A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] “Yubari: Withering into truth”

Spike Japan’s Richard Hendy has returned with his own version of a recent visit to the Hokkaido coal-mining town of Yubari, recounting with abundant pictures the story of a Japanese community’s managed decline as its population declines.

This is a positive picture, but I would note this is possible only in the context of a relatively buoyant economy that can manage such a planned draw-down. What happens when Japan runs out of money?

Few cities in the developed world can have been put as comprehensively through the wringer as Yubari, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and in its heyday known as the capital of coal: from a peak of just shy of 120,000 people in 1960, its population plummeted by four-fifths, to 21,000, in 1990, the year the last colliery closed and the last miners fled, and has since more than halved again, to below 10,000, as those who stayed on aged and died or drifted away in the wake of the city’s tumultuous 2007 bankruptcy.

Yubari now is a city of superlatives, mostly invidious ones: demographically, it is the oldest city in Japan, probably the world, and possibly ever to have existed, with a median age in 2010 of over 57 set to rise to 65 in 2020, when more people will be over 80 than under 40, making Yubari perhaps the world’s first pensioner-majority city. The population is still falling precipitously, down by a sixth in just five years, and there are fewer children, proportionately, than in any other city, with barely one in twenty of the population under 15—some dozen old-timers die in Yubari for every child born. Following the bankruptcy, Yubari has the most onerous debt burden and close to the weakest finances of any Japanese city, while its bureaucrats and mayor draw the lowest salaries—about £18,000 in the mayor’s case. For the city as a whole, per capita taxable income fell by nearly a third between 1998 and 2012.

After five years in the Tokyo hot-house since my last visit, I was eager to return, to ring the continuities and changes in such a rapidly shrinking place and to see if it would be possible to tease out a more guardedly optimistic narrative of managed senescence than the one customarily presented in the national—and international—media, for in the five years I’d been away much had changed, not all for the worse. Spurred by the rigors of bankruptcy, the schools, of which Yubari—like much of Japan—had far too many, have been consolidated, into a single elementary, junior high, and high school apiece, the wherewithal has somehow been found to build two tracts of considerately single-storey public housing, jobs have been created with the arrival of Chinese herbal medicine factory, and Japan’s oldest city in 2011 elected the country’s youngest mayor, the dashing and energetic Naomichi Suzuki, who had just turned 30 on election and who has come to relish his role as PR costermonger-in-chief for Yubari produce. Were there lessons in how to die with dignity in the Yubari experience for Detroit, which followed its now miniscule Japanese cousin into bankruptcy last year, and for the future Detroits waiting in the wings?

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Written by Randy McDonald

August 22, 2014 at 8:19 pm

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