The end of the line?

The Iwaizumi line, a spur which runs for 38km and nine stations up the rugged middle of Iwate prefecture in Northeastern Japan, from the hinterland of the fish city of Miyako, mauled by the tsunami, to the cow town of Iwaizumi, whose 10,400 residents are spread out across a territory of 992km2, half as large again as Tokyo’s 23 wards, with their nine million residents, is notorious—at least among observers of these phenomena—for being the least trafficked line in the whole nation, with average daily ridership per kilometer of 46 people in fiscal 2009, one 23,000th the ridership density of the Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo. Half of it was built during World War II, prompted by military demand for clay for flame-resistant brick for industrial purposes, but it was not completed until February 6, 1972, an astoundingly late date and one by when the demographic future of Iwaizumi, then home to some 21,000 people, was already on the wall, as scrutiny of the photo below of Iwaizumi station on opening day (and also in 2003) might suggest.

The line, up and down which three trains a day trundle, led for many years a charmed life: it was targeted for the axe at the privatization of Japanese National Railways in 1987, just 15 years after completion, but escaped because the road that runs more or less parallel with it and is the only route into Iwaizumi from the south is not wide enough in many places for two cars to pass and is treacherous in winter. East Japan Railways (JR East), which inherited the line post-privatization, tried again to get rid of it in 1996, but was rebuffed. Then, on Saturday July 31, 2010, at 07:33, disaster struck. Loosened by hours of torrential rain, rocks had fallen at the end of a tunnel 24km up the line, and into them the single-carriage northbound morning train ploughed and derailed.

Most accounts say there were seven passengers and two crew—astoundingly the line was never converted to driver-only operation—on board at the time, although my fourth-hand sources tell me that at a recent presentation, JR East asserted that there were only three passengers, and all of them were train-spotters. The Japan Times reported the incident the next day thus:

A 63-year-old man suffered a graze, while a 48-year-old man badly hit his shoulder and leg, the officials said. Another passenger who felt ill and the 28-year-old driver, whose back was slightly injured, were sent to a hospital.

Naturally, the derailment featured prominently on the national evening news broadcasts and in the pages of the national press the next day. “Naturally,” I hear you scoff, “a derailment in which four people were slightly injured on a railway line of no consequence in Iwate, so far from the centers of power, why the media hype?” Well, Saturday is a slow news day and Japan is a slow news society, it is true, but let’s take a little detour to explain the prominence afforded the derailment.

You could do worse, in attempting to explain much of what happens in modern Japan—and nearly everything that doesn’t—and by extension Korea and China, than by holding the event up to the light shone by five interlocking words, all of which share a common character: anzen(sei), (安全[性], safety), anshin (安心, peace of mind), antei (安定, stability), fuantei (不安定, instability), and fuan (不安, unease). Safety is an integral component of stability, which leads to peace of mind. Its absence leads to instability and hence to unease. These words exist like the parallel strings of a guitar: a single string can be plucked or several can be strummed at once. The Iwaizumi derailment was a clear violation of the prescription of anzensei, safety, and an infringement of anshin, peace of mind, not only of the injured but of the townsfolk of Iwaizumi, engendering in them fuan, unease, that the derailment would be consequential enough to knock the line out of commission, with the antei, stability, of the “natural” order of things, replaced by the fuantei, instability, of change–even though a replacement bus service running the length of the line was inaugurated just two days after the derailment.

On March 30 this year, JR East held a press conference at which it formally announced plans to axe the Iwaizumi line. The accompanying briefing materials, available in Japanese here and in sadly truncated English here, make for astonishing reading. Passenger numbers, never elevated to begin with, have fallen to a quarter of the level they were at in 1987 at privatization. In fiscal 2009, the line generated Y8mn (about $100,000) in revenue, not appreciably more than the annual income of a family of four (about Y6mn), yet cost Y265mn (about $3mn) to run in operating expenses, resulting in an operating loss of Y257mn, so the line loses Y32 for every Y1 it takes in. The report identifies 23 places along the line where rockfalls are possible, a further 88 where rockslides are possible, and puts the cost of ensuring the safety of the line and the safe running of trains—those words again—at Y13bn (about $150mn), mostly through the time-honored method of spraying concrete on rockfaces. To put that cost into perspective, assume that every last yen the line generates could be hypothecated to payment of the construction bill—which it cannot—and that revenues will remain static—which they will not—then it would take 1,625 years, or until around the year 3637, for the bill to be paid, or roughly a thousand years after the last inhabitant of Iwaizumi, at the current population rate to halve, pops his or her geta.

