Japan island depopulation: lessons for Scotland

This research report - commissioned from a team based at Scotland's Rural College - explores policy approaches to depopulation on Japan's islands, and proposes a series of recommendations to the Scottish Government which may help inform the development of future island depopulation.

4. Japan's Islands - Overview and Policy Context

4.1 General overview of Japan's islands

Japan consists of around 7,000 islands, including five large islands called the 'mainland' (hondo). [3] Their biogeographical features vary considerably, and only around 400 out of the 7,000 small islands are permanently inhabited or inhabited on a semi/seasonal basis. These islands account for 0.5% of the total Japanese population and occupy 2% of the total land surface. The majority (70%) of the islands have less than 500 people, and the populations are often elderly with low birth rates (see: Japanese Remote Islands Centre 2020)

Most of the populated islands with 500 or more residents are located in the Inland Sea situated between Shikoku and the mainland, which generally have better access to the mainland and more vibrant economies than the islands in the Outer Seas. The isles in the Outer Seas are widely scattered and relatively isolated, and this large geographical spread means that Japan has the sixth largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world.

The remoteness and small size of many of Japan's islands means that transportation is often limited, with many islands only accessible by ferry. Additionally, as population decline has increased in some locations, transportation services have either reduced or become more expensive. Moreover, transportation on the islands is also limited, with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (2012) reporting that in 2012 only 22% of Japan's remote islands had a bus service. Remoteness also means that daily staple goods and other supplies are often more expensive in comparison to the rest of Japan, while other services are also limited, with, for example, 40% of people on remote islands lacking access to mains sewage (compared with 20% for the rest of Japan) in 2007. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (2021) has also reported that internet is limited on some islands with around 10% of the islands unable to access fibreoptic broadband in comparison to less than 1% nationally.

4.1.1 Definition of islands and their importance

There is international debate over the interpretation of the UN's Regime of Islands and what constitutes an island (see: Miyoshi, 2021). Kuwahara (2012) reports that there is no clear definition of term 'Remote island' (ritō離島) in Japan, but often describes islands which are not part of the five main islands and have a shoreline greater than 100m in circumference. Historically, some of the remote islands which are part of Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone were integrated, returned, colonised and/or are still disputed. For Japan, the coastlines of some of the most remote islands physically mark-out the border of international territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone, and thus the classification and recognition of these remote islands plays an important part in claims to spatial sovereignty (Suzuki 2019).

Islands are not only politically important but also culturally valued in Japan, as they are in Scotland. The classification of Japanese islands in lay and policy discourse is often linked to their differentiated but culturally important histories, activities and roles in fishing and agriculture, nautical navigation, religion and commerce (Hendry 1997). Further, there are a diverse range of classifications used to describe the size, material composition, shape, location and the many other traits of Japanese islands (Kakazu 2014).

4.1.2 Diversity

There is a wide diversity of physical environments amongst the Japanese islands (for more information see: Royle 2016; Baldacchio 2018; Kakazu 2014; Ogata 2021; Okuno 1998, Hiraoka et al. 2018). The biogeography of the islands varies and creates a range of diverse ecosystems that are home to humans, animals and plants including a number of rare and endangered species. The climate varies from the sub-arctic north to sub-tropical south due to the long and narrow nature of the Japanese archipelago (see: Japan Meteorological Agency). The islands are prone to severe weather events including typhoons and heavy rain in the southern islands, and heavy snow in the north. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis also pose a very real risk. At the same time, the rich biogeography of different minerals in the soil and seabed provides a fertile environment and forms the basis for diverse primary sector activity (Royle 2016).

Reflecting the diversity of island biogeography, the culture and social make-up of islands also varies greatly (Ogata 2021). Baldacchino (2018) argues that islands in Japan contain a range of social groups, from more hierarchical to more egalitarian, which are layered and tied to different degrees and for different purposes. However, the lives of many islanders and island societies are radically different even in comparison to a few years ago due to advances in information technology.

4.1.3 Demographic Transitions

Demographic change is one of the most notable aspects of many islands in Japan. Overall, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (2018) report that Japan's remote islands have had one of the highest rates of population decline, with the population of remote islands covered by the Remote Island Development Act (see section 4.3 below) falling by almost 60% between 1955 and 2010. Further, not only has the population of the islands decreased, but the numbers of those aged over 65 has increased to just over 35% by 2010 (see: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Report 2012). Research has sought to understand the drivers of this demographic change and has included: topological case studies; descriptive analysis of economic factors and labour; and analysis of social aspects, including shifts in social networks and community relations through time. Among these, economic factors have been put forward as one of the main drivers of demographic change, particularly for those islands that are least agriculturally fertile and most deprived (Tagami and Furomoto 2016; Futagami 1959). Post-war, the more peripheral islands were characterised as exhibiting 'backwardness' and being in need of infrastructural and cultural modernisation (Kuwahara 2012: 42) (see section 4.3 for an overview of Japanese rural and island development policy).[4] During the 1950s and 1960s, following investment and the general development trajectory of Japan at the time, many islands saw infrastructural development, but also experienced out-migration of younger generations, which consequently impacted on birth rate and demographic profile. This was the first notable phase of change where the 'baby boom' drove population increase during the post-war recovery (i.e., in the 1950s and 1960s), followed by labour migration to the cities during the period of rapid economic growth and expansion of island leisure tourism (in the 1960s and 1970s).

Before the economic boom of the mid-1980s to early-1990s, the mid-1970s and early-1980s, in contrast, were characterised by a period of slow economic growth after the oil crises. Once the economy slowed and Japanese manufacturing and heavy industry stagnated, out-migration also slowed (see: Cabinet Office Report 2019). However, very few of the young population who had migrated returned even though historically younger generations would have looked after elderly family members and/or taken over family businesses.

