Muroran spreads over an islet at the point and stretches along the curve in Volcano Bay. It was in a magnificent setting, with the mountains towering in the distance and a volcano at the opposite end of the bay. But the squalid, ugly mining village defiles its heritage. Acrid black smoke poured from the steel mills and settled upon the town like some evil omen.
Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land and up and down Eastern Asia, Neill James (1942)
This town is so grey,
Even on a sunny day,
It’s shutting down, It’s shutting down,
No jobs for the young,
To bigger towns they all run,
It’s shutting down, It’s shutting down,
My home town, it’s shutting down
Muroran, Leigh Sloggett (2006)
Muroran, essentially, does not exist in the collective consciousness of the English-speaking peoples. It would not have been possible to make that statement with any confidence a decade ago, but now we have Google, which is a proxy, a rough and imperfect one admittedly, but a proxy nevertheless for the collective consciousness. Muroran seems to exist, returning an apparently healthy 250-000-275,000 hits (the count depends on variables such as time of day, computer, type of Internet link, and this applies to the coming numbers, too). Almost all of this is (cyber) space-junk, though: endless mirror sites for Wikipedia and other encyclopedias, hotel, flight, and trip adviser sites with automatically generated pages, and aggregator sites that have sucked every online print media article available for free into their libraries of babble.
Navigate past the astral junk with quotation marks and the searches return dramatically different results. “Muroran is” generates 270 hits but Google runs out of puff at 132, with the familiar boilerplate: “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 132 already displayed.” Search engine policy is not to show more than 1,000 or so actual hits on the initial search, but below that number, as far as I can make out, the undisplayed sites are largely content digested from elsewhere, regurgitated wholesale, and hence of no interest. Other plausibly common verb combinations throw up similar results: “Muroran has” produces 265 hits, of which 59 are genuine, and “Muroran does” just 14, of which 6 are genuine.
“Muroran is” catapults the searcher instantaneously into the nethermost regions of cyberspace, the ones that Spike Japan inhabits. Of the 132 references, I would guess that 50 or so are still junk, with one page about yakitori recurring with particular frequency. Switch to advanced search mode, take out “yakitori”, and nine pages disappear. So we’re left with a depleted pool of 70 or so pages—although by no means comprehensive, it should be a representative enough cross-section of what English speakers have had to say about Muroran.
Digging deep into the sediment unearths some travelogues of pre-war Western visitors to Hokkaido, true obscurities such as Alfred M. Hitchcock, author of “Over Japan Way” (1917), about whom the Internet yields nothing, save for the entire text of this book, and petticoat vagabond Neill James, who led a sufficiently long and interesting life to deserve her own Wikipage, I can’t help feeling. There are a smattering of later curiosities, such as a snippet from 1945 US Army occupation plans and a 1959 IBRD appraisal report on a request via the Japanese government from Fuji Iron & Steel for a loan for a blast-furnace project, in 60-plus pages of typewritten finery. Who puts this stuff on the Internet, and why? Moving into the present day, when people write blogs not books and there are native speakers of English stationed in the most remote nooks and corners of Japan courtesy of the state-run Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, there are a handful of Muroran-set blogs, most already dormant as the blogmasters and blogmistresses have moved on or returned home.
And that’s pretty much that. There must be another way into the mystery of Muroran in the English-speaking world, I reasoned; rather than use the sledgehammer of Google, what about the scalpel of the world’s great journals of record?
