Ten Years On
Volume 15, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 1 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 30 August 2015.
This paper explores the content of a recent series of editorials in Japanese newspapers, to evaluate the effectiveness of municipal mergers in the first decade of the 2000s. Despite the pre-merger promise of greater local autonomy and prosperity, the post-merger reality presents a complex and nuanced picture of the regions which experimented with municipal mergers. Ultimately, places with historical advantage retained their advantages, while those without faired less well.
Keywords: Heisei merger, gappei, municipal revitalisation.
I have in front of me three different newspaper rensai.1 These rensai are from the Tōōnippō newspaper of Aomori Prefecture.2 The content of these rensai speak clearly and powerfully to the circumstances of rural Japan in 2015 as they are playing out in Aomori. The titles of the three rensai are: “Heisei Mergers: 10 Years On” (Jū nen tatte: Heisei dai gappei-kennai); “Sound of Footsteps of a New Era: One year to the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen” (Shinjidai no ashioto: Hokkaido shinkansen kaigyō made ichi nen); and “Region’s Choice: Regional Vitalisation—My Viewpoint” (Chiiki no sentaku: chihō sōsei—watashi no shiten). The reasons for these rensai are clear: the outcomes, intended or not, from the Heisei mergers that took place from early 2000 to 2006 are becoming apparent, while at the same time a new Shinkansen rush is taking place amidst the recently prioritised policy aim of regional vitalisation.3 This discussion paper will present an overview of the contents of these rensai, after which the author will offer a local viewpoint analysis.
Heisei Mergers: 10 Years On
The Heisei Merger rensai began on 27 January 2015 with a two-page spread under two headlines: “With Shrinking Populations, the Future of the City…” and “Heisei Mergers at 10 Years: The Benefits Grow Hazy.”The content carried in this opening presentation alluded to the severe circumstances of municipal finances and the difficulties of maintaining public facilities, the reductions in the numbers of municipal employees and the progressing rationalisation of governance duties along with the shift of governance policies toward wider governing associations. A special column by the former head of the Prefectural Municipal Merger Promotion Council noted that the “reduction of annual expenditures is now a fixed result” of the mergers and that the “resolution to dissatisfaction with the mergers will come with improved infrastructure, allowing greater physical and digital access to the centre from the periphery.”
The first set of the rensai that followed this opening, columns two through five, ran until 1 February 2015 and were carried under the title “On the way to Town-making” (machi-zukuri tojō), and took up various issues of specific municipalities in the area. The first column looked at Hirakawa City, with the theme alluding to the widening gaps emerging even within in the city area as the city governance functions are brought together and centralised. The second column covered Hirosaki City, where the content revealed preparations to proceed with special loan activities, undertaken in an effort to balance development throughout the area and among various citizen groups. Third was Hachinohe City, for which the column title refers to “groping in trial and error” (mokusaku) to the future form of the area together with work to improve the latent potential of Hachinohe as a core municipality of the area. And finally, the last city featured in the first set was Tsugaru City, where decreases in rice prices along with decreases in revenues are bringing increasing worry to city officials on the one hand, but which has spurred the city to seek a local “agricultural products brand” to be used in national and international markets on the other.
The second set of columns (24 February 2015 to 28 February 2015) featured a more diverse set of examples, but with similar concerns. The first column took up Shingo Village, where local resident’s groups have taken up responsibility for securing the “peace of mind” of some aged residents as the municipality’s capability to respond to needs has decreased. The second column focused on Aomori’s “Nuclear Power Peninsula,” the Shimokita Peninsula, where the nuclear power and reprocessing facilities are located. The content here also refers to groping through trial and error, in this case as regional associations struggle to respond to the area being “tossed around” by continually changing national policy on nuclear energy. Third was Kuroishi, a city that did not participate in the mergers, but which, according to the column content, aspires to be a core city of the area. The city however, must first deal with a large debt issue, a “regrettable reality” according to the mayor as quoted in the column. The next column took up three “detached area” municipalities (tobichi), where, despite participating in the mergers, the only outcome appears to be continued gradual decline. Located on the Sea of Japan coast and being far from the centre of the area, residents of the three communities sharply feel the economic and opportunity gaps within the prefecture. Finally, the last column looks at Imabetsu and Shichinohe, the latter a town that became a stop on the Shinkansen expansion to Shin-Aomori in 2010 and the former a town that will become a stop on the Shinkansen expansion to Hokkaido in the near future. Both see the Shinkansen, and the station that they (will) enjoy, as key to their town power, providing them with a new foundation by which to keep, and attract, residents.
