Ghost Cities, Demographic Lessons From Japan To China

Sapporo Tanuki Koji Shopping Street in Hokkaido, Japan
Sapporo Tanuki Koji Shopping Street in Hokkaido, Japan
Kondo Daisuke

TOKYO — The popular Chinese imagination of Japan has followed along with Japan's evolution over the past four decades. In the late 1970s, when China started to reform and to open up to the rest of the world, Japan was Asia's economic power. Then, following the arrival of Japanese animé to China, Japan was the "Kingdom of Animé." In more recent years, China's neighbor has become a "shopping paradise" which attracts some six and half million visiting consumers each year.

These days, however, the Japanese don't look at their country and see this same happy, pleasant place. Instead, Japan's own sense of itself is increasingly dominated by the anxiety of a not-so-distant future where the country will become a so-called "ghost civilization." Indeed, the term "ghost city" has quietly become a popular Japanese reference.

A few days ago, a friend who works as an executive for a large company based on the northern island of Hokkaido came to visit me in Tokyo. Over dinner, he laid out his "Hokkaido collapse theory." He explained how originally only the Ainu people and animals lived in Hokkaido. But after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese started to immigrate there. "Now," he said, "while the Meiji Restoration marks its 150th anniversary next year, Hokkaido's population is continuously falling." My friend concluded by saying that if this continues, Hokkaido will collapse and become a "ghostdo," a ghost city.

Yubari City, one of Hokkaido's important industrial towns, once had a population of 120,000 people. Today, it's only 7,000. Only Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, has not seen its population fall in recent years. All other cities in the region have experienced a drastic demographic depression.

I can recall the amazing things I had heard and experienced on my visit to the island two years ago.

One night, after dining with the mayor of Hokkaido City, we took a cab to the Noboribetsu Hot Spring Resort, a 15-minute drive at a normal driving speed. But our trip that night took 40 minutes because we were only driving 20-30 kilometers per hour.

It was nighttime. There were few cars on the wide highway. The taxi driver explained why he was going below the speed limit: "This area used to have a large population. Now the population has become scarce, so bears and foxes often come down from the mountains. These animals often rush to the roads so I'm obliged to drive slowly." When I recounted this story to my visiting friend from Hokkaido, he told me with a wry smile: "Just the other day, I ran into a deer!"

In fact, the ghost-civilization is not unique to Hokkaido. Last month, the Okawa Village of Kochi Prefecture located on rural Shikoku Island was obliged, in an unprecedented move, to abolish its village council. It's said that due to a dramatic demographic decrease the council could no longer operate. Now, the 350 adults living in the village simply have to gather directly to discuss the village's affairs. Like Athens in ancient times, Okawa Village is returning to the purest form of democracy.

According to Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, by 2040, most of the country's smaller cities will see a dramatic drop of one-third to one-half of their population. Certain metropolises that look like they're bustling today are going to be turned into ghost cities tomorrow. Japan's overall population of 126 million is projected to drop to 80 million in the next three decades.

If I were a young person living in Japan, I'd probably leave my own country

Behind these statistics is the monumental challenge of Japan's aging society. When the population falls to 80 million, about 35 million of those will be older than 65 years old. Since the government considers 15-65 year olds to comprise the labor force, one laborer will have to support one elderly person in the future.

One Japanese sociologist has predicted that the social system in Japan can't possibly be maintained unless personal income tax is doubled to 90%. If I were a young person living in 2040, I'd probably leave my own country. Alternatively, a movement demanding a lower income tax may arise. By this time, fighting in the Japanese parliament will switch from being between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party to being between the ruling elderly and the younger opposition. In brief, Japan is awaiting a turbulent era.

Japan currently has 8 million empty housing units. Because young people normally don't live with their parents, children inherit an additional house or apartment when their parents die. In the past, children would have earned a substantial income by selling the property, but it is a buyer's market now and people are holding on to their properties.

In Japan, a mass of empty houses can't be sold. An hour's drive from Tokyo, rows of apartments stand almost completely uninhabited. Predictions suggest that in 15 years Japan will have 20 million empty houses.

While in China, the number of restaurants has been increasing over the past 25 years, Japan is heading in the opposite direction. Restaurants have decreased from 850,000 in 1990 to 350,000 today. In the same period, Japanese wine bars, once quite popular, have dropped from 250,000 to 50,000. The sharp drop in the number of Japan's restaurants and bars points to a drying up of vigor and vitality.

China should heed the lesson of Japan's ghost-civilization. China has a total number of elderly that is equal to the whole population of Japan, and it is still growing. Japan became rich before becoming an aging society whereas China is aging before spreading its wealth. Indeed, China's future demographic problems may be much worse than Japan has ever faced.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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