Japan is seeking to rebuild towns ravaged by the recent Noto Peninsula earthquake. But should they be rebuilt? Some in the Japanese government have questioned the wisdom of investing heavily in towns that, thanks to Japan’s aging population, may no longer exist in the next decades.
The disaster before the disaster
With rescue operations still underway and aftershocks plaguing the Noto Peninsula following the devastating January 1 earthquake, talks of reconstruction are already in full swing. Prime Minister Kishida announced the government would draw 4.7 billion yen (USD 32 million) in budget reserves, with plans to raise that amount to 1 trillion yen (USD 6.8 billion).
The national government will act on behalf of local governments to manage extensive repairs to roads, bridges, and other administrative services. While construction on temporary housing has already begun, blocked roads and bad weather hinder progress.
The Cabinet won’t begin deliberations on the reconstruction budget specifics until later this month. The quake hit the communities of Wajima and Suzu the hardest and these will be the ones most likely receiving the bulk of funding.
However, even before the quake, the peninsula was contending with a nationwide issue: its aging population. During budget talks, some uncomfortable questions may come up, such as: how much should the government invest in rebuilding these towns when they’re projected to disappear in a couple of decades?
Towns on the decline
According to a December 2023 report by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Ishikawa Prefecture will see its population fall to 1 million by 2040. The largest projected decline will occur in the Okunoto region containing Suzu and Wajima, with Suzu seeing a dramatic 60.7% decline. On top of that, the population of residents aged 65 and over will make up 38.3% of the prefecture.
Of course, all these numbers are now up in the air due to the quake. But the trend of depopulation is a steady one, and even before the disaster, cracks became evident in the rural infrastructure.
Like many rural towns struggling to stay on the map, those on the Noto Peninsula have strategized how to showcase themselves as desirable places to raise families. Following the death of a newborn at its hospital, Wajima tried to address the obstetrician shortage and revamp their medical services. Suzu’s investments in urban development managed to attract 79 new residents last fiscal year. Sadly, the only hospital providing childbirth care in Suzu suspended its services in October 2023.
Investing in the Future
Aging society researcher Yamamoto Ichiro points out that it’s common to misunderstand relocation talks as simply dismantling communities and shuttling residents to urban areas. As callous as it is, it’s necessary to discuss how much the government can safely invest in rebuilding. It would also be foolish to draft a reconstruction budget that overlooks the pitfalls in the region’s infrastructure.
“What we need is to create a blueprint of how much to consolidate the region to the point where residents can provide for themselves to a certain degree,” he writes.
It’s difficult to raise children when there are few schools or well-equipped hospitals with obstetrics and pediatrics departments. Indeed, Ichikawa Prefecture has already been thinking about how to resolve that.
Governor Hase Hiroshi announced plans to centralize all the hospitals on the Noto Peninsula — news which came out the same day the quake struck. Towns like Nagi in Okayama Prefecture made healthcare more accessible to young families and increased their birth rate. A focus on revamping those services could go a long way toward ensuring those communities thrive.
But all those new and improved services will do little if there’s no strong economy keeping people in the area. If mostly elderly residents living off pensions return, that doesn’t bode well for the communities’ sustainability.
Wajima is famous for its unique lacquerware using a type of powder found only in that region. Because many artisans are already elderly, there’s no guarantee the owners can turn a profit and pay off government-sponsored loans. They also might fail to secure and teach their craft to a successor, an issue that’s plagued many industries over the years. While its ports thronged with ships, the peninsula isn’t a major draw in the marine transportation industry anymore.
Only Time May Tell
Given the inconveniences of the geology, it’s also important to remember that even reconstruction isn’t a guarantee. Several small communities with aging populations were unable to be rebuilt following the horrific 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. That left about 770 billion yen (USD 5.2 billion) of the reconstruction budget unused.
Following the 2020 Kumamoto flooding, the government told one elderly resident she wouldn’t be able to live in the area anymore due to the construction of a levee. Up to then, she’d lived in temporary housing, visiting the remains of her house daily and searching for mementos.
“I’m not happy, because I have no choice but to move,” she said.
Speaking as a natural disaster victim myself, disaster clean-up is a grueling, time-consuming process. Displaced residents may not know for weeks or months if they can ever return or rebuild. The uncertainty and trauma take a mental and physical toll that returning home may only exacerbate.
While evacuees wait for the debris to clear, it’s likely many will have established new lives and changed their minds about rebuilding. Cities like Ebino in Miyazaki Prefecture are offering evacuees livelihood subsidies and schooling assistance for their children. Similar initiatives may go a long way toward swaying former residents not to return.
Not Doomed Yet
The peninsula has received a huge influx of donations and aid. There’s also been a huge push for tourism in the prefecture following a massive wave of cancellations at hotels and onsens that only suffered minimal damage.
The loss of tourism is already hurting businesses. One onsen resort in southwestern Ichikawa Prefecture reported cancellations up to June, with an estimated loss of 6 million yen (USD 40,500).
Amid so much uncertainty, there are already those eager to return and start over. Fish shop owner Minamidani Yoshie banded together with other Wajima business owners to rent a storefront in nearby Kanazawa and restart their businesses. Even with the fate of their communities in limbo, many are looking towards the future, refusing to give up on home.
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