With continued out-migration and extended life expectancy, island populations have become skewed towards older age groups and many islands have experienced significant population decline. Although more sparsely populated areas of Japan often have higher birth rates than more urban areas (Kato 2018), outmigration, birth rates below the rate of replacement and ageing, followed by a natural decline of the population (more deaths than births), has been a consistent pattern that has characterised much of the peripheries of Japan over the last 40 years. However, much like during the oil shocks, in the last 40 years, there have been periods where out-migration from rural areas has apparently slowed or even reversed (notably the collapse of the 'bubble economy' (バブル経済) in the mid-1990s; the global financial crisis in 2008; and the Tōhoku Earthquake in 2011) (see: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Website). More recently evidence suggests that Covid-19 has also driven increased out-migration from Tokyo (Fielding and Ishikawa 2021). These trends and policy responses are explored in more detail in Section 4.3 below.

4.1.4 Economy, Industry and Tourism

Historically, primary industries, particularly fishing, played an important role in the economies of the remote islands of Japan. However, between 1990 and 2008 the value of output from the primary sector fell by almost half. Further, the numbers of people working in the primary sector has also fallen by over half, with the tertiary sector the dominant sector in terms of numbers of people employed. However, in comparison to the rest of Japan, the numbers working in the primary industries remain high (remote islands 21.2%; whole of Japan 4.2%) (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Report 2014; Ozawa 2017).

A key aspect of many of Japan's islands are their remoteness and relative economic disadvantage due to limited access to markets and social, political and capital networks. There are three distinctive points made by Miyauchi (2008) with regard to island industries. First, island industries tend to make use of the natural environment in which the island is situated. Consequentially, due to the diversity of natural resources, industries often developed along their own particular trajectory within the context of differentiated climates and geographies. In this way, the islands form their own small niche economic system. Second, very few islanders make sufficient living on single income sources, and many individual households manage to secure their livelihoods by combining several income sources.

Commercial island food production is mostly based on small-scale family businesses whose marketing depends on personal and businesses networks as well as the availability of transportation. Unless transportation and business networks are reliable, investment in production is a risk, and businesses often opt-out of investment. Furthermore, fishery-related activity is even riskier due to the nature of the product. One approach to manage risk is to circumvent competition in the market through either food producer's associations, or by diversifying products or moving away from mono-cropping, and/or overlapping products with other producers (Okuno 1998).

Another important source of income for many island inhabitants is tourism. Islands tourism was in high demand during the 1960s and 1970s when living standards in Japan were improving and people had more income to spend on leisure activities. Until foreign tourism was fully liberalised in Japan in the 1970s, the islands had been holiday destinations for economically affluent mainland inhabitants. Many fishing families started running seasonal inns, which purchased local agricultural surpluses and led to the growth of local industries providing some local jobs. However, partly due to the increase in foreign tourism following liberalisation, tourism to the remote islands has fallen since 1975 (Island Futures Research Group Report 2010).

More recently cultural and eco-tourism, where people seek remoteness and a respite from urban crowds, has become more popular. This form of tourism offers the potential for enhanced natural environment management as well as the opportunity to maintain traditional cultural practices by commodifying them. While sensitivity is needed during the commercialisation of cultural practices and ecological resources, it is argued that appropriately designed tourism initiatives could offer an important source of income (see OECD 2009; Asano 2002; Tsuruta 1994). Indeed, tour planners and creators have expanded into various eco/cultural tourist schemes such as farm stays, festival participation (Yamazaki 2014), community field research by university students and flexible telework experience on the tropical islands (Miyauchi 2014). While the long-term impact of eco/cultural tourism is unclear due to its recent popularity, it has the potential to be more sustainable than large resort type developments and can raise awareness of diverse cultures (Miyauchi 2007; Yamazaki 2014).

Tourism, primary industries and, more recently, the tertiary sector are important sources of income on Japanese islands. Previous research has highlighted how many island residents engage in multiple activities to secure their livelihood (see above). Ethnographic research has highlighted a range of other important adaptive livelihood strategies and social forms including migration and household/family ties (Okuyama 1986; Goto 1984); traditional producers' associations (Umeda 1997; Yagi 1980) and communal land-holdings/fishing-rights/funding bodies (Tanaka 1954; Ohro 2000); extended exchange networks; and high mobility patterns (Nakamatsu 1964; Kosaka 2002; Miyamoto 1969). Understanding such livelihood strategies in remote and peripheral areas is critical for political interventions, as inappropriate development strategies can lead to deleterious outcomes (Miyauchi 2011; Nagashima 2000).

4.1.3 Transportation

Investment in transportation has been one of the main tools for mobilising and connecting Japan's remote island economies. The development of basic transport infrastructure on many Japanese islands sought to improve access to and connections between islands, mostly with the main islands, by building bridges, ports and road networks. The building of bridges has arguably led to the largest change in terms of economic and human interconnectivity with the mainland, and bridge building has transformed the Japanese Inland Sea. However, most of the islands in the Outer Seas have not experienced the same level of change (Hiraoka et al. 2018). Here, residents continue to rely on water surface transport and air travel, but these modes of transport are costly for businesses to export to the mainland and hence restrict the extent to which businesses can become dependent on mainland retail networks (Miyagi 1979; Maehata 2011).

It is important to note that bridge building can have differential affects. For instance, in some cases, it has increased overall emigration, while in others it has increased only female emigration (Maehata 2011). Further, while bridge building can have positive impacts in term of accessibility and access to public services, it can also negatively affect independent and small-scale retailers and fishers / farmers (Shiotani 2000). Another key issue is that bridge travel fundamentally relies on cars and lorries and hence is vulnerable to fluctuating oil prices. This awareness, particularly after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, drove some businesses to work towards more sustainable energy generation and transportation.