Sound of Footsteps of a New Era: One year to the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen
This is a five-part column, running from 17 March to 22 March 2015, which focused on the Shinkansen expansion to Hokkaido, an issue important to Aomori for a number of reasons, as will be seen in the content of the columns. The first column outlined expectations that the expansion will halt Imabetsu town’s population decline, by virtue of “shrinking distance.” One of the policy formulations that emerged for the town, located at the northern point of the Tsugaru Peninsula but the one that will host a Shinkansen station, is that the town will help high school students who use the Shinkansen to “commute,” whether to Aomori City or Hakodate City, while continuing to live in the town. The “shrinking distance” that will come with the Shinkansen station will not just benefit students; by virtue of the Shinkansen, the commute time from the town to the prefectural capital, Aomori City, will be reduced from 50 minutes to 15. The second column takes up the question of local transportation connections from Imabetsu that can be prepared so as to make it possible for the surrounding area to benefit economically as well. The third column points to one of the fears associated with the Shinkansen expansion, that the terminus at Shin-Aomori will lose its function once access to Hokkaido is made easier. With this downside in mind, Aomori City is working to improve city access to the Shinkansen station, which is actually located separate from the city itself. Content carried in the fourth column continues with this dilemma, as concerns about whether every Shinkansen will make a stop at Shin-Aomori are raised, together with the possibility that Aomori Prefecture, at present the de facto Honshu boundary for second-tier business and industry, will actually come to suffer as the Shinkansen connection more readily connects Honshu to Hokkaido. The final column notes that while Hakodate will likely benefit the most from foreign guests using the Shinkansen, the key for Aomori to derive economic stimulus is to develop an “Aomori-Hakodate Entertainment Area” model.
Region’s Choice: Regional Vitalisation-My Viewpoint
The third of the three rensai columns, running from 23 March to 26 March 2015, presents four viewpoints on regional vitalisation, focusing on the “strategic plan” to be developed by municipalities that is part of the central government’s sōsei vitalisation policy, the intention being that the regions themselves determine their own vitalisation approach.4 The first commenter is a Fellow at the Japan Research Institute (Nihon Sōgō Kenkyū-jo; Nihon Sō-Ken),5 who holds that regions must do more than simply attract enterprises, they must cultivate industry, and that this can best be accomplished by providing “warm support for young entrepreneurs.” The central government does not understand what is needed at the local level, and it is only at the local level that local business opportunities exist, he says. The second column, offered by a Keio University Business Professor, mirrors the ideas of the first column, asserting that medium and small companies are what will enliven regional areas, but adding that the mechanism for ensuring their establishment is informed advising by local experts and favourable regulations by local governments. The third column features the head of the Japan Association of City Mayors (Zenkoku Shichōkai),6 who stresses the importance of emphasising the originality of local governments throughout Japan and follows up by stressing that the key is employment and education. He allows that the anxiety of large expectations being felt by inexperienced local governments is natural, but that it must be overcome with local confidence. The final column in the series features the head of the Furusato Recovery Support Centre (Furusato Kaiki Shien Senta),7 who says that accelerating the rate of returnees, those that have left a regional municipality for a larger city but now want to return, is the vital local viewpoint. He holds that the focus is individuals, and therefore finds policies that provide for favourable treatment for major enterprises “out of place” (iwakan) in this discussion.
A Local Analysis: An Aomori View
As I have argued elsewhere, the Heisei Mergers represent a neo-liberal approach by the national government to address criticism and the perceived ineffectiveness of Japan’s developmental state economy, wherein the central government subsidised local economies through massive infrastructural development projects funded by taxes. Under the guise of “local autonomy,” there are now fewer tax transfers with fewer strings attached; however, the playing field at the local level has been reconfigured to advantage those who are already advantaged. As shown above and argued elsewhere, while the aims of budget rationalisation have largely been attained through the mergers, they have come at a cost of equality of service and sense of security for many local residents.8
Regarding the Shinkansen-related columns, it seems clear that, for Aomori, the Shinkansen effect has been realised. The benefits for Hachinohe and Aomori cities are certainly realised, in access to the northern-most major cities of Honshu and along with this access to the festivals of the area, which constitute the major tourist draw. While Shin-Aomori will cease to be the northern terminus of the Shinkansen line, now to be replaced by Hakodate and eventually Sapporo, the appeal of Aomori in terms of business and tourism will remain what it is now. The benefits for Imabetsu, as a small outlying station on the Shinkansen line, will ultimately be local: local accessibility for local people to Aomori, Sendai and Tokyo. The truth is, there is nothing in the 3,000 resident town of Imabetsu, located at the northern end of the Tsugaru Peninsula, that cannot be found in almost any coastal Tohoku village or town. As for my reasoning, the Tohoku Shinkansen line stop at Shichinohe, population approximately 16,000, has not dramatically changed the town; it is still simply a stop halfway between the major stations at Hachinohe and Shin-Aomori. This reality—the limitations of any Shinkansen effect for the smaller towns and villages of Aomori—leads to my analysis of regional vitalisation.
