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Surviving in the 21st Century: The Present Situation of Remote Islands and New Regional Development

Takao Akiyama
Japan Islands Centre

Paper presented at an International Symposium on "Small Islands and Sustainable Development" organized by the United Nations University and the National Land Agency of Japan.

There are three hundred and thirty in Japan that are legally designated as inhabited, accommodating 300,000 households and 860,000 people. Scattered from the subfrigid zones to the subtropical zones from 45oN. Lat. to 25oN. Lat., these islands are governed by 221 municipalities of 27 urban and rural prefectures. With the constant northwest wind in the winter, the drifting masses of ice in the North Sea off the coast of Hokkaido, the recurrent attack of typhoons on the Southwest Islands and Ogasawara Islands during the typhoon season, and the dense fog of the Inland Sea in the spring, the hydrographic conditions and atmospheric phenomena surrounding these small islands are critical to transportational infrastructure. In terms of promotion of life and regional development, this infrastructure can be considered the lifeline to these small islands.

Many of these small islands had not been included in the government's special development programmes before World War II. Instead, some of them were used as military bases and became the subject of "non-development policy." What is more, the Izu Islands, the Ogasawara Islands, the Tokara Islands, the Amami Islands and the Okinawa Islands were separated from the Japanese government administratively after World War II and were subjected to difficult times. The enactment of the Remote Island Development Act in 1953 made it possible for the government of Japan for the first time to take national-level development measures for the benefit of islands located at peripheral areas. The value of this act may receive a high recognition throughout the world.

Basic undertakings such as introduction of electricity, installation of simple water supply equipment, construction of harbors, fishing ports and roads, improvement of farmlands and preservation of seashore have all progressed as projected under the Remote Island Development Act. In spite of the limited financial means of the local governments, the progress of this development has been enabled by a very high rate of government subsidies for various undertakings, including, among other things, complete government subsidies for basic undertakings such as construction of airports and refurbishment of harbors and fishing ports (outer facilities).

In the midst of the high economic growth and the changes of the nation's industrial structure after the war, many small islands were faced with a decline of their primary industries, mainly agriculture and forestry, and also a marked decrease of population. After peaking in the 1955 census, populations have gradually decreased, and there are now many islands whose populations have been reduced by half. Furthermore, local communities showing "natural increase, social decrease and decrease in total" during the period of high economic growth have undergone changes to show "natural decrease, social decrease and decrease in total." This process is quite significant from the viewpoint of regional development even the general tendencies of increased longevity and reduced childbirth are taken into consideration.

Public engineering works were promoted as a core part of undertakings by social overhead capital for the development of small islands, and small islands throughout the country underwent great changes. Nevertheless, the marked decrease of the population signifies that the concepts and techniques of small island development that have been relied upon for the last 40 years must be reconsidered.

The economies of small islands need to adapt themselves to the highly developed Japanese economy. At the same time, these economies must cope with current desire among Japanese citizens to choose their own diversified lifestyles, while meeting the needs of their inhabitants at a higher level. It is the urgent task of all the small islands to establish sustainable development techniques on the basis of entirely new concepts of development, making the most of the various infrastructures that have already been completed.

To this end, it is necessary to take measures to compound local industries to enable a shift to a local community that seeks connection with other communities. Furthermore, it is indispensable to direct attention to natural environments, traditional cultures of inhabitants, and other diverse potentials that are the pride of individual islands. This is the era of "quality of life." Now is the time to increase the value of small islands in the island nation of Japan. For the people living in big cities, small islands may be ideal for "experiencing, learning, relaxing and recuperating". To realize this potential, policy related support of various entities is proposed.

The development of small islands in Japan has now entered "the second round" - a crucial moment for the survival of small islands in the 21st century.

Present and Future Challenges

This paper deals with the present and future challenges of remote islands and how these challenges may be overcome. From 1960, Japan enjoyed high economic growth and experienced industrial restructuring. Many islands maintain forestry and agricultural industries, particularly the latter, which is based on small land holdings in steep areas. The citrus industry is one major industry that was damaged due to the liberalization of imports from citrus from overseas. The coal industry was another industry which was damaged by the Japanese government's policy on energy, and many coal mines were closed on remote islands. Ship yards were also closed due to industrial restructuring. Thus, national restructuring has had an often negative effect with regard to secondary industries in remote islands.

A major industry in small islands is the marine industry, but most are very small-scale coastal fishing and fisheries have continued to be a major industry of small islands in Japan, even before the modernization of distribution took place. In remote islands, fish culture is now being promoted so I feel that these islands can literally be a treasure house for fresh maritime products.