It is in many ways a marvel that something as gloriously, anarchically, emphatically antithetical to the rules of economics and the regimen of the bean-counters as the Iwaizumi line should have staggered on for as long as it has. If it is indeed axed, it will be an epochal event, marking the first closure of any JR East line since privatization and potentially opening the floodgates to other closures—of JR East’s 67 conventional, non-shinkansen lines, just 16 were profitable in fiscal 2007. The language of the briefing materials, though, is apologetic, not defiant, for the company must know that it has a fight on its hands. The Mainichi Shimbun, a national newspaper, reported on the closure the day following the press conference, in an article wholly sympathetic to the defenders of the line, under the headline, JR Iwaizumi line to be axed, users despair. After briefly recounting the history of the saga, it turned to the locals:

Users and related parties have been voicing their discontent and despair about the plans to axe the line. Shunya Kawamura (17), who took the line to get to Iwaizumi High School, said, “I’m using the bus replacement service, but there are lots of corners on the highway and I get carsick.” Most of the users of the line are Iwaizumi High School students or the elderly visiting hospitals in Miyako. It was reported that, at a residents’ rally in Iwaizumi in January, some older people said that being shaken around in a bus without toilets made them feel awful. The Hotel Ryusendo Aisan, which takes in about 3,000 railway fans and other tourists a year, has been hit hard by the disappearance of tours since the accident. Hotel boss Sadaji Nakamura warned that, “If the railway is wiped from the map, the town will gradually lose its appeal as a tourist attraction.”

As an unsentimental friend who shares my fascination with the tale snorted on reading this, “JR East could lay on a fleet of luxury coaches, hand out free motion-sickness pills, hire a troupe of can-can dancers to entertain the passengers, and still come out ahead!”

Still, a cleanly professional website to defend the line has been set up and inundated with messages of support, petitions have been organized, rallies have been held—the one mentioned above and pictured below attracted some 900 folk—and cakes no doubt have been baked.

On May 10, the Iwate Nippo reports, the deputy governor of Iwate and the mayors of Miyako and Iwaizumi lobbied the deputy president of JR East for the swift and complete restoration of the line and then met with the vice minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport to request that the ministry “guide” and “advise” (read: browbeat and coerce) JR East into seeing the error of its senseless thrift, to which the vice minister’s guardedly noncommittal response was to acknowledge the importance of the line while stating the need for the local authorities and JR East to talk fully to each other and search for a resolution. Conjecture it can only be at this stage, but there may be as good as an even chance that JR East can be cajoled into spending the $150mn and saving the line.

All of this fascinates but does not surprise: the love for local, loss-making lines, a fiercely nostalgic love for a past that never existed but which is no less a valid love for all that, flames in inverse correlation with the economic utility of the line. I have never had, and may never have, the pleasure of the Iwaizumi line’s acquaintance, but during the spring Golden Week vacation last year, I rode—both ways—the Tadami line, which runs 135km from Aizu Wakamatsu in western Fukushima through snow country to Koide in Niigata, which itself was only completed in 1971, and which, if the Iwaizumi line is axed, will be crowned with the twin titles of the least trafficked and most money-losing line in the empire of JR East—and just in time I was too, for torrential rain three months later swept away bridges and services have still not been fully restored. Although no commemorative run, just a regular scheduled train, it was packed with rail buffs achatter with excitement, and along the rail-side banks were dotted throngs of hobbyist photographers who vied for the best shots. Truly, madly, deeply, Japan is geek heaven.

(With thanks to A.P. for the additional reporting)

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87 responses to “The end of the line?

  1. I can certainly imagine Japan as “Geek Heaven”, from all I’ve seen and heard … take (anyone?) those three girls in the third photo from last, apparently trying to look “Western”?

    Flash back to 19th Century photos of Japanese men and women in English Victorian garb.

    What the hell goes on? On the one hand Japan is about the most insular country on the planet. On the other hand … ? Beats me, but thanks for your pictorial and verbal insights.

    (BTW I am a bit of a train buff who, for instance, very much opposed the Beeching cuts and privatization – similar in Australia, where I have resided for 40 years. But I get the impression that one can’t really compare Japanese rail enthusiasts with those elsewhere who, for instance, keep steam trains running on otherwise closed lines and even some main lines.)

    • Japanese rail enthusiasts come in all shapes, sizes and interests, but their certainly is a sector of historical railway enthusiasts. If one would like to ride one of the older trains, especially during spring or fall high scenic season, reservations have to be made far far far in advance. And, in true Japanese style, special seasonal bento lunch boxes are sold to be eaten while enjoying the ride.

      I remember driving on a precarious road between Kitakata and Yamato Fukushima, when I suddenly came upon a quite large crowd of avid photographers in pocket-covered vests clustered around tripods seeming to sink into the tall weeds, heavy with lenses glittering in the late afternoon sun. Why? I had to stop. Turns out that there was a historical steam train coming by soon, and the lovely old stone bridge (rumored to be filled with the bones of the Korean POW`s who built it – a logic puzzle if you will…) that it was going to cross, the river, the lush mountain backdrop, and generally lovely scenery and time of day were opportune for “photography geeks” to get out. I enjoyed the whole scene.

