Former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda has long grappled with various issues arising from a continued decline in the nation’s population. In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Masuda said now is the time for the government to lay the foundation for a long-term fight against Japan’s low birthrate. The following is an excerpt from the interview.
The Yomiuri Shimbun: In May, the Japan Policy Council, a private-sector expert panel that you chair, released its estimates on the population decline. By the end of 2040, the number of women aged 20 to 39 will likely decrease by more than 50 percent in 896 cities, wards, towns and villages nationwide, or about half of the total municipalities, according to the projection. The council said about half of these municipalities could be wiped off the map.
Masuda: Population decline has been a concern of mine since my days as the governor of Iwate (1995-2007). During that time, enormous progress was made in integrating and closing down primary schools in the prefecture. But the process was accompanied by severe negative effects. This was evident in, for example, the difficulty in maintaining local communities that some areas experienced [due to the loss of primary schools].
However, [the consolidation] had to be carried out to accommodate a progressive decline in the number of children. The situation caused me to face a question: What will become of my prefecture in 20 years?
Even before the release of the panel’s estimates, many city, town and village mayors were more or less aware that the population was bound to decrease. However, no specific figures were available. Some municipal mayors have told me that the release of the estimates has made it easier to discuss the issue of population decline.
In fact, it is unlikely that the central government will release such shocking predictions as the panel’s projection of the potential extinction of many municipalities. This is also true of many municipal mayors. They will find it difficult to publicize such dire figures.
In the past, the national government has averted its eyes from the real cause of the population decline. It sees the root of the problem as an “inconvenient truth” that it does not want to face. Perhaps the government believed it could put off dealing with the problem.
The core of the population decline lies with two factors—a low birthrate and the concentration of everything in Tokyo. Both problems are extremely difficult to fix. Trying to resolve these problems requires different people living in different circumstances and changing their ways of life. It is no less difficult to gain a consensus from the public [on what measures should be taken to address the problem].
For example, there is a need to fundamentally change men’s attitudes toward a work-life balance if major advances in women’s roles in the workforce are to be made.
It also will be no easy task to adjust the concentration of everything in Tokyo. If any corporation seeks to relocate its head office to an area outside Tokyo, for instance, the company will find it troublesome to do so as all central government ministries and agencies are located in the capital.
This means it is essential to reform the operations of central administrative offices while also changing the attitude of the corporate sector. But doing so is an extremely formidable challenge.
Q: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said revitalizing areas outside Tokyo will be a high-priority issue facing his administration this autumn and onward. He intends to assign a cabinet minister to that task when he reshuffles the Cabinet in September.
A: It is advisable for the current government not to try to solve every single problem during its term in office. However hard the government may try [to overcome the population decline], provincial areas are going to see their populations continue to drop until as late as 2030.
It is important to look at the problem from a long-term perspective, with a view to ensuring that the downward trend takes a turn in around 2040 or 2050. The Abe government would be well advised to think all it must do is to lay the groundwork [for overcoming the population decline]. It should be prepared to firmly implement necessary policies, however negatively they may be received by the public.
Over the years, [local governments nationwide] have built a large number of water supply and sewer systems and other public facilities, taking it for granted that their populations will increase. However, they should take population decline as a given in the days ahead, and then limit themselves to maintaining and renovating only some public utilities in their areas. [Carrying out such policies] will require local governments to convince their residents of the need to do so.
The concentration of people in Tokyo is the tide of the times. Young people in provincial areas choose to leave their hometowns for Tokyo because they can’t find jobs there. It is necessary to create more jobs in each prefectural capital and other key local cities so young people can make a living in their own areas. All of this will present quite a challenge.
The portfolio of regional revitalization will require someone with extensive knowledge about both urban and provincial areas and with the skills to adequately deal with such issues as how men and women can strike a work-life balance.
This is because the government needs to expand the scope of measures aimed at counteracting the low birth rate to include those that address issues facing provincial areas in the nation. In fact, the measures implemented by the government in the past have been limited to stemming a decline in the birthrate.
With this in mind, I believe a single cabinet minister should work to revitalize provincial areas, fight the low birthrate and promote gender equality as a set of tasks.