Regional Vitalization: Japan at the Crossroads

Regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba (left) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe display a sign in front of Ishiba’s new office in Tokyo in September 2014 (Credit: The Japan News).

The Heisei mergers are long done and Japan has turned to vitalizing its rural economy. The question is whether such a policy will work.

Memo #331

By Anthony Rausch – asrausch [at]

Andrew S. RauschThe current focus on regional vitalization by the Abe Cabinet reflects Japanese concern with its dropping rural population and Tokyo-centered economy. The question facing Japan is whether the policy that has been crafted to achieve vitalization is simply a repeat of the municipal mergers of a decade ago.

The Heisei mergers, the municipal mergers of the Heisei era (1989~), undertaken from 2000 to 2006, represented a neo-liberal response to the perceived fiscal ineffectiveness of Japan’s developmental state economy. Pre-mergers, the central government subsidized over 3,000 local economies through massive infrastructural development funded by tax reallocations. The Heisei mergers program rewarded municipalities—cities, towns and villages—that merged, bringing the number down to 1,700. Ten years on, while the aims of budget streamlining and reduction have been attained, the mergers have also yielded local service inequalities and loss of security for many local residents, as it is now clear that advantaged municipalities attracted partners and prosper (which they would have regardless), while disadvantaged municipalities, even those that merged, still struggle.

The Abe Cabinet is now adopting a similar approach to regional revitalization, calling on municipalities to outline a “strategic vitalization plan” to cultivate local industry through small-scale enterprises, capitalize on local “originality,” and to ensure sufficient residents. However, the reality for local places is much more complex, if not problematic. Rural places often need “vitalization” precisely because they are rural places; a lack of economic dynamism—innovative industry, for example—is inescapable and the options of vitalization strategies are few.

Regional vitalization as national policy will likely ultimately yield the same result as the Heisei mergers. The lesson that should have been learned from the mergers is that perhaps the best that can be negotiated for many rural areas is “managed continuity,” where the trajectory of a disadvantaged locale is managed, with national-level support, so as to minimize the inequality in service for locals and image for tourism vis a vis more advantaged places. As more and more urbanites recognize the “lifestyle value” of non-urban locales, long-term regional vitalization may best be envisioned as ensuring that regional areas simply survive.

Anthony S. Rausch is a professor at Hirosaki University, Japan.

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Figure showing decline from 3.232 municipalities as of March 31, 1999 to 1,727 as of March 31, 2010 (Source:
Figure showing decline from 3.232 municipalities as of March 31, 1999 to 1,727 as of March 31, 2010 (Source:



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