The Economist (archive back to mid-1990s): Nothing
The Times (archive back to 1785): Three post-war mentions, the last from 1970, about the Japanese steel industry’s ambitious aims
The Guardian (archive back to 1998 or so): Nothing
The New York Times (archive back to 1851): Half-a-dozen or so post-war mentions, including by far the best of the articles I’ve been able to track down, the last from 1986
The Washington Post (archive back to 1877): Four post-war references, all minor; nothing since 1966
The Los Angeles Times (free archive back to 1985): Nothing
The Globe and Mail (undated archive): Nothing
Sydney Morning Herald (archive back to 1990): One article from 1994, on whale watching
Business Week (archive back to around 2001): Nothing
Newsweek (archive back to at least 1996): Nothing
Time (archive back to 1936): One wartime article, nothing since
Let me see if I can at least populate the Internet with a few more Muroran-led copula. First, let’s be clear about one thing: Muroran is emphatically not a holiday destination, despite the occasional cruise liner that puts in, as if by accident, and whisks its passengers off to less grimy climes. Rte 779 from Date to Muroran along the coast is of such unalloyed ugliness that it would have brought tears of joy to Sir Basil Spence and other proponents of the béton brut style in architecture. Concrete is to be sure a wonderful thing, but does every town and village in Hokkaido need its own cement works, and do they all have to be situated on the shoreline?
Nearing Muroran, a long forsaken drive-in, the Daibutsutei (“Big Buddha Restaurant”), built to exploit the view over the harbor, was strewn with Buddhist statuary.
A couple of hundred meters further on came my first, stygian glimpse of Muroran: the Nippon Oil refinery complex, its rising vapors forming a continuum of misery with the low-hanging rainclouds.
I gulped and started to question my sanity. What on earth was I doing here? I was supposed to be on holiday, for crying out loud. Muroran was the first place on my itinerary that was unambiguously not a sunny vacation spot. Then I recalled the twin causes of my original intrigue. The first was the shock of the bare bones of two population datapoints—150,199 in 1980 and an estimated 96,135 in 2009, a precipitous decline even by Hokkaido standards. What had led Muroran to lose more than a third of its population in less than three decades? The second was news that had been filtering through that ailing department store operator Marui Imai was almost certain to close its Muroran outlet as part of its last-ditch efforts to restructure, thereby bringing down the final curtain on 118 years of association with the city.
Resolution restored, I crossed the Hakucho (“White Swan”) Bridge that spans the harbor and plunged down into the heart of Muroran’s gathering darkness.
The first order of business was to find a hotel; I pulled one, the Muroran Prince, almost at random off the map. It was anchored in the shopping and entertainment district of Hamacho, a stone’s throw from the station; or rather, what had once been a shopping and entertainment district, because the shutters had long been brought down on most of the businesses. If the Prince had once had any connection with the respectable nationwide chain of Prince hotels, it was long gone. The lobby was a feast of 1980s browns, running the gamut from beige to bronze. The room I was assigned looked over the car park of the adjoining and abandoned pachinko parlor, grass and weeds pushing up through the asphalt in a checkerboard pattern; it would have made a good spot for a game of giant chess. The hotel was so badly designed that the next morning, stumbling caffeine-free out of my room to breakfast, I ended up in the service elevator by mistake and the doors opened not onto the lobby but a bleak and dimly lit storage area for provisions that immediately had me thinking of oversized rodents.
There was just enough light left to head off in search of the Marui Imai department store. Muroran has been both blessed and cursed by its geography: blessed because it has probably the finest natural harbor in all of Hokkaido, cursed because it was precisely this that led to the development of the heavy industry that blighted the land and has undergone such wrenching structural change in the last few decades. Doubly cursed, because Muroran proper sits on a rocky promontory that was once an island but has long been adjoined to the Higashi Muroran (East Muroran) mainland by landfill, the narrowness of the physical setting giving it at one time the highest population density of anywhere in Hokkaido outside of Sapporo, an abundance of brutalist apartment blocks, and an elevated urban expressway typical of a big city rather than a town of 100,000, along which I made my way in twilight drizzle to Higashi Muroran and the Marui Imai department store.
Post-war Japan took to the department store with a vengeance: at their peak in the 1980s there were probably more than a thousand the length and breadth of the land. Every city with more than 100,000 people had to have at least one; blue-collar Muroran boasted three at one time. When Marui Imai closes on January 20 next year, it will have none.
