I have occasionally alluded to my Japan high school experience in blogs posts. Many years ago, I attended public high school in a small Japanese city in the western Kansai region of Japan. It was a glorious experience that changed my life: as an American teenager, I spent a year of high school living with Japanese families and attended regular classes with the locals. I still have many good friends and return frequently. Yet there is something bittersweet about the state of affairs in my adopted hometown that may speak volumes about Japan's future.
Approaching my adopted home town, looking out the train window.
Japan's faltering economy in the 1990s hit the Kansai region hard. The city of Osaka, the largest city outside of Greater Tokyo, has fared poorly, but the neighboring rural prefectures have suffered even more. Main street was once vibrant but is now slow and empty. The city used to have four department stores; it now has just one. There has been little notable investment in infrastructure or businesses. The overall scene is pretty depressing.
An abandoned building -- unfortunately, not uncommon.
The poor economy affects everything. The father of one close friend closed his company doors as there is “no business.” One host family closed their electronic appliance store. Signs that should have been replaced on stores are in disrepair. Metal objects and structures are rusting, wooden billboards are rotting. In a country where construction is always going on, nothing is new. The town that I knew has changed a great deal since I first came here almost a decade ago. It gives the feeling of a tired city with a desperate need of an influx of capital.
Lumber is one of the only remaining local industries.
Yet no such investment is on the horizon. Quite the opposite. The steel mills, long the core employer, have shut down and moved to China. The prefectural bank closed many of its branches to stay in business (after becoming insolvent and reorganized). If Osaka revitalized, the town could have a future as a bedtown to invite middle and upper class white collar workers, but that's not going to happen in the forseeable future.
Most depressing is that so many of my friends and the younger members of my adopted families are still there. The town has enough jobs, but not careers. The younger generation would do well to seek their fortune in Tokyo, or even Osaka, or somewhere else for the experience if nothing else. But what's worse is that many of them know this, but are hindered by an underlying lack of ambition.
Snowfall, unusual in southern Japan. The winter of 2006 was the coldest on record since World War II.
As I left my adopted home town and headed towards the bustling capital, I couldn't help but wonder if this is a snapshot of Japan's future. With a declining population (peaking this year) and little economic growth outside of the Tokyo metropolitan area, the outlook for the rural and quasi-urban areas is bleak. The recession of the 1990s is known as "The Lost Decade" in Japan. What will future generations call the 21st century?