In 1953, the Remote Island Development Act was enacted, but we are still suffering from depopulation in islands due to migration of people, as well as a decline of people settling. In 1955, remote islands enjoyed a peak in population, but since that time, many remote islands suffered a reduction in population so that the population is now half of the 1955 levels. Thus, depopulation is the greatest challenge for the Japanese remote islands if we take into consideration the long lifespan of the Japanese people and reduction in birth rate.

Depopulation has partly been caused by the rapid restructuring of the economy in small islands, and also partly due to the change in value system. For over forty years, the national government has promoted development in remote islands by providing infrastructure, such as fishing ports and roads, and infrastructural development has been the main objective of national government development programmes. However, perhaps this is a time for us to review that system and method of development of remote islands. Perhaps new measures are now required.

Since the 1953 Act was enacted, we have taken the initiative to review the results of the Act, and in 1993, the Remote Island Development Law was amended. The national government has recognized the importance of small islands as follows:

  1. As a means to promote territorial integrity;
  2. As a means to utilize maritime resources; and
  3. To preserve the natural environment.
With the twenty-first century only a few years away, we are very pleased to learn that the government has fully recognized the importance of remote and small islands.

However, as a means of survival, remote islands are learning to think for themselves and taking advantage of their local characteristics. The island from which I come is located off Nagasaki, in the South West of Japan. The coal mine was closed and a ship yard was established, but later this yard was closed as well. Thus, we needed to examine carefully ways in which the island could survive through difficult times. The people of the island worked very hard to develop and attract new industries to the island, having regard to the types of advantages we could offer. We turned to cultivating tomatoes and brewing Japanese saké, and established a brewery company on the island. We also worked to attract a major corporation to culture seaweed, with the concept to establish training facilities. Thus, we try to incorporate a multilateral approach to develop our island. Our efforts have been recognized, and we received first prize in the Home Affairs Ministry Prize in 1989, and also won the Rural Amenity Contest of the National Land Agency in 1990.

Our example, however, is only one of many which islands are trying to develop themselves. Another example is that of Oki Nishinoshima-cho in Shimada Prefecture of Japan. In response to their difficulties, they have introduced a 'Silver Arcadia' concept. We have two terms that we use in the islands: one is 'U- turn' - to try to get young people to come back to a remote island town - and 'J-turn' - to encourage people who were not born in these islands to live in these areas. The Silver Arcadia concept is to invite middle to aged people to settle in the remote islands. These islands represent something of a paradise for those aged people to live, retire and enjoy life. Thus, the creation of a high standard of health care services was an aim of the island, for example, as an aspect of this.

Ikuchi Island, an island in the Inland Sea of Japan, and its Setoda-cho town, has established a classical music hall with excellent acoustics in an effort to attract famous classical musicians to come to the island to perform. There is no guarantee that these musicians will come to play at the hall, but the town has arranged for a boat to carry people from Hiroshima to the island for a performances. They also have a strong religious history with numerous statues of Buddha, and encourage people to come to the island to pay pilgrimage to the statues. Thus, they have worked hard to establish a very exciting space for fine art.

There are also efforts by some islands to preserve historical architecture in port and harbours towns, so that we made be proud of our past and maintain and revive the spirit of people who have been inhabiting these towns for generations. In this way, we try to look to the future.

Another example is Mitsushima-mura in Nagasaki Prefecture with its plan to attract and encourage secondary level rubber production. Since this area is very close to Korea, they have succeeded in importing necessary raw materials to produce the rubber into car mats and re-export the mats to Korea again. This area has a long history of exchange with the Korean Peninsular, and since seventeenth century, there has been a lot of effort in increasing exchange with the Peninsular. This exchange has permeated not only the grass roots level, but also the government level, as well as food, firewood and clothing. Sister City relationships with Korea have also been established. Therefore, the island is making use of this historical past and trying to build up pride in the work they are doing, and much know-how has been incorporated in order to produce local products that people can proud of. They work to promote their products. The area has also introduced twenty-channel cable television.

Other incentives have been incorporated to try to get people to live in the remote island areas, such as providing a ten year lease of land free of charge, or offering livestock, and so on. So there are a variety of efforts that have been entered into by the remote islands to counter the problems they face. Lifestyles need to be attractive and considered as worth living by the people already living in the islands, or those who want to come to live in these islands. Therefore, all aspects of livelihood need to improved the quality of life available in the islands. Of course, this takes time, but objectives need to clear and maintained throughout the process.

Many of the islands are very much dependent on sea transport, but we hope that there can be further exchanges so that there can be other means of conveyance and transport made available, and that further linkages can be established between the islands and many other parts of not only Japan, but neighbouring countries as well. Thus, exchanges are key in the process of development for remote islands. Remote islands have played an important role in acting as a base for international exchanges for Japan over the course of time. In this way, remote and small islands need to maintain a focus of survivability as well as maintain a flexibility as they move into the twenty-first century.

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