Marui Imai was established in 1872 in Sapporo as a haberdashers and kimono store, as so many of Japan’s department stores were, and at its zenith was the largest operator of department stores in Hokkaido, with stores in Sapporo and Hakodate, which will survive, as well as Muroran, which will not, Otaru (closed October 2005), Tomakomai (closed October 2005), Kushiro (closed October 2006), Asahikawa (closed July 2009), and Asahikawa airport (closed July 2009). It was badly hit by the failure of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank and a concurrent scandal surrounding the misappropriation of company funds for personal use by the then president, a scion of the founding family.
The decline of the department store is not confined to Hokkaido’s grittier towns and scandal-tainted operators; it is secular and growing ever more acute. Department stores are being assailed on every conceivable front, by out-of-town big-box general merchandizers, which offer broadly the same range of products at vastly cheaper prices, by outlet malls, which steeply discount the designer brands that were once the cream on the milk for department stores, and by brand boutiques and other specialty retailers, which offer an air of exclusivity that mass-market department stores, so symbolic of Japan’s “100mn middle class” of yore, could never hope to match. Department store sales have been stagnant for years; in the tumult of the last year they have been sliding by more than 10% versus previous-year levels, by more than 20% in recession-wracked provincial cities such as Sendai. That is the broad-brush national picture, at least: when down-at-heel towns like Muroran lose their last department store, there are no boutiques and malls to usurp their place. Virtually all Muroran will be left with when Marui Imai is gone are four supermarkets, two electronic goods warehouses, a DIY superstore, and a sub-IKEA home furnishings retailer; precious little glamour or the promise of a better life anywhere to be found there.
Japan’s department stores almost all cleave close to a fixed formula—food in the basement, accessories and cosmetics on the first floor, then two or three floors of women’s apparel, one floor of men’s apparel, one floor for children and household goods, top floor for restaurants and exhibitions—and Muroran’s Marui Imai was no exception. I delighted in the warped English of the retail vernacular on the floor guide: “young” (women aged 16-23 or thereabouts) and “missy” (women from 23-35 or so) on the second floor, “missy” and “misses” (women over 35) on the third. The store was almost completely deserted (well, it was a late Tuesday afternoon) and I rode the escalators alone; no sight was more poignant than that of two middle-aged employees, who will, like all of the store’s staff, be made redundant when it shuts, meticulously polishing away smears on the glass of the escalators. The waft of the escalator is intrinsic to the delight of the department store, as steps steepen and vistas disappear, only for others to open up as the steps get shallower and the riders are ushered silkily on to a new floor of yet more seductive abundance. Where will the escalator flâneurs of Muroran get their detached kicks once Marui Imai is gone? Riding the escalators I was reminded once again of how feminized a presence the department store is, at least in its Japanese incarnation, not only in the sheer amount of floor space given over to women’s pleasures and the predominantly female staff, but also something less tangible in the atmosphere, the aromas of cosmetics that percolate up the escalator shafts and an encompassing softness and delicacy of touch, something that is easy to overlook in the big city but hard to ignore in as muscular a place as Muroran. The poor women of Muroran! Where will they get their shopping thrills come February?
Returning to Muroran proper, I hunted the rain-glistened early evening streets for somewhere, anywhere to take the load off. Narrow stairs that ascended up above an abandoned pachinko parlor led me to rest my rear awhile in Live Bar Rear Rest in the company of Mayumi and Naomi.
I ordered a Guinness and set to making some notes. It was about 7pm and was the only customer (well, it was a Tuesday evening). I ordered another Guinness and finished up my notes. What kind of place was Muroran, I asked.
“It’s a steeltown!” chirruped Mayumi.
“And the fishing industry is flourishing!” volunteered Naomi.
What did they like about living in Muroran, I asked.
“People are so kind!” enthused Mayumi.
“And the food is delicious!” exclaimed Naomi, almost overcome with emotion.