4.1.4 Culture

Due to their liminal nature and mobile population, islands can experience an influx and melding of cultures. At the same time, trade or movement prohibitions coupled with remoteness can restrict outside influence and encourage the development of island specific culture and identity (Baldacchio 2018; Royle 2001). As indicated above, Japanese islands often embed particular social structures and systems which support livelihoods and act as financial safeguards. Cultural events, such as traditional festivals, can be sources of tourist revenue (see above) but are also important for maintaining social relations and structures. Through cultural events, community members confirm their communal solidarity and identity, and they provide an opportunity to meet and communicate with other social groups. In some communities, out-migrants do return to their native islands for the festival seasons, and are involved in community activities, confirming and recreating local identity and belonging (Miyamoto 1969; Yamazaki et al. 2007; Yamazaki 2014). Although an active population is important for the continuity of cultural practices, many cultural events also require support from tourism and revitalisation funds(see below) or other forms of support, for example volunteers from outside the island.

4.2 Revitalisation: A Realistic Prospect?

There is a debate within academic work as to how best to respond to the moribund state of many peripheral areas of Japan (Dilley et al. 2022). Population decline and ageing fundamentally stem from a low birth rate in Japan, and the apparent difficulty in turning this around has led some to ask whether the concept of rural 'revitalisation', a common term in Japanese policy documents (see Section 4 below), is misplaced. Wirth et al. (2016: p. 66), for example, argue that discourse of revitalisation is based on the 'erroneous assumptions' that the impacts of population decline and ageing can be mitigated or even reversed.

For Matanle and Sato (2010), continued shrinkage of the peripheries is inevitable and hence there is a need to both move 'beyond growth' as a policy objective and to accept and manage inevitable decline. Matanle and Sato (2010) suggest that population shrinkage should not be conceptualised in negative terms, but rather as an opportunity to reconsider societal goals and values and re-orientate the current regime away from growth towards 'socio-environmental stability and, even, sustainability' (p. 208). Odagiri (2015), however, argues that it is too early to begin to accept the disappearance of rural communities, and raises the question as to whether discussions grounded on an assumption of the inevitability of population decline potentially serve as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Others have put forward a more differentiated approach, suggesting that the most viable communities be the focus of revitalisation efforts, while those at the limit of viability receive assistance to ensure the welfare of the remaining residents in preparation for the gradual closure of the community (Kudo and Yarime 2013; Hashimoto et al. 2020).

From a Scottish (or wider UK and European) perspective, there may be similar questions asked about the 'sustainability' of those rural and island communities that have long experienced population decline and associated service withdrawal and economic stagnation, and the funding arrangements to support them, particularly at times when there is pressure on public sector budgets. Examples of communities that have reversed demographic, economic and social decline based on bottom-up initiative and local ownership and management of resources, such as the Isles of Eigg, Rum and Gigha and parts of the Western Isles (e.g. West Harris), certainly demonstrate how much can be achieved through community-led activities, often in combination with external, public and private sector funding and other support.[5]

There are current policy and other drivers in Scotland which may lead to further questions about the sustainability of rural and island communities where population numbers are low. For example, ambitious net zero and climate emergency-related targets in Scotland may require revisiting in rural and island areas where residents are more reliant on private cars to travel longer distances and on more 'environmentally unfriendly' fuels for heating their (often larger, older and poorly insulated) homes. These concerns may be especially acute as we experience the current cost of living crisis, which evidence suggests is being experienced more severely by rural residents.[6] On the other hand, rural and island areas have substantial roles to play in providing solutions to climate challenges, in terms of the need to increase renewable energy generation, the potential of peatlands in terms of carbon sequestration, the potential for afforestation and the production of local, fresh food, and the increasing use of digital technology to deliver and access services (thereby reducing the need to travel). These activities all require the presence of people and will therefore contribute to the sustainability of communities in future. Linked to this are questions about: 1) the future use of land and the balance between rewilding and repeopling goals (see earlier references); 2) alternative future growth pathways (such as green growth and de-growth and community wealth building) which link fundamentally with demographic goals; and 3) the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on urban versus rural living and the potential for new ways of working in different locations in future.

The notion of the unsustainnability of human habitation on some Scottish islands is not new. Uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides (Mingulay, Cara, The Monachs and North Rona), in the Inner Hebrides (Scarba, Inch Kenneth), Orkney (Fara) and off the Scottish mainland (Eilean na Ron, Handa) were populated in the past. Many were deserted in response to severe storms. The risk from the rise in sea levels to island populations was presented to the Scottish Government recently by climate change experts and the debate about sustainability is likely to intensify in future years.

4.3 Japanese Policy Context

4.3.1 National Level Policies

Historically, there has been a broad range of policies that have both recognised and sought to address the issue of regional decline in Japan. Examples of these include the Mountain Village Promotion Act (1965) (山村振興法); Temporary Act for the Promotion of Coal Producing Areas (1961) (産炭地域振興臨時措置法); and Special Policy for Heavy Snow Areas (1962) (豪雪地帯対策特別措置法). These policies primarily sought to develop regional infrastructure and increase employment opportunities in rural areas and signalled a growing concern for and desire to tackle the issues of poverty and lack of opportunities in rural areas (Feldhoff 2013).

These policies are comparable to the early modernist European rural development model where supporting infrastructural development in the more peripheral regions was understood to be both a key goal and means of rural development in Japan (Matanle and Rausch 2011). However, as in Europe, such 'exogenous' development policies (see: Gkartzios and Lowe 2019; Ward et al. 2005) were critiqued for being top-down and environmentally and culturally destructive (Kerr 2001), for fostering dependency, and for not engaging with the differentiated and regional specific problems associated with regional depopulation and decline. Later policies in Japan did however begin to directly engage with the issue of depopulating or shrinking regions while trying to embrace place-based and differentiated local responses. Starting with one of the laws that specifically recognised 'depopulated areas' or 'kaso chiiki' (過疎地域) (Feldhoff 2013), this section explores national-level policies and initiatives aimed at addressing the issues of population ageing, decline and regional disparity.

