Shrinking and Sustainable? New Discourses of Revitalisation in SDGs Future Cities in Japan.

Event: 17th International Conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies
Date: Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, August 17-20, 2023
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Nationwide ageing and dramatic depopulation threaten the survival of many Japanese small-sized towns and villages. To address this challenge—which is not unique but that in Japan is compounded by uneven urbanization patterns and increasing ruptures within the socioeconomic order—the Government of Japan is encouraging municipalities to adopt a pro-growth agenda to halt decline. Notable examples include bills such as the “Long-term Vision for Overcoming the Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan” and the “Comprehensive Strategy,” both approved in 2014 as part of the third arrow of the so-called “Abenomics”. These strategies aim at curbing migration to large cities while promoting the regeneration of rural communities by facilitating, for instance, conventional notions of work, marriage, and parenthood. The “SDGs Future City” (SDGs mirai toshi) initiative was launched in 2018 to simultaneously support the revitalisation efforts of local governments and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even though this programme remains anchored in a pro-growth narrative, some municipalities are turning to sustainable development principles to manage their shrinkage process and transition towards new scenarios. 

This paper focuses on four small-sized municipalities that were selected as SDGs Future City in 2018 to explore the emergence of new discourses on revitalisation that bring environmental sustainability to the front. By reflecting on the cases of Shimokawa, Hokkaido; Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture; Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture; and Oguni, Kumamoto Prefecture, this paper investigates the role played by sustainable paradigms—such as the circular economy or the promotion of Satoyama and Satoumi landscapes—in reimagining the future of Japanese shrinking municipalities. It argues that sustainable principles help to answer Japan’s ongoing dilemma regarding how to achieve a soft landing on a smaller population while maintaining social vitality. This paper raises questions about the tacit departure from pro-growth strategies by an increasing number of Japanese shrinking municipalities and how they plan for a sustainable future with fewer people.