Japan’s Rural-Urban Divide

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An untold story is emerging in the mountains, farmlands, and forests of Japan.
On March 11, 2011, disaster struck the island country: first in the form of one of the largest earthquakes to hit the island country and, second, a nuclear reactor meltdown.
The disasters have forced the Japanese government to reconsider its position on energy and environmental planning.

But while considerable time has been dedicated to the ways in which Japan can surmount the questions of energy security in the post-Fukushima Daiichi era, a new story – not one cradled in the bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka, but instead in the ancient Japanese countryside – is being ignored. Rural communities throughout Japan are becoming increasingly vocal about an urban-rural divide that has been generally unquestioned for over 150 years. This newfound rural voice is pulsating throughout the countryside, speaking of environmental justice and an unfair urban bias in planning. As the Japanese government continues with ongoing energy and environmental planning debates in this new era, this voice is positioned to become increasingly loud.

Industrialization in Japan has two historical periods of particularly rapid development and urbanization. The first period between 1910 and 1930 followed a series of radical political and economic changes ushered in by the Meiji government. Meiji leaders “concentrated industrialization efforts in existing major urban areas,” namely Tokyo and the commercial center of Osaka where, for example, the first national government constructed railroad systems were built. During this time, Osaka, Tokyo, Kitakyushu and Nagoya – all large urban centers – emerged as the industrial and economic centers of Japan, accounting for more than half of the nation’s industrial production in the 1920s with Osaka accounting for 27 percent alone.

By the end of the second, post-World War Two period of industrialization in the 1980s, growth in and directly around Tokyo increased further, resulting in the “Tokyo unipolar concentration problem, [which is] an acute condition of political, economic, and socio-demographic activities converging in Tokyo at the cost of other areas.” However, the growing divide did not go unnoticed by those marginalized in regional and peripheral prefectures throughout Japan during both periods. As industrialization and urbanization progressed, social and economic divisions between the urban and rural spheres in Japan began to become increasingly more pronounced.

It is important to consider the implications of these developments. In particular, the way in which neoliberal restructuring has manifested itself in the power dynamic between cities and peripheral regions is crucial to understanding the post-Fukushima Daiichi incident’s political and social environment. As the Japanese government in Tokyo seeks to minimize the effects of the disasters through new policies, the history of restructuring and the urban bias tears the fibers between urban and rural Japan.

According to David Harvey, social justice strongly correlates to the power of the ruling class. In particular, neoliberal restructuring – under the auspices of endless capital accumulation – creates markets that further divide the gap between rich and poor while also exacerbating racial, religious and ethnic divisions. The thirty year history of neoliberalism in Europe, the United States, and currently Asia demonstrates that “the freer the market the greater the inequalities and the greater the monopoly power.” This divide, Harvey argues, involves the right to the city, or namely the ability to change spaces to meet our needs and desires. However, neoliberalism is effectively resting power in specific places and spaces. For Harvey, the manifestations are negative: private

property and the profit rate have not created equality, inclusion, and justice. For Japan, the effects of restructuring have undoubtedly affected urban populations, but even more compelling is the way in which the country is governed. In effect, neoliberalism in Japan should raise questions about the right to the country, not just the city, as the dynamics between the urban and rural become a matter of a specific spatial bias.

The Japanese government is attempting to drastically restructure its environmental and energy policies to address the problems surrounding the Great Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown. In most regards, the gap created by and issues arising from nuclear energy policy and planning takes a distinctly rural face; most all nuclear power reactors in Japan are located in rural prefectures even if these reactors mainly supply energy to large urban centers like Osaka or Tokyo. Especially with regard to Fukushima Daiichi, rural populations became highly polarized, altering public opinion on energy planning and central government directives.

By closing down nearly all of the country’s nuclear power reactors, the government is seeking to increase the share of renewable energy generation, while also considering the possibility of reopening some of its nuclear power plants. However, rural populations – those who are most affected by the changes – are no longer quietly accepting the directives of the central government. Rural communities began to challenge the central government initially by verbally stating their distrust in the official narratives being handed down by government officials and utility public relations experts. That distrust is being echoed at official levels. For example, Ehime Prefectural Governor Tokihiro Nakamura publicly questioned the verbal reassurances and the central government-directed safety agreements following the nuclear power reactor disaster. Ehime Prefecture, a small regional prefecture, is home to three nuclear power reactors.

While nuclear energy engenders considerable fear and thus significant opposition, even renewable energy planning in rural prefectures is facing problems arising from the urban-rural divide. Expectations for renewable energy capacity development may be unrealistically high, but renewable energy is still among the most widely advocated approaches to dealing with the nuclear energy gap. For Japan, wind and solar energy provide the most likely options with wind being perhaps the most viable, especially considering the large wind resources in Northern Honshu and Hokkaido as well as offshore wind energy. However, rural environmental groups and fishermen have opposed the development of wind energy, claiming that it transforms the natural environment and endangers their livelihoods due to ecosystem vulnerability. While not one of the aforementioned renewable sources, geothermal is also an interesting case, as the Japanese onsen – hot bath – industry fears it will affect their operations throughout the country. These rural interest groups are an important component of the backlash to the central government. Most notably within the countryside is the unprecedented emergence of the rural voice. Particularly during the second period of industrialization following the Second World War, Japanese rural communities were rarely vocal about opposition to central government plans, especially given the rapid development. However, a decade of economic stagnation and disasters has created a more vocal population capable of asking tough questions of the government.

While the central government seeks to implement energy and environmental planning following the disaster, rural populations continue to become increasingly disenfranchised by what they perceive as an urban bias in planning. For over a century, the central Japanese government has emphasized the urban at the expense of the rural. Because of the accumulating effect of the “lost decade” and the subsequent neoliberal reforms, rural governments and citizens no longer simply accept the plans of the central government without voicing concern. As such, the urban-rural divide will create a variety of political, economic, and social issues as Japan moves forward with energy and environmental planning in the coming years.

Justin R. Moore is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, studying international energy and environmental planning. He is a Japan Fellow conducting energy planning research and interviews through the partnership between the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs and the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership.

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