Kaso Chiiki Acts

Kaso chiiki or 'depopulated areas' are designated according to a number of criteria including percentage of population decline, percentage of old and young people and financial strength (see Ministry for Internal Affairs and Communications Summary for overview). As of April 2022, 885 municipalities out of 1,718 were designated as depopulation-related municipalities, of which 713 are 'fully depopulated', 158 are 'partially depopulated' and 14 are 'deemed depopulated' (see report by Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2022). These municipalities represent the lowest level of government in Japan and are classified in three ways: cities, towns and villages. However, due to a process of municipal mergers that have occurred periodically in Japan (the last called the heisei dai gappei 1999 – 2006) an area designated as a city might not be predominantly urban in nature. In terms of population, roughly 11 million people live in areas designated kaso, out of a total population in Japan of roughly 127 million. Yet, while kaso areas make up only around 8% of the total Japanese population, kaso areas cover almost 60% of the total area of Japan (see report by Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2016) (this compares to 17% of Scotland's population being rural and 98% of its landmass).

Since the 1970s a succession of laws have specifically sought to directly engage with the problem of regional depopulation and decline and support those areas designated as kaso to the tune of 115,860.8 billion Yen (£772 billion) (1970 – 2020) (see report by Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2020: p.150). The Act on Emergency Measures for Depopulated Areas, the first law relating to the promotion of depopulated areas, was enacted in 1970. Originally designed as a 10-year time-limited piece of legislation, it was subsequently amended and extended four times. Along with revisions to the title of the laws – e.g., from 'measures' to 'development', 'revitalisation', 'promotion of self-reliance' and 'sustainable development' – the objectives and support measures have also changed (see Table 2 for an overview of the kaso laws). When the Depopulation Areas Act was first enacted, the aim was to reduce regional disparities and ensure a national minimum standard in terms of services and facilities, in particular through the development of infrastructure including transportation, water and sewerage systems (Feldhoff 2013).

Table 2: Overview of Kaso Laws (1970 – 2030)
Name of Law Aims Problems Identified Mechanisms and Approaches
Act on Emergency Measures for Depopulated Areas 過疎地域対策緊急措置法 1970 – 1979
  • Prevent excessive population decline
  • Improve residents' welfare
  • Reduce regional disparities
Rapid population outflow to cities, especially among new graduates.
  • Urgent measures.
  • Ensure national minimum standards.
Act on Special Measures for the Development of Depopulated Areas 過疎地域振興特別措置法 1980-1989
  • Develop depopulated areas
  • Improve residents' welfare
  • Increase employment
  • Reduction of regional inequalities
Lack of employment opportunities and medical care; ageing due to population outflow especially among young generation.
  • Improvement of residents living standards and welfare; increase employment and reduction of inequalities through comprehensive and planned development measures.
Act on Special Measures for the Revitalisation of Depopulated Areas 過疎地域活性化特別措置法 1990-1999
  • Revitalise depopulated areas
  • Improve residents' welfare
  • Increase employment
  • Reduction of regional inequalities
'Excess' concentration of population and industry in the Tokyo Metropolitan area after overcoming the second oil crisis. Problems due to ageing society and delays in industrial and public facility development.
  • From 'development' to 'revitalise'.
  • Focus on community development based on local initiative and ingenuity.
  • Focus on comprehensive regional development, including private sector vitality, as well as the development of public facilities.
Act on Special Measures for the Promotion of Self-Reliance of Depopulated Areas 過疎地域自立促進特別措置法 2000-2020
  • Promote regional Independence
  • Improve residents' welfare
  • Increase employment
  • Reduction of regional inequalities
  • Contribute to the moulding of a 'beautiful country'
Significant ageing population; significant stagnation of agriculture, forestry and fisheries; lack of daily transportation; weakening of the local healthcare systems; requests for the establishment of flexible support to make use of local resources and ingenuity.
  • Expansion of soft elements in order to create local communities where residents can live safely and securely into the future.
Act on Special Measures for Supporting the Sustainable Development of Depopulated Areas 過疎地域の持続的発展の支援に関する特別措置法 2021 – 2030
  • Support sustainable development of depopulated areas
  • Secure and develop human resources
  • Improve resident's welfare
  • Increase employment
  • Reduction of regional inequalities
  • Contribute to the moulding of a 'beautiful country'
Decline in the vitality of local communities due to accelerated population decline; ageing and consolidation of public facilities; maintenance of agricultural land, forests and housing.
  • From 'promote independence' to 'support sustainable development'.
  • Developing human resources through partnership between communities, residents and schools.
  • Promotion of ICT technology.
  • Creation of human flows (migration and other rural mobilities).
  • Increase employment.
  • Promote regional governance.
  • Promote renewable energy.
  • Target setting and follow-up.

Since the 2010 amendment to the Act on Special Measures for the Promotion of Self-Reliance of Depopulated Areas, the scope of support has been broadened to include 'soft' development projects that focus on promoting migration and settlement, passing on local traditional culture and maintaining and revitalising community, with the aim of achieving sustainable development of the depopulated areas. The background to this transition in kaso policy was a shift in the demographic and economic fortunes of Japan.