The rensai on regional vitalisation reflected the focus on the theme by the Abe Cabinet, itself a reflection of the changing population and economic dynamics of contemporary Japan. As such, the content of the rensai that was carried in the Tōōnippō newspaper did not originate locally; the featured experts were “national.” Thus the contents offered in reference to the “region’s choice” were fairly uniform, if not innocuous: cultivating local industry, focusing on small and medium scale enterprises, capitalising on the “originality” of the locale, and ensuring that the area has sufficient residents through returnees. The reality for actual local places is much more complex, if not problematic. Regional and rural places are often in need of vitalisation primarily because they are… regional and rural places; a lack of economic dynamism is an inescapable reality for many regional and rural places. Most places that experience economic dynamism at some point in their history benefit from an advantage of some manner or form. Whether it be geography and the historical trajectory of places with good harbours and at the crossroads of rivers or some socio-political influence, top-down or spontaneous, that yielded a “place of particular interest” that attracted creative people and that yielded innovative businesses, there are usually relatively clear factors that point to success. The places that would benefit the most from vitalisation are specifically the places where vitalisation likely has not spontaneously occurred and there are thus few “choices for a contemporary strategic vitalisation plan.” This is one lesson that can be gained by analysis of the Heisei Gappei Mergers; the advantaged municipalities attracted partners and prospered (it is likely they would have prospered regardless), whereas the disadvantaged municipalities, even those that have merged, have largely failed to realise profit or progress. As argued in Japan’s Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century: Contemporary Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline, perhaps the best that can be negotiated for many regional and rural areas is “managed decline,” where the trajectory of a disadvantaged place is managed so as to minimise the inequality in service and image vis-à-vis other more advantaged places.9 My personal view of the future for rural places, like Aomori, is in a focus on community: community rootedness and the bonds of residents with their local community together with community economy, wherein intra-community spending increases local economic self-reliance over time.10 As the trend toward recognising the “lifestyle value” of non-urban locales continues, perhaps long-term regional vitalisation is best envisioned as ensuring that regional areas do not change.
 Rensai are serialised columns carried in newspapers. For more on rensai, see the following works by Anthony Rausch: Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader, Teneo Press, 2014; Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihōshi and Revitalisation Journalism, Routledge Contemporary Japan Series, 2012; “The Regional Newspaper in Post-Disaster Coverage: Trends and Frames of the Great East Japan Disaster, 2011,” in Keio Communication Review, 2013, 35:35-50; and “Revitalisation Journalism in Rural Japanese Newspapers: A Case Study of the Tōōnippō Newspaper and Aomori Prefecture,“ in International and Advanced Japanese Studies, 2011, 3:1-14.
 See https://www.pref.aomori.lg.jp/foreigners/;for more on rural Japan, see John Mock, “Hidden Behind Tokyo: Japan’s Rural Periphery,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 12, Issue 12, No. 3, March 24, 2014.
 Regarding early assessments of Heisei Gappei, see “Municipal Mergers in Rural Japan: Easy on the Powerful, Severe on the Weak,” Discussion Paper, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 2005; “The Heisei Dai Gappei: A Case Study for Understanding the Municipal Mergers of the Heisei Era,” Japan Forum, 2006, 18(1): 133-156. Regarding the “Shinkansen rush,” expansions are set between Shin-Aomori and Sapporo on the Hokkaido line, between Kanazawa and Tsuruga on the Hokuriku line and between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki on the Kyushu Shinkansen line (The Japan News, 26 October 2014). Regarding regional vitalisation, the Abe Cabinet has appointed a Minister level position and allocated funds in the 2015 budget (“722 billion yen for regional revitalisation,” The Japan News, 14 January 2015).
 In Japanese this is “achi-hito-shigoto sōsei sōgō senryaku.”
 See “Japan’s Heisei Municipal Mergers and the Contradictions of Neoliberal Administrative Planning,” The Asia Journal of Public Administration, 2014, 36)2): 135-149; “A Framework for Japan’s New Municipal Reality: Assessing the Heisei Gappei Mergers,” Japan Forum, 2012, 24(2): 185-204.
 See Peter Matanle and Anthony Rausch (2011), Japan’s Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century: Contemporary Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline (New York: Cambria Press).
 Regarding a new “community economy,” see “Social Vision in an Era of Population Decline from the Perspective of Local Economy and Well-being,” Japan for Sustainability, JFS Newsletter No. 139 (March 2014), http://www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id034791.html.
Article copyright Anthony S. Rausch.