Fitting strategies

Irmelind Kirchner and Clare Goff explore the different approaches being taken in Japan to deal with its shrinking and ageing population


A view of Aomori’s skyline. It is pursuing a ‘compact city’ approach to deal with its shrinking population.

Japan’s population reached its peak of 127.84 million in 2004 and has declined ever since. It is conservatively projected that by 2050, total population will have decreased to just over 100 million.

A combination of declining fertility and increasing longevity has resulted in population reduction and demographic ageing, and this phenomenon is affecting almost 60% of the total area of Japan.

After the Second World War Japan pursued a conscious policy of industrialisation concentrated in a corridor along the Pacific Coast and the inland sea and to this day these are the areas where most of the population is concentrated. Many areas outside of this corridor are suffering from population decline.

Rural out-migration is not a new phenomenon in Japan, but the trend strengthened in earnest after the Second World War, when Japan continued its rapid transition from an agricultural to an industrial society.

Since 1970 central government has acknowledged the need to financially support shrinking regions, and implemented successive laws setting out frameworks for financial assistance for depopulating areas.

The first law aimed to reduce the rapid rate of shrinkage, and to improve the infrastructure in shrinking regions. Successive laws began to pay more attention to supporting social rather than purely physical infrastructure, and improving access to services.

The latest law puts a new emphasis on the importance of preserving the natural beauty of Japan. As the focus has shifted within the legal framework, spending patterns have shifted too: in the early years, infrastructure made up about half of all spend, while later on more was spent on facilitating local regeneration and revitalisation efforts and improving the welfare of people, for example through local transport and medical services provision. However, infrastructure projects still account for about 35% of funding.

Aomori is the main city in the prefecture of the same name at the northern tip of Japan’s main island. It currently has a population of 300,000 but is steadily shrinking and ageing. By 2030, there will be at least 20,000 people less.

It’s hoped that better links between the city centre and Aomori’s railway station, now home to a new Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ service, will boost the local economy.

Aomori lies in a region which sees heavy snowfall in winter and is therefore facing costs over and above those of comparably-sized cities in Japan. The city administration identified five problem areas which it needed to tackle: shrinking and ageing of the population, hollowing out of the city centre as businesses experience economic difficulties, rising administrative costs per person, the need to connect the new Shinkansen train station with the existing town centre, and preventing urban sprawl to safeguard the natural environment.

The solution to this dilemma is the ‘compact city’ concept, under which a strict zoning of the city into ‘inner’, ‘mid’ and ‘outer’ zones has taken place. Important facilities with high footfall have been relocated into the mid city area. Apartment buildings are constructed nearer the city centre and older people encouraged to swap their houses in the suburbs with younger families.

Improvements to public transport have also been undertaken, mainly related to accessible bus routes, better parking and the improvement of selected roads. The new Shinkansen started operating on 5 March this year, and it remains to be seen if the efforts to link to the main city area around the mainline station three miles away will be successful. Efforts to revitalise the inner city economy are continuing, and development outside the outer city zone is, in principle, no longer permitted.

Okuizumo Town in Shimane prefecture was formed in 2005 through a merger, and is located in western Japan. Shimane is the second smallest of the 47 prefectures, and has long experienced shrinking; the situation in Okuizumo is therefore exemplary.

The town’s population of 15,000 has shrunk by 20% since 1980, a trend that is predicted to continue: 35% of people are 65 years and over, 21% are over 75, more than 15% require care and one in four households is a single occupant aged 65 or over.

Due to the rural location and dispersed settling patterns, many people live far from the closest neighbour or shop, and there is a shortage of social care workers.

Okuizumo is one of many examples of a local authority using technology to deal with the effects of demographic shrinking in Japan. Since 2008 Okuizumo Town has embarked on a 93m yen programme to set up 900 video phones in 70% of all households of people aged 65 and over.

The multi-function video-phones connect to a small call centre located in the health and welfare division of Okuizumo town hall where personnel can give support to the users of the service in their everyday life. It also enables home nursing and home health care support, allows users to live more independently, and lowers the number of people who have to move into care homes.

The video phones have been designed specifically for an older user group and call centre personnel build a relationship of mutual trust with users.

A device attached to the video phone allows users to monitor and record vital health data, including blood pressure and heart rate, and users can also have groceries and other daily necessities delivered to their home.

The video phone and call centre service helps to relieve strain on social welfare services by reducing the need for older people to always physically seek out nursing or medical care. It also provides an outlet for people who might otherwise lead lonely lives, and allows them to live more independently than they would confined to a care home.

One approach to population shrinkage in Japan has been to promote retirement migration. A relaxation of urban planning laws has led to an increase in attractive developments for older populations in inner city areas of Tokyo, and the building of planned large-scale retirement communities in rural and remote areas are helping revitalise economies suffering from population decline.

Date City is an attractive and relatively mild city on the south-western tip of the island of Hokkaido. Elderly living has been promoted and supported there through a range of policies, including a ‘wealthy land’ programme, which encourages private sector involvement in social welfare and care service provision, from taxi services and housing provision to networking events for older people. A ‘city of short distances’ policy ensures access to major services in the city centre within walking distance.

The roll-out of community engagement programmes across the city mean local policy and planning decisions are made in cooperation with the public, the private sector and voluntary sector.

Between 1998 and 2007, the total population increased from 35,270 to 37,286 people and the policies are also attracting younger people and their families, who are finding new job opportunities in the senior service sector.

Date City may not be typical of rural communities, privileged as it is by its location, infrastructure and some employment opportunities but, by focusing on its ageing population, it has found growth again.

The approach could be replicated in remote and rural areas elsewhere, not least its policy of building close links with the community, which was a key factor in its success according to the author of a report on the subject, Thomas Feldhoff, senior research fellow at the UHI Centre for Remote and Rural Studies.

‘The current success of Date City in maintaining its population obviously lies in a combination of measures,’ he says. ‘The comprehensive analysis of locally specific pressures and needs, including the design of an inclusive participation process targeting people across ages, seems to be a prerequisite to the identification of flexible and creative problem-solving strategies.’


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