The 1960s was a period of rapid economic growth in which the so-called 'golden eggs' (the first baby boom generation, born between 1947 and 1949) were absorbed into the urban workforce resulting in a significant population decline in rural areas. This led to a shortage of labour in agriculture, forestry and fisheries in rural areas, which also had a negative impact on maintaining livelihood functions such as education, medical care and disaster prevention in more peripheral areas. In contrast, issues caused by high population densities became apparent in the cities. As depopulation became a social problem nationwide, the Act on Emergency Measures for Depopulated Areas was enacted to 'prevent excessive population decline' (see: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Summary), with a focus on the development of living and industrial infrastructure to correct the disparity with urban areas.

In the late 1970s, with two oil crises having a significant economic impact, population movement from rural to metropolitan areas slowed substantially (with brief periods of reversal) (see Cabinet Office Report 2019). Furthermore, attempts were made to move regional development approaches away from a centralised and uniform system of governance towards a decentralised and participatory system of self-government under the banner of 'an era of the regions' – it was after all the peak of regionalism in other western countries (Keating 1997). However, problems such as poor employment opportunities, lack of access to medical care and an ageing population, which in part resulted from an overall trend of population outflows from rural areas, became more pronounced and the Act on Special Measures for the Development of Depopulated Areas was enacted in 1980.

Following the second oil crisis, the tendency towards concentration in the Tokyo metropolitan area again strengthened, and the late 1980s to 1990s saw the arrival of inflated asset prices called the 'bubble economy' and the proliferation of exogenous driven developments in the form of resorts and golf courses (Kusakabe 2013). However, at the same time there was a growing emphasis on regional revitalisation based on local assets, initiative and ingenuity. Against this backdrop, the Act on Special Measures for the Revitalisation of Depopulated Areas was enacted in 1990.

In the early 1990s, the bubble economy burst and Japan subsequently faced more than two decades of economic stagnation. With an increasing concentration of people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and a declining and ageing population becoming more apparent, the Grand Design for the National Land of the 21st Century was formulated in 1998, which encouraged regional self-reliance and emphasised decentralised national land development through the participation and cooperation of a diverse range of actors including residents, local businesses and non-profit organisations. Similarly, between 2000 and 2020 the kaso Act sought to foster self-reliant local communities that draw upon and demonstrate local assets and resources. In addition to correcting the disparity between depopulated areas and urban areas, which had been the main focus of previous depopulation acts, the acts have also, for the first time, referred to the importance of the value and role of depopulated areas and aimed to 'contribute to the formation of a beautiful and dignified national land' (see Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' webpage). Between 2000 and 2020 the kaso Act was partially amended four times and the period of validity extended (see Table 3 for overview of spending). A major change was the 2010 amendments which made 'soft' projects including improving local medical care, operating community transportation and maintaining and revitalising communities eligible for depopulation bonds (kasosai). These are bonds issued by the local municipality to fund development initiatives with 70% of the debt underwritten by central government (Chang 2018). However, despite the emphasis on independence and self-reliance as well as the inclusion of 'soft' projects, the mechanism for policy implementation was characteristically top-down, with local municipalities required to submit plans that resonated with the framework developed by central government (Chang 2018). Further, there is an argument that such subsidy schemes incentivise maintaining the status quo (depopulation), as substantial amounts of subsidy are contingent on 'depopulated' status. Added to this, the use of debt bonds can lead to accumulated levels of debt placing a large financial burden on municipalities and their residents (Matanle and Rausch 2011: p. 250).

Table 3: Overview of Percentage of Spending per Type of Project for the Depopulation Areas Act (2000 - 2020)
Share of Spending (%) (819 Depopulated Areas)
Transport and Information Infrastructure Industrial Development Living Conditions Improvement (e.g., water + sewage systems) Elderly Care Education and Culture Medical Services
37% 28% 21% 4% 7% 2%

*Adapted from Chang (2018)

The current Special Measures Act on Supporting the Sustainable Development of Depopulated Areas has been in force since 2021. While previous depopulation measures have achieved some success in promoting industry, improving infrastructure such as transport and communications, and ensuring opportunities for local medical care and education, challenges remain in terms of accelerating population decline in Japan overall (as a result of low birth rates and continuing outmigration), maintaining public transport, securing actors in the medical and welfare fields, and revitalising communities.

In response to these challenges, and in addition to the existing objectives of improving the welfare of residents, increasing employment, correcting regional disparities and creating "a beautiful and dignified national land", the kaso Act now focuses on 'securing and fostering human resources' (see Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' webpage). As part of this, the Act clearly articulates an aim to promote internal urban-rural migration, settlement and inter-regional exchange, and to develop human resources and leadership in local communities. A new preamble has also been added to the Act, emphasising the positive functions of depopulated areas, such as the stable supply of food, water and energy, the securing of biodiversity and the transmission of diverse cultures. In this sense, increasing importance is being placed on depopulated areas as concerns about large-scale disasters and infectious diseases due to urban population concentration are increasing.

The new depopulation act moves away from a conceptualisation of depopulated areas as literally lagging behind and in need of improvement, following global trends in development studies that seek to value and mobilise local assets (see a review in Gkartzios et al. 2022b). Here, Odagiri (2022) argues that depopulated areas are increasingly being conceptualised as low-density residential spaces that have a different value from urban spaces. Although there is still net negative migration from rural areas to large urban conurbations and an advancing ageing population, the idea of simply increasing the population of depopulated areas is questionable as the total population of Japan is declining. The new act has therefore started to move towards the goal of the creation of a system that enables people to continue to live in low-density areas by securing and developing diverse human resources capable of building new lifestyles and business models that make use of diverse local resources (Odagiri, 2022). These shifts are also taking place in the context of recent drives to rationalise public expenditure and arguments that there are different potential growth pathways that could be followed, including low/no growth, as well as the ongoing complexity regarding the acceptability of, and potential for, immigration into Japan.

