Hokkaido: The Other Japan
Hokkaido, literally "North Sea Circuit," is Japan’s largest and northernmost of its 47 prefectural-level subdivisions. The Tsugaru Strait separates Hokkaido from Honshu, the largest island in Japan, although the two islands are connected by the underwater Seikan Tunnel, which is a 53.85km railway tunnel, with a 23.3km portion under the seabed, the longest undersea tunnel in the world. It has wonderful natural gifts, not the least of which is wide open space to stir the expansive imagination that tends to get stifled in Tokyo. Its population density, 72.5 people per square kilometer, is one-fifth the national average.
Why, one wonders, is Hokkaido not flourishing?
Hokkaido hosted its first Western tourist long before it was properly dressed for the occasion. In 1878, Japan was a mere 10 years into its modernizing Meiji Restoration. Hokkaido, cold and distant, had only lately encountered agriculture, let alone industry. If Japan in those days was emerging at last from the Middle Ages, Hokkaido, its northernmost main island, still had one foot in the Stone Age.
Isabella Bird was a sickly middleaged Englishwoman who traveled the world for the sake of her health. She found recuperation in unusua predicaments. In May 1878 she arrived in Yokohama and trekked slowly north. August found her in Hakodate, Hokkaido’s only city. “The city looks as if it had just recovered from a conflagration,” she wrote in her book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. “The houses are nothing but tinder.” From Hakodate, traveling on horseback and accompanied by a Japanese servant-interpreter, Bird proceeded east along the coast towards Cape Erimo. “There is something very gloomy,” she wrote, “in the solitude of this silent land, with its beast-haunted forests….”
She was a Victorian gentlewoman struggling to assimilate an extraordinary and unfamiliar reality. “I am in the lonely Aino land…seeing and sharing the daily life of complete savages…What a strange life! Knowing nothing, hoping nothing, fearing little, the need for clothes and food the one motive principle, sake in abundance the one good!”
Hokkaido then, Hokkaido now. One thing hasn’t changed: Hokkaido is in Japan but not quite of it. It is “the other Japan,” says the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) on its website. Its otherness is unmistakable. Think of almost any adjective to describe Japan; Hokkaido, as likely as not, will be the opposite. Japan is ancient, Hokkaido young; Japan cramped, Hokkaido spacious; Japan crowded, Hokkaido underpopulated; Japan traditional, Hokkaido (at least within living memory) pioneering; Japan industrial-commercial, Hokkaido agricultural; Japan refined, Hokkaido prosaic. Japan swelters in summer, Hokkaido chills. In winter it positively freezes.
Why, one wonders, is Hokkaido not flourishing? It has wonderful natural gifts, not the least of which is wide open space to stir the expansive imagination that tends to get stifled in the crowds farther south. Its population density, 72.5 people per square kilometer, is one-fifth the national average. One-fourth of all Japan’s farmland is in Hokkaido. Hokkaido supplies one-fifth the national calorie intake. Its food self-sufficiency ratio is 195 percent, against 40 percent for the nation as a whole.
Add to that a tourism potential that would have boggled the mind of Isabella Bird—some of the world’s best downhill skiing plus a wild natural beauty harbored by (though hardly confined to) six national parks where Japanese cranes, once on the brink of extinction, now thrive, together with six other species designated National Treasures. Given such riches, the brute fact of Hokkaido’s languishing economy is all the more puzzling.
Yet languish it does, and long has. Hokkaido is “the other Japan” in more ways than one. Japan’s “economic miracle” of the 1970s and ‘80s was something Hokkaido folk read about in the newspapers; here the story was of a spreading rust belt as coal, a Hokkaido mainstay since its discovery in Yubari in 1890, was elbowed out of world markets by oil. Before World War Two there were more than 200 coal mines in Hokkaido; the last one closed in 2002. An economic rebound following the cataclysmic 1997 bankruptcy of the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank proved shortlived. By 2006 stagnation was looking chronic. A 10-year economic forecast issued by the Hokkaido Electric Power Company in 2007 projected an anemic 0.25 percent average annual growth rate for Hokkaido through 2017. That was before the recession of 2008-9 made matters even worse.
Mainland settlement of Hokkaido began in earnest in the 1870s. Soldier-farmers called tondenhei were dispatched by the Meiji government to clear the land and secure it against Russian ambitions. The capital was moved inland from Hakodate to the Ainu village of Satsu-poro, soon to be known as Sapporo.
Hokkaido nowadays is just another Japanese prefecture, one of 46 revolving as satellites around the 47th, Tokyo—rather more dependent on Tokyo largess than most of the others. To some observers, that’s the heart of the problem. Japan, they say, is hyper-centralized. Important decisions are all made in Tokyo. Regional individuality, so vital to prosperity in a globalized economy, withers.
Centralization has its defenders. Its achievements are plain. Twice, both times from very unpromising beginnings, it turned Japan into an economic powerhouse—once in the late 19th century, and again after World War Two. But there are failures to note as well. Among those noting them is the PHP Research Institute, Inc., think tank.
“Today,” it says on its website, “only Tokyo is flourishing, while the regions for the most part...