Empty Theme Parks, Lower Pay Saving Japanese Ghost Towns

In the wake of Japan's debt crisis, hardship reigns in parts of the countryside, where many small cities and towns owe punishing sums of money.

When the mayor of Yubari looks out his window, he sees a ghost town. Most of the stores have rolled down their shutters, and many of the warped wooden houses are rotting. It’s hard to imagine that decades ago this former coal-mining town had 120,000 inhabitants. Only about a tenth remain, predominantly those too old or poor to move away.

A clearance sale has started in this city on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido: The mayor’s official car, a Toyota Crown, has just been auctioned online by his employees. They got about €5,000 ($7,421) for it, and a large, gleaming gemstone brought in €2500 euros ($3,711). Next, they want to sell off 130 bonsai.

Mayor Hajime Fujikura receives visitors with a bow. Even as his city declines, he maintains his polite Japanese form. His office has grown lonelier. Since Fujikura was elected in April, 129 of 269 employees -- who failed to agree to 40 percent cuts in pay -- have left city hall.

Yubari is bankrupt, but it’s not Fujikura’s fault. The town’s citizens elected him to rescue them from a state of emergency. Within 18 years they'll need to pay back a mountain of debt -- 35 billion yen, or about $323 million. It can hardly be done, says Fujikura. But he has only just arrived in office and still has to determine how much pain Yubari’s citizens can take.

Exactly where that threshold lies is a question occupying the entire nation. Yubari is the laboratory where a more widespread disaster can be studied on a small scale. Japan's two largest newspapers have dispatched top correspondents to this backwater and stationed them in city hall, next to Fujikura’s office. Their task is to document the crisis in fastidious detail.

Help from Sumo Wrestlers

What's happening in Yubari is also happening in many other communities. With gross debt exceeding gross domestic product by 160 percent, Japan's government has a higher level of public debt than any other industrialized country. Hardly anyone in Japan can feel indifferent about Yubari's fate.

Its citizens save and save. City baths and toilets have been closed. The hospital has been downgraded to a private clinic. Seven elementary schools will merge into one. And Fujikura isn't allowed to order the streets of this wintry city to be cleared until the snow piles more than 15 centimeters (six inches) high.

Now Yubari can hardly stave off expressions of solidarity from the rest of the nation. Even sumo wrestlers have been to the city to cheer up its inhabitants with free displays of their martial art. Such a wave of sympathy is unusual -- almost a silent act of rebellion -- for Japan, where most residents avoid conflict and value harmony above all. It’s a protest against Tokyo and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled the country for over 50 years. Their economic reforms have widened the chasm between big cities and the countryside.

The Japanese aren't likely to tolerate this situation. They long for the days of close cooperation between government and industry, when Japan had a peculiar mix of socialism and capitalism that put almost everyone in the middle class. This longing explains why voters punished the LDP in July in the upper house election, which forced then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resign.

His successor, Yasuo Fukuda, aims to restore trust. The son of former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda speaks softly and precisely, in the correct style of an administrator. His style is what the party needs -- Japanese voters want security rather than slogans. And Fukuda has promised to help abandoned communities.

Tokyo has only now -- belatedly -- discovered the magnitude of the structural crisis in the provinces. Japan’s strict system of central government, which confers far too little responsibility on individual communities, is to blame. For years, LDP politicians just pumped money into their constituencies to mitigate the effects of economic recession in the '90s -- or bridge the gap as coal mining was phased out.

Those who profited from these handouts were primarily building tycoons and a number of dubious local politicians. Yubari’s former mayor built one concrete block after another with funds from Tokyo, in an effort to transform the coal-mining area into a tourist paradise. Two hotels, ski slopes, and a theme park grace the desolate countryside. Only visitors are missing.

In the past, the LDP would have saved the bankrupt city by throwing it more billions of yen. But now Toyko must approve any expenditure proposed by Mayor Fujikura. Only in saving money does he have free rein. The more assiduously he economizes, though, the more taxpayers move away.

Fujikura doesn’t want to let his bankrupt city sink into poverty. He’s desperate for revenue, and now he’s found a source. Since more and more cities and communities are sending delegations to Yubari to learn from the debt disaster, Fujikura now collects a kind of entrance fee -- €90 euros ($134) for every group of five. If Yubari goes under, at least it won’t go under for free.

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