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Polar Opposite Values: Considering Depopulated Areas

Toshimichi Miyaguchi
Senior Dean, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

1. Aspects of Japanese regions in the past

Before the Japanese economy rapidly grew, there was an obvious difference between urban (e.g., cities and towns) and rural areas in Japan. When the modern municipality system was established in Japan in 1889, even districts which were regarded not as cities, but as towns had small but condensed urban areas. While not as large as the urban districts in the cities, town areas had sufficiently urbanized spaces where commerce flourished, craftsmen lived, and many people were coming and going. On the other hand, most villages then could be regarded as purely rural areas, in which life was based on agriculture or forestry. Moreover, there was a firm and familiar economic cycle among the towns and the surrounding villages, in which people played their respective roles in their own unique way.

2. The results of economic growth and urbanization

The rapid growth of the Japanese economy which started in the 1960s caused drastic urbanization. In reality, however, residential areas expanded mainly as a result of urban sprawl, and over time the thriving urban areas conversely began to dissipate as business activities spread out. The result was a remarkable hollowing-out of core urban areas, especially shopping streets, which had in the past been full of small shops and craftsmen's workshops buzzing with conversation and customers walking about. These were vibrant and vital spaces where diverse people met, which embodied the original value of cities or towns. But the diffusive expansion of residential areas, and especially the progression of motorization in regional cities, triggered the decline of the original characteristics of the urban space. This expansion of residential areas into rural regions created spaces that were neither urban nor rural.

On the other hand, some areas suffered dramatic decreases in population as a large number of residents moved to the cities. These "depopulated areas" can definitely be regarded as areas which were left behind in the time of urbanization, even as they contributed to economic growth. In regions from which it was difficult to commute to the central city, the youth have continued to flow out and the population has aged drastically since then. It would be rash, however, to consider these areas worthless for such reasons.

Depopulated areas that were not involved in this fragmented urbanization have not only inherited the beautiful and stately landscapes of the rural villages surrounded by mountains, and farming and forestry techniques,but they have also retained the symbiotic relationship with the nature that Japanese villages have traditionally fostered. In addition, whereas the population has been aging, the local system of mutual social aid is still alive in those areas. This is the very value that is not fostered in the city, whose value is the polar opposite.

3. Reconsidering depopulated areas

The new residential areas which have emerged in many regional cities and the shopping centers scattered around them represent the great convenience of our time. However, they were born of the market-based relationship between people and goods, which is different from the essential value of a city that is born of relationships among people.

The downtown areas of small and medium European cities still retain the original value of a city in its human relationships of the many people that come and go, stop at a caf辿, and gaze at each other. Something happens when one person looks at another. This is exactly the reason why the concept of "compact cities" is worth being shouted for today in Japan.

Depopulated areas are the polar opposite to urban areas, maintaining the symbiotic relationship between people and nature that has disappeared amid the economic growth. Recently, the vital role of engaging with nature through agricultural work and contact with wild life has received more and more attention and is considered beneficial in the development of children and therapeutic for adults. More than ten years ago, it was inconceivable that more pupils would one day stay at farmhouses during a school trip and people would rush from the city to terraced rice fields to help with the work, as in fact they do today. This surprising movement may reflect a broader understanding of the human value that is lacking in the city.

In fact, the valuable techniques for living in harmony with nature in depopulated areas, however, are now shouldered by the generation aged around seventy who are still active. This vital relationship with nature, which has been fostered for years and does not emerge in the city, is likely to disappear from this country in about ten years. Protecting many local communities in depopulated areas, which are the foundation for a symbiotic relationship with nature, would preserve the beautiful stately land surrounded by mountains in Japan. Developing a scheme for this purpose is urgent, and this issue will not be solved through the principles of the market. A law for assisting depopulated areas was enacted as temporary legislation for the first time in 1970 and has been amended every ten years up to the present. The fourth depopulated area law will expire in March of 2010. The primary purpose of the existing law is the improvement of infrastructure for reducing regional disparities. I insist, however, that legislation for encouraging depopulated areas based on the value mentioned above is necessary for the next decade.

Toshimichi Miyaguchi
Senior Dean, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Prof. Miyaguchi was born in Toyama Prefecture in 1946. He majored in social geography in undergraduate and doctoral geography courses at the University of Tokyo. He is currently Professor and Senior Dean of the Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. He received a PhD in literature, and is also actively expresses his opinions on regional development from the perspective of social geography as the chairperson of the Depopulation Council, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications; a member of the review board of Competition for the Creation of Beautiful Villages, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; the president of the Toyama Prefecture Landscape Council, etc. Professor Miyaguchi's major publications include "Steps toward Building and Creating Regions" [Chiiki-zukuri Sozo e no Ayumi] and "New Vitalization of Regions: Regional Creating Theory by a Geographer" [Shin-Chiiki wo Ikasu: Ichi Chiri-gakusha no Chiiki-zukuri Ron].