Regional Revitalisation

In 2014, under the banner of 'Towns, People, Jobs: Regional Revitalisation', the Japanese Government put forward a range of aims and measures in four packages aimed at overcoming population decline and promoting the vitality of regional economies (see Cabinet Office Summary Document 2019). The Regional Revitalisation Strategy was underpinned by a concern for the issues of ageing and population shrinkage in Japan's more peripheral regions. The Strategy was also based on the argument that there was an 'excessive' concentration of human and financial capital in the Tokyo metropolitan area which needed correcting. Unlike the kaso Acts, in the implementation of the Regional Revitalisation Strategy, central government does not prepare a development framework, but assesses plans produced by local municipalities using Key Performance Indicators, and allocates subsidies based on this assessment (Chang 2018). Originally to run from 2015 to 2019, the Regional Revitalisation Strategy sought to: promote employment; create inflows of migrants into regional areas; support marriage, childbirth and parenthood; and promote safe and secure living, creating regions suited to current times. From 2020, a 'Second Stage' of the Regional Revitalisation Strategy was introduced and it is scheduled to run until 2024 (see Cabinet Office Summary Document 2019). The second stage of the Regional Revitalisation Strategy had an estimated budget of 2.2 trillion Yen in 2021 (~£13 billion) (see Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Document 2021), and includes an updated package of goals and measures which stresses, amongst other things, four particular aspects:

1. 'Kankeijinkō' and inward investment by businesses and individuals

As part of the objective to promote greater flows of both people and capital to more regional areas, the Regional Revitalisation Strategy promoted what is termed kankeijinkō. Kankeijinkō can be translated as 'relationship population' and represents 'not (permanent) migrants; nor tourists' but rather people from 'outside the area who could play a role in community development' (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Summary Document 2019). Kankeijinkōis understood to include a wide variety of individuals who frequently visit a particular area for a range of reasons, including work, volunteering or as part of longer-term quasi-leisure related visits. The understanding here is that kankeijinkō represent a group of people on a spectrum of 'commitment' to a particular rural area, from those who undertake regular visits to those who own second homes (Teraoka, 2020). The thought is that through a process of relationship building between people and place, migrants from more urban areas play a role in regional revitalisation by injecting much needed skills, human and financial capital into these regions, and as they become increasingly committed to a particular rural area, they become more likely to migrate permanently thus playing a role in tackling population decline.

A number of specific initiatives have been proposed to support the establishment of kankeijinkō including satellite offices and teleworking for those who wish to live and work in two places at once; satellite campuses for students to study in more remote regions; revitalisation internships; and rural community experience initiatives for children. More concretely, since 2019 the Japanese government has been offering residents of the special 23 wards of Tokyo up to 1 million Yen (~£6,000) to those wishing to relocate to more remote regions and a further 2 million Yen (~£12,000) to those starting a business (3 million total) (see Cabinet Office Summary Documents [2019], [2021]).

With regard to remote islands in Japan, under the kankeijinkō initiative, a project entitled 'Remote Islands, Travel and Parallel Work' was started in 2019 with the aim of promoting flows of people to the remote islands (see Kankeijinkō Portal Site). Parallel work is a reference to a working pattern where a person may live and work in two separate locations supported by information technology. Run by Ama Town (Nakanoshima Island) this project sought to publicise and promote visits to remote islands for those interested in living and working, either permanently or temporarily, on one of Japan's islands.

2. Society 5.0

As part of the effort to promote regional vitality with the longer-term goal of improving the economic and social viability of more remote areas of Japan, under the Regional Revitalisation policy, the government has sought to encourage information technology adoption and innovation, AI and digital technologies. Digital technologies are understood not only to play a key role in allowing more flexible working ('parallel working' for example); but also in promoting economic development through greater connectivity (5G), automation and robotics notably related to farming (see Cabinet Office Summary Document 2021). Further, automation, robotics and AI are also thought to play a key role in helping tackle some of the issues related to population ageing and shrinking, notably a decrease in the labour force and increasing healthcare burdens. As part of this promotion, remote islands (ritou 離島) are eligible for subsidies of up to two thirds of infrastructure costs to improve connectivity including 5G and internet services (Regional Society 5.0 Promotion Group 2021).

3. Sustainable Development Goals and Environmental Initiatives

Linked into the concept of Society 5.0, an increased emphasis has been placed on the utilisation of renewable resources and decarbonisation in more peripheral areas of Japan. This is understood to be cross-cutting in nature, necessitating and progressing in tandem with greater digitalisation and smart technologies while contributing positively to economic development, the environmental agenda and the broader Sustainable Development Goals (Cabinet Office Summary Document 2021). To drive and disseminate innovation, the Japanese government has been providing 250,000,000 Yen per year (~£1,550,000) for 10 SDG model projects that embed integrative approaches and spark positive synergies across society, economy and environment. Between 2018 and 2021, 40 of these model projects have been funded across peripheral and semi-peripheral areas of Japan.

These projects seek to generate lasting partnerships between public, private and third sector stakeholders, and embed and utilise digital technologies and connectivities. As part of this, a 'Matching Platform' (website, events and facilitator office) was released which seeks to match together individuals and organisations in order to develop partnerships with the goal of formulating concrete projects (Cabinet Office SDG Summary Document 2022). Iki island (Nagasaki Prefecture) was awarded the status of SDG Model. As with many islands in Japan, Iki island is facing depopulation and ageing, trends which are interrelated with a number of other issues, including falling levels of commerce, reductions in fisheries activities and issues related to farming succession. Under the Iki island SDG model project, a range of goals have been proposed, including: the boosting of agricultural value chains (particularly related to asparagus); tackling a shortage of labour, through in part, the use of smart technologies (automation and better use of data); skills development particularly in IT (education and training); developing a renewable energy project; and, encouraging teleworking in collaboration with the Iki Telework Centre (Iki City Municipal Government Future City SDG Plan 2021).

