which infrastructure should be rebuilt and retained and which should be pulled down, it is essential to redesign urban areas and regional communities.

Some local bodies have launched various projects in efforts to maintain their local communities.

The municipal government of Shimokawa in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido is working to effectively utilize resources from forests, which account for approximately 90% of the town's total land area. Specifically, the town is promoting a biomass power generation project, in which waste wood is fully used, as well as other projects to create jobs and support local residents' childrearing. In recent years, the town's population influx has been above its outflow.

A growing number of local bodies are encouraging single-mother households, many of which tend to be in need, to move into their areas by covering their moving expenses and securing jobs for them. The town of Kamikawa in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo has successfully solicited 33 people in 11 such households to move into the town through such efforts.

Yoshizawa of the Hippo neighborhood association says the organization prioritizes measures essential for residents' livelihoods rather than doing anything special.

It is necessary for the national and local governments to squarely face the reality of the ongoing population decline without fear, support local residents' livelihoods and address challenges with the participation of local residents. The example of the Hippo neighborhood, in which local residents united to overcome their crisis, will certainly provide other local bodies as well as the general public with clues on how to sustain local autonomy.

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