Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A profile of Tōhoku

I'd like to start by reiterating the point of Edward's post Sunday, about the likelihood of the earthquake triggering systemic changes in Japan. Certainly the recovery process will be long: Bloomberg's Shamin Adam suggests, after the World Bank, that it might take five years for Japan to finish rebuilding.

My take? Curiously and quite unexpectedly, I learned that the afflicted region of Tōhoku in northern Honshu hosts--shades of the Taiwanese village of Houtong--a cat-loving island community. The first paragraphs of Wikipedia's article on Tashirojima suggest interesting parallels with Houtong. The two communities, it seems, are economically marginal with the decline of their previous extractive industries and facing rapidly population decline and aging, while cats are among the most famously enduring invasive species. When the people go, the cats remain.

Tashirojima (田代島?) is a small island in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. It lies in the Pacific Ocean off the Oshika Peninsula, to the west of Ajishima. It is an inhabited island, although the population is quite small (around 100 people, down from around 1000 people in the 1950s). It has become known as "Cat Island" due to the large stray cat population that thrives as a result of the local belief that feeding cats will bring wealth and good fortune. The cat population is now larger than the human population on the island. (A 2009 article in Sankei News says that there are no pet dogs and it is basically prohibited to bring dogs onto the island.)

[. . .]

Since 83% of the population is classified as elderly, the island's villages have been designated as a "terminal villages" (限界集落) which means that with 50% or more of the population being over 65 years of age, the survival of the villages is threatened. The majority of the people who live on the island are involved either in fishing or hospitality.

Tōhoku, a six prefecture region, has always been marginal, a relatively late addition to the Japanese ecumene.


Tōhoku was the last stronghold of the Emishi, a non-Japanese people linked to the pre-Yamato hunter-gatherer Jomon culture but eventually conquered and apparently assimilated by the 9th century CE. An interpretation of one recent DNA study of different regional populations in Japan might confirm that the Emishi left descendants in the current population of Tōhoku, noted as containing relatively fewer Yamato migrants than populations in western Japan. (Might.) Distant from the main centres of population and resources in western Japan, Tōhoku remained something of a frontier for a long time. In terms of the inhabitants' spoken language, for instance, the people were mocked for their thick dialect within Japan and without, the lower and deviant status of the Tōhoku dialect remaining still. Apparently the rustic character of Hagrid in the Harry Potter series has his speech rendered in Tōhoku dialect.

Tōhoku has become increasingly marginalized within Japan, in terns of its relative heft. Proof of this is easy enough to come by, since most of Tōhoku is included in the historical unit of Mutsu Province, which gathered together what is now the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima along with two municipalities in the Sea of Japan-facing Akita Prefecture (Kazuno and Kosaka). (These last two municipalities, combined have a population a bit more than a half-percent of the four prefectures entirely in the former Mutsu.)

The region has under sustained relative, even absolute decline, for centuries. The most populous Japanese province at the beginning of the Shogunate, ranking behind only the Musashi province that included Tokyo, towards the end of the end of the Shogunate the two provinces switched positions. Mutsu suffered severely from famine-associated mortality crises in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, its population falling absolutely and Mutsu's proportion of the Japanese population declining steadily from 7.5% in the 1721 population survey to 6.9% in the first Meiji census in 1873 census. The population of the Mutsu region did more than triple in the half-dozen generations to the 2010 survey, to reach 7.1 million in 2010, but its share of the total Japanese population slide further to 5.6% as of 2010. If not for the Meiji-era colonization of Hokkaido--up until the last quarter of the 19th century an island barely integrated into the Japanese political framework and populated by only a hundred thousand people--Tōhoku's gradual decline might have become that much more visible. As is, the region contains some of the least densely populated areas in the country, as Scott's map shows nicely.

This all brings us back to the question of the future of Japan. As a relatively rural and agricultural region, Tōhoku traditionally supported the Liberal Democratic Party, which whatever its other flaws at least continued to channel investments in local infrastructure. Scandals about misinvested funds and fundamental doubt helped Tōhoku transfer its loyalties to the Democratic Party.

In Tohoku, the northern part of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, and the home of Democrat founder and former leader Ichiro Ozawa, the beating was also fierce, if not quite as emphatic, as the LDP took 9 seats and the Democrats 26.

“Tohoku is generally conservative, with farmers supporting the LDP’s policies. But before the election their attitude had changed,” said Masaki Hara, a retired Sendai resident, who joined me watching results, along with many other captive ferry passengers, some of whom had lost interest in the Yomiuri Giants game on a competing TV screen.

Hara said citizens were questioning the value of big infrastructure projects, such as a subway line in Tohoku’s largest city of Sendai that had seen cost overruns, while doubting the Liberal Democratic Party’s vision.

“I don’t like Ozawa, but I support his taking on the LDP.”

One certain consequence of the disaster in Tōhoku is its destruction of the old order. Tashirojima might survive by dint of the tourism value of its cats, but how many of the small agricultural and fishing villages wrecked by the disaster will come back? Where will the money come from? Where will the people come from? Will even the regional metropole of Sendai regain its position relative to other Japanese cities less favoured by disaster? As Spike Japan's Richard Hendy pointed out, the devastation visiting not only on the Fukishima complex but on the other electric plants in eastern Japan, along with the region's power grid separate from western Japan's, means that Tōhoku--not to mention the rest of Japan--will be short of electricity, that most basic force of post-industrial civilization, for months if not years. As Charlie Stross noted in a separate post, the shortages of electricity ensure the premature deaths of thousands of vulnerable people deprived of air conditioning this summer, as far south as greater Tokyo.

Tōhoku doesn't have the resources to recover its pre-disaster levels. Japan likely doesn't have the resources necessary to let Tōhoku recover fully, and almost certainly lacks now and will continue to lack the interest in doing so given its other challenges. Tōhoku, I predict, has peaked: the long relative decline it began under the shoguns and continued through Meiji and the eventful 21st century will only accelerate, new reasons added to the many old for the decline of rural and marginal Japan that Hendy describes in his blog. The Japan Statistical Yearbook shows that the region's prefectures have been exporting people in large numbers for the past decade. Why will this slow down? Humans may be less resilient than cats, but then again, humans rightfully demand much more from their environment than their pets. Tashirojima's cats may well thrive long after Tashirojima's people have departed to whatever destination.

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