4. Community Cooperative Support (CCS) initiative (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai (地域おこし協力隊))

The Community Cooperative Support initiative (CCS) was started in 2009 by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) and provides support for people moving from urban to rural areas. Members of the initiative are supported in the form of a stipend (between 160,000 - 250,000 Yen a month (~£990 - £1,350)) for a maximum of three years via payments that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications provides to local municipalities. In return for receiving this stipend, members of the CCS take part in a range of activities aimed at promoting or preserving local culture, history or nature (Reiher 2020; Klien 2022). Since its inception, the number of participating municipalities has increased from 31 to over 1,000 with 6,005 individuals taking part in 2021 (see: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Report 2022). The long-term goal of the CCS initiative has been to encourage regional revitalisation by bringing in CCS members to work in areas suffering from population decline and ageing and ultimately to encourage primarily working-age individuals to migrate permanently.

Figures collected by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (2021) indicate that 63% of participants in the CCS scheme ended up staying in their adopted areas after completion of their three-year CCS term indicating some success. Members of the CCS initiative are placed on remote islands in Japan, and a number of island authorities are appealing for people interested in taking part in the scheme. However, the figures from Okinawa, a cluster of islands at the southern-most end of the Japanese archipelago, show that only 48% of CCS members take up permanent residence in Okinawa, in comparison to the nationwide average of 63% (this proportion staying in Okinawa increased slightly to 56% in 2022 (see: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Report 2022)). This suggests that permanent relocation particularly to some islands presents a set of challenges not found elsewhere, an area which is worthy of further research.

4.3.2 Island Specific Policies

Japan consists of 6,852 islands, of which 6,847 are defined as 'remote islands' (ritō (離島), excluding Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu and the main island of Okinawa. Of these, 416 are inhabited islands, and the population of these remote islands as a whole is 615,000, accounting for 0.5% of the total Japanese population. Although the total area of the remote islands is only 2% of Japan's territory, the length of their coastline accounts for more than 20% of Japan's total, and the islands have an important role as the basis for a claim to territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (Japanese Remote Islands Centre 2020). Promotion measures are implemented for 303 islands based on the five acts outlined below. These acts exclude remote islands where bridges allow daily movement off the islands (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Follow Up Document 2021).

The Remote Islands Development Act, first enacted in 1953 and currently covering 254 islands, is regarded as the starting point of the remote islands promotion policy. Originally intended as a 10-year time-limited piece of legislation (Kuwahara 2012), it has been amended and extended six times. The current act was enacted in 2012 and aims to 'promote exchanges between regions, prevent the increase in the number of remote islands with no residents and the significant decline in the population, and promote the settlement of people on remote islands' (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Follow Up Document 2021: p.24).

In addition to conventional infrastructure development, the Remote Islands Revitalisation Grant Programme (離島活性化交付金事業) has been implemented since 2013 as a support project to promote the further independent development of the remote islands. The goal is to increase employment and the number of kankeijinkō (see Section 4.3.1 above) by expanding the scope of support to include aspects of daily life such as mobility, migration and settlement. This programme is made up of three pillars: 1) settlement promotion projects; 2) exchange promotion projects; and 3) safety and security improvement projects (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Follow Up Document 2021). The settlement promotion projects include industrial revitalisation, such as the development of local speciality products, and settlement attraction projects, such as trial migration experiences (see Section 4.3.3 below). The exchange promotion projects include initiatives related to the dissemination of information and the promotion of exchange between the islands and the mainland. From 2021, in the context of the spread of Covid-19, support has been made available to combat the spread of infectious diseases on remote islands and, in order to promote new ways of working on remote islands in the wake of the pandemic, support has been expanded to include the renovation of abandoned houses and other idle facilities into shared offices and other facilities. In the run-up to the forthcoming revision in 2023 of the Remote Islands Revitalisation Grant Programme, a number of trends are attracting attention including an increase in kankeijinkō; the digitalisation of remote islands; and the creation of new industrial and employment opportunities through the introduction of renewable energy. This is in line with the government's digitalisation and carbon neutral efforts and is expected to expand the potential of the remote islands.

After the enactment of the Remote Islands Development Act in 1953, a number of similar subsequent acts were introduced to support islands that were excluded from the original Remote Islands Development Act as they were under Allied occupation following the Second World War (Kuwahara 2012). These acts include: the Amami Islands Promotion and Development Special Measures Act enacted in 1954 for eight Amami islands; the Ogasawara Islands Promotion and Development Special Measures Act in 1969 for four Ogasawara islands; and the Okinawa Promotion and Development Special Measures Act in 1972 for 37 Okinawa islands. The Amami Islands and the Ogasawara Islands Acts have been amended every five years, and Okinawa Act every ten years.[7]

In 2017, the Act on Special Measures Concerning the Preservation of the Remote Border Island Areas and the Maintenance of Local Communities in Relation to Specified Remote Border Island Areas was enacted as a 10-year time-limited piece of legislation. This Act covers 71 islands located near the maritime border and aims to maintain local communities on the islands as a base for the preservation of territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone. The background to the enactment of the Act is the ongoing friction over territorial claims with Japan's neighbouring countries (Cabinet Secretariat Webpage undated). Together with measures under the Remote Islands Development Act, the 2017 Act promotes measures such as lower fares on shipping and air routes, reducing the cost burden of daily commodities, expanding employment opportunities and promoting tourism (Cabinet Office Summary Document 2017).

4.3.3 Local Policies and Initiatives

The following outlines two types of initiative commonly found in remote or peripheral areas of Japan. Unlike above, these initiatives tend to be administered and run at a local level.

