OSAKA >> This year, all attention is on the 2020 Olympics: how to ensure its success; what it means for Japan domestically and internationally; and how to avert a post-Olympic economic slump.
Outside the seven prefectures in the Kanto region centered on Tokyo, however, the high drama of the Games will be absent, with the notable exceptions of Hokkaido (marathons and soccer), Fukushima (baseball and softball) and Miyagi (soccer).
With that in mind, these are some of the issues that other parts of Japan are facing.
>> Demographic crisis: From Hokkaido to Okinawa, governments are facing ever-increasing aging, declining populations and the flight of younger residents and businesses to Tokyo and other major cities.
In late December, the government unveiled a five-year plan for regional revitalization aimed at easing the overconcentration of resources in Tokyo and the Kanto region. Financial assistance will be available for some startups relocating outside of Tokyo, and the plan calls for the greater use of artificial intelligence in areas of the country where relocation is difficult or workforce shortages loom.
A top priority for improving communications in isolated regions is installation of fiber optic networks.
“Optical fiber networks are already set up in large cities and some prefectures, but not in many regions, especially mountainous and depopulated areas,” said Kamon Iizumi, head of the National Governors’ Association.
>> Disaster relief: Following two major typhoons that pounded Kanto, deluges and mudslides in Kyushu and summertime highs over 100 degrees in many parts of the country in 2019, countermeasures at local levels to intensifying natural disasters has become a top priority.
The governors association presented Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a wish list that comprised support for everything from bolstering local transportation after flooding and mudslide damage to deploying rescue vehicles and helicopters.
>> Overtourism vs. ‘undertourism’: In various major tourist areas, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagoya and especially Kyoto, complaints about tourists crowding streets and subways, and their bad behavior at temples, shrines and other historical sites, continues. But many areas that have not benefited from the tourism boom see the Olympics as a chance to draw tourists who would otherwise stay in only one or two major cities.
These locales seek central- government assistance in upgrading the local transport and accommodations infrastructure, making signage tourist- friendly and promoting local culture, especially food.
Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki is anxious to ensure that a larger portion of the more than 50 million visitors the prefectural capital attracts spend some of their time and money outside city limits, and the prefecture is working with the city and the tourist industry to get people interested in other parts of the prefecture.
Nishiwaki hopes more tourists will visit the port city of Maizuru on the coast of the Sea of Japan, for instance, where the number of cruises has been increasing. He also hopes for a boost in visitors to Kyoto’s Amanohashidate region.
>> Race for casino license: By the second half of 2021, the central government is expected to have awarded three cities licenses to build Japan’s first casino resorts. With Hokkaido dropping out recently, the remaining candidates include Osaka, Wakayama, Nagasaki and Yokohama.
But the December arrest of Liberal Democratic Party politician Tsukasa Akimoto on suspicion of casino-related bribery, as well as raids on two other lawmakers for related crimes (with possibly more to come), mean that potential sites will have to monitor public opinion very carefully.
>> Osaka merger proposal: For Osaka, 2020 means another public referendum on whether to merge the city’s wards into four large, semi-autonomous districts.
It’s a move that has long been controversial, but one supporters say is necessary to reduce costs and make more efficient use of resources. Opponents, meanwhile, fear that mergers will increase economic disparities in the city. Expect lots of political wrangling and debate until voters decide whether it’s a good idea.
>> Other issues: These range from rebuilding gutted Shuri Castle in Okinawa to Hokkaido’s promotion of agricultural exports in the face of a new trade deal with the United States that will make American farm products cheaper and more widely available. In Fukushima Prefecture, many towns are still facing the monumental task of rebuilding and recovering from the March 11, 2011, mega-quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.