It was clear I wasn’t going to get anything other than junior-high textbook answers out of them, so I ordered another Guinness and steered the conversation in a different direction. Rear Rest was an impressively kitted-out set-up, shelves groaning with booze, flat-screen TVs hanging in every corner, and a decently sized stage. It was opened by a Tokyo returnee, the girls said, which as soon as I heard it made complete sense, as it had to be metropolitan rather than Muroran money that had concocted this elaborate confection of a bar. I admired his courage. Although the girls were playing hip-hop, the live performance schedule was all jazz, and I discovered later a strange affinity between Muroran and jazz—there are jazz cruises in the harbor in summer, for instance—perhaps because their 1920s-1960s heydays coincided. The conversation petered out and I decided to go in search of food. The bill was another reminder of the owner’s Tokyo sojourn: Y3,100 ($34, £21) for three Guinness. No wonder I was still the only customer when I left.
Next morning I wandered the rain-swept streets around the hotel again, made too disconsolate by the decay to raise a camera to record it. The awning-covered sidewalks were graced by wheezing loudspeakers at every rusty upright, belting out an old Leiber/Stoller classic to nobody but me.
I didn’t know if it was day or night,
I started kissin’ everything in sight,
But when I kissed a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine,
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number Nine…
What happened to Muroran? The city has thoughtfully provided population data stretching back to 1912 on its website, and if you know what you’re looking for, you can read much of the last century of Japanese socioeconomic history from the bald numbers alone. In the vicious recession of the early 1920s, the population actually falls by around 10%, despite the youthful demographic profile, then doubles in the space of six years, 1935-1941, as the nation armed for war. The post-war recovery was slow, the population not regaining the 1941 peak until 1955, but then grew steadily through the great Showa era booms of Iwato and Izanagi, peaking at 162,059 in 1970. The oil crises of the 1970s clearly jolted the local economy, with the population falling to 150,199 in 1980, but it was the 1980s upheaval caused by overcapacity in steel and chemicals and foreign competition in shipbuilding that really shines through in the statistics, with the population slumping to 117,855, a 23% decline, in a decade. Muroran singularly failed to get a seat at the Bubble table, and there are no gaudy Bubble ornaments of note in town. Heavy industry fared little better in the 1990s, and the population fell another 12%, to 103,278 in 2000.
What comes through most strikingly from the population booms and busts is that they were clearly caused by internal migration rather than an ageing population; as far back as the 1970s, layoffs and a dearth of job opportunities were forcing people, in the absence of a real social security safety net and a dependency culture, to search for work elsewhere in Hokkaido and beyond. This sheer restlessness, the lack of rootedness, is something we’ll come across again, in much more intense fashion, a little further down the road.
Since the start of the 21st century, Muroran has transitioned to a pattern of population decline more familiar to much of the rest of the country, with a demographic profile skewed toward the elderly and away from the young, as heavy industry went through a quiet and largely unheralded resurrection as it finally consolidated. Nippon Oil, for instance, brought a new cumene facility on-stream in Muroran in 2007. The Muroran plant of Japan Steel Works, founded in the city in 1907, is the only factory on the planet capable of casting a nuclear reactor containment vessel in a single piece and, riding the nuclear revival, the company is investing Y80bn ($864mn) to double capacity by 2012. So there may be a glimmer of heavy industrial light, although these investments are much more capital- and much less labor-intensive than they were in the past, and there is little on the horizon to get in the way of Muroran’s population falling to its projected 2035 level of 61,959, below its 1935 level of 65,095 and closing the chapter on a century of rise and decline.
Muroran has one final, particularly topical, claim to fame: it’s the seat of incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The Hokkaido No. 9 constituency covers a vast tract of territory and includes the larger city of Tomakomai east along the coast, but Muroran, which is the subprefectural capital, is considered the locus of the seat and is where Hatoyama’s campaign office is located. Hatoyama has held the seat ever since single-seat constituencies were created in the 1996 election, and needless to say, in the DPJ landslide of August 30 and as party leader, he thumped the LDP challenger, polling 210,461 votes to the LDP’s 79,116.