Akiya Bank

In many peripheral areas of Japan, shrinking populations have resulted in an increase in abandoned and underutilised land and houses. One approach to this issue is the akiya bank (empty house bank 空き家バンク). These initiatives, often run by the local authorities, are essentially a list of unused houses for sale or rent in rural area. The aim is to help attract potential in-migrants while at the same time utilising buildings which can become an eyesore and hazardous if not maintained. Such schemes were enabled by a law enacted in 2014 that allowed local authorities to collect information on abandoned property. While initially run at the local level, a web site by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism now collates and disseminates information nation-wide and a nation-wide non-profit organisation also focuses on the issue (Rausch 2020).

Under akiya bank schemes, administrators, often local government officials, act as links between property owners and those interested in utilising them. In comparison to a Scottish context, the cost of the houses can be very low (prices of under £10,000 not being uncommon), with houses being given away for free in some cases.[8] The akiya bank schemes have a number of benefits. First, as the schemes are often administered by local officials, potential in-migrants are offered support in selecting appropriate locations and are often introduced to members of the local community alleviating some of anxiety about moving into a new location. Second, the scheme provides owners reassurance that those taking over the property are aware of local surroundings, and are able and willing to try to integrate into communities that can be at times parochial (Takamura 2015).

Questions have, however, been raised over the usefulness of such schemes. Rausch (2020) argues that employment is the prime concern of rural in-migrants rather than housing, and hence offering housing without employment opportunities is unlikely to attract significant numbers of young families. Secondly, most empty houses are located in areas that are remote, meaning that unless people are willing to undertake long commutes to nearby cities, then such locations will be unattractive.

Migration Introductory/Welcome Services

Linked to the akiya bank schemes, a number of municipalities offer 'welcome' or 'introduction' services for those looking to migrate to rural areas. Often delivered by local non-governmental organisations, these services include information about employment and welfare, education and child-rearing. Information is primarily delivered through websites, but many areas also provide online or in-person consultations, as well as symposiums located in major Japanese cities or conducted online. Some rural municipalities even offer 'experience' services, whereby potential in-migrants can temporally live and work in the area in order to gain a sense of the lifestyle.[9]

4.4 Summary: Island Overview and Policy Context

Section 4 of the report has provided an overview of the key characteristics of Japan's islands and has summarised a number of national, local level and island-specific policies and initiative that seek to address regional decline, depopulation and promote regional revitalisation.

Japan's islands are hugely diverse in terms of their geographical, political, cultural, socio-economic and environmental characteristics, with many experiencing significant social and environmental change, particularly since the Second World War. Demographic decline and ageing has been significant, particularly on some of the more remote islands, with four key phases of demographic shift identifiable: 1) post-war and the baby boom (from the late 1940s to the 1960s); 2) high economic growth (from the 1960s to the 1970s) and labour migration (out-migration to the cities and island tourist boom); 3) energy crisis, slowing economic growth, and slowing rural out-migration (the 1970s to 1980s); 4) post-bubble (mid-1990s to present) population decline and ageing driven by low birth rates and continued out-migration.

On most islands, the importance of primary sector activities such as farming and fishing has declined while the tertiary sector has become more important in terms of employment. For some islands, tourism has historically been an important source of income, but the number of tourists has been declining steadily since the 1970s. Population decline has meant that maintaining traditional cultural practices and events that help foster a sense of communal belonging has become difficult on some islands. It is also the case that many island residents are highly mobile, between islands, borders, livelihood strategies, and forms of labour.

Japanese development policies for peripheral and remote regions have historically focused on infrastructure development (roads, facilities and communications). Indeed, post-war public works and infrastructure spending was understood to be both a means and an end to rural development in Japan. Public works were seen to not only technologically modernise rural areas and boost local economies, but also provide employment for those inhabiting remote regions, providing a valuable source of income. Such measures, it was hoped, would incentivise fewer people to leave rural areas, and reduce population decline.

However, this focus on infrastructure and public works has been heavily criticised for fostering dependence and being destructive of the natural environment, wasteful and susceptible to pork-barrel politics.[10] More recent national-level policies have included 'soft' developmental objectives and measures that concentrate more on natural, cultural and other endogenous resources.

The post-war focus on public works, infrastructure and communications can also be seen with regards to island specific development policies (e.g., the Remote Island Development Act). However, similar to other national level policies, more recently there has been a greater emphasis placed on the diversity of the Japanese islands and the endogenous assets of each island. In particular, boosting tourism has become a focus of remote island development policies in Japan, with particular emphasis on eco- and cultural-tourism. In the context of friction over maritime national boundaries, one key concern embedded in some of the island specific policies relates to territorial claims and national security issues. Rural development policy in Japan has increasingly begun to focus on digitisation, digital connectivities, automation and AI as a means to both improve the economic outlook of remoter regions and tackle the issues stemming from of population decline and ageing. Linked to the importance placed on digital technologies, greater emphasis has been placed on sustainability and the role of renewable energy in both income generation and decarbonisation. In the context of the high concentration of human and financial capital in the three main metropolitan areas of Japan, a key aim of a number of different rural development policies has been to encourage greater flows of people from urban areas to more remote regions. Such aims can be seen with regard to kankeijinkō, the Community Cooperative Support initiative and a variety of other local and national programmes. Such schemes are particularly notable in the context of Covid-19 as evidence suggests that the population of Tokyo has fallen for the first time in 26 years, and there has been a 'remarkable reversal of pre-COVID migration patterns and trends' in Japan (Fielding and Ishikawa 2021: p.11). In a country where the population is still declining overall, there is evidence of some debate about the goal of regional and island specific policies and whether this should be population growth and revitalisation or sustainability and the management of change.


Email: population@gov.scot

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