The connection between the Hatoyamas and Hokkaido dates back to Yukio Hatoyama’s great-grandfather, Kazuo (1856-1911). Kazuo, who was from samurai stock, became a lawyer and politician following the Meiji Restoration, rising to become the speaker of the Lower House. He was also a lifelong advocate of the opening up of Hokkaido, and in 1894 he bought a parcel of unclaimed land in the town of Kuriyama in the center of the island, a district which still bears the family name today and features such landmarks as the Hatoyama Shrine, Hatoyama Pond, and Hatoyama River. Not that the Hatoyama family blue-bloods ever did anything as vulgar as live in the district, but the family connection with the area came in useful when Yukio Hatoyama faced opposition to his first candidacy in the area, for the old Hokkadio No. 4 proportional representation constituency, which included the Hatoyama district (the No. 9 does not), from local LDP chapter members, concerned that Yukio was being parachuted in from outside. Once some assiduous ground-laying and flesh-pressing had been done, however, Yukio Hatoyama had the makings of a fine candidate: successful Japanese politicians, at least in the old days, were said to require three “bans”—a chiban (a local support base), a kanban (literally a sign, metaphorically name recognition), and a kaban (literally a briefcase, metaphorically mountains of cash)—and with the base secure, Yukio had the other two in spades, being the scion of one of the nation’s most illustrious political families, grandfather Ichiro having been the first LDP Prime Minister and father Iichiro, although dogged by ill-health, rising to be Foreign Minister; father Iichiro also had the good sense to marry Yasuko, the eldest daughter of the founder of the Bridgestone tire empire, Shojiro Ishibashi. (Although the eldest son inherited most of the Bridgestone fortune, with an estate worth Y164.6bn [$1.8bn] when he died, I suspect the eldest daughter was provided for well enough).
Yukio Hatoyama grew up very far from the smoke and soot of Muroran, in the supremely elegant surroundings of what is now known as Hatoyama Hall, built in Bunkyo Ward, central Tokyo, by grandfather Ichiro in 1924. The head of the LDP Muroran chapter, Koki Sakurai, fearing prior to Yukio’s electoral debut in 1986 that a princeling had been foisted on the vast and in places very rural constituency, told the aspiring politician that he wanted him to become a candidate that looked good in Wellington boots, and Yukio apparently obliged, leaving no paddy or potato field untrodden if there was a vote at the end of it.
Hatoyama has now been elected eight successive times in Hokkaido No. 4 and No. 9 (although he came within a few thousand votes of losing in the 2000 race), and on September 16, 2009, in becoming Japan’s 60th Prime Minister, he also became the first ever one with a Hokkaido constituency.
Now you would have thought that some enterprising Anglo-world journalist would have been alert to the contrasts between the world of privilege into which Yukio Hatoyama was born and the necessarily narrower horizons of many of his constituents, between his glittering CV—the Stanford University PhD, the associate professorship at Senshu University (founded by great-grandfather Kazuo)—and their more modest ones, and taken a trip to Muroran, Tomakomai, and their hinterlands, to produce a lively 1,000 word article on the makings of the Prime Minister and the challenges that lie ahead, as evinced by two depressed rustbelt port towns, in the remaking of Japan. You would have thought… But Muroran, with one paltry article to its name in the last two decades, is the town that Time, and the rest of the Western media, forgot, and by extension so is the rest of Hokkaido and much of the Japanese archipelago.
I drove down to the surprisingly porous and accessible dockside to gaze out over the Nippon Steel Muroran Works, which today has barely 700 workers, a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands it must have employed in the glory days.
Back up in the hills of the peninsula, I bade farewell to Muroran
and headed east along the coast through the spa town of Noboribetsu (1980 population 56,503, estimated 2009 population 52,752, projected 2035 population 36,464).