      • Japanese rail enthusiasts come in all shapes, sizes and interests
        They certainly do that… There are about forty different types listed at the “tetsudo fan” page at Wikipedia:

        http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%89%84%E9%81%93%E3%83%95%E3%82%A1%E3%83%B3

        ranging from the station name enthusiasts to the comparers of stand-and-eat soba outlets on station concourses… I once came across a website where the (presumably male) author liked to take along a naked female mannequin and photograph her on abandoned stretches of line–in fact, he was one of the inspirations behind my “Requiem for a Railway”…

      • Thanks for filling me in Ariana. It seems, from your account, that Japanese are more sentimental than most others for some perception of “better days”, whether in the context of railways, or whatever.

        As a person born in England I still remain sentimental for a past I never actually knew at first hand, but instilled in me by reading “The Wind in the Willows”, “Three Men in a Boat” and other romantic portrayals of England pre-WW1 … I was born in the midst of WW2, to parents who’d been impoverished by WW1 and the Great Depression.

        Generational – passed-down – sentimentality seems to be universal to some degree, though I very much doubt that anyone born since (say) 1960 has any connection with history, whether real or in fantasy.

        OK mark me as a “grumpy old man”.

      • Though I very much doubt that anyone born since (say) 1960 has any connection with history, whether real or in fantasy.
        Come now, Gerry, aren’t these the laments of the elders since time immemorial? And aren’t there times and places where we could
        all have done with a little less history, such as Belfast in 1972 or Srebrenica in 1995?
        Hope you manage to escape the attentions of the “personal enemy”.

    • Hello there Gerry, how are you?
      take (anyone?) those three girls in the third photo from last, apparently trying to look “Western”?
      In a way, perhaps, but I shouldn’t read too much into it-after all emos and goths dye their hair black in the West but noone accuses them of trying to look Asian…
      BTW I am a bit of a train buff who, for instance, very much opposed the Beeching cuts and privatization
      Yes, the Beeching cuts, although I am too young to remember them directly, were on my mind when writing this. With the perfect hindsight with which we are all blessed, they do look short-sighted, but then as the story of the Iwaizumi line shows, railway lines through thinly populated lands are almost always beaten by buses for economy, as long as you ignore the implicit subsidy they receive from having their “permanant way” built and maintained for them. Japan is very lucky in that in the Tokyo to Osaka megalopolis, it has such a dense population that rail is phenomenally profitable, so profitable that it can afford to subsidise a vast network of rural services that are scarcely used.
      But I get the impression that one can’t really compare Japanese rail enthusiasts with those elsewhere who, for instance, keep steam trains running on otherwise closed lines and even some main lines
      It’s not quite such an amateur weekend hobbyist passion here but there is plenty of steam around, even on the Tadami line

      • Hi pachiguy and thanks for asking how I am … I guess we kinda know each other, because I have this site for maybe about a year or more … a VERY long time in a world that changes daily, if never in any essential way.

        Plato, 2300 years ago both described and defined the political processes of today.

        Roman historians chronicled how the Roman Empire came undone, e.g. by employing satraps and mercenaries to hold on to far-flung territories; exactly the same – except for not having nuclear weapons, nor such global reach as the Washington Empire.

        As for how I am personally? Well rat shit, because a personal enemy has threatened to have me killed … like the BIG PICTURE of the Washington Empire threatening to kill every Iranian and even any US citizen that stands in the way.

        All that said, or implied, it is important that ordinary folk involve theyselves in all manner of distractions, like preserving rail links.

        It – and much else. Especially important for Japanese people now, since Fukushima.

  2. Great writeup, as usual!

    I knew that the Tadami Line had quite low passenger numbers, but I didn’t realize that it’s the lowest-ridden line since the suspension of the Iwaizumi Line. While I’ve never *ridden* on either line, a few years ago I cycled a loop of Fukushima and Niigata prefectures and biked parallel to the Tadami Line for a ways. It really does have a great location that leads it to be such a famously photogenic line.

    One day I ended up taking shelter from the rain at Tagokura Station (a remote “秘境駅” located in the mountains between two tunnels) and noticed the sparse daily schedule of three trains a day in either direction. There weren’t many people riding on the trains that passed me, so with only three trains a day in either direction it certainly wasn’t making much in revenue.

    But wow, according to the PDF you linked, the Iwaizumi Line had 46 passenger-km/day, whereas the Tadami Line had 388. Comparing the ridership of the Tadami Line (which I already knew was quite low) to the Iwaizumi Line hits home how few passengers the Iwaizumi Line really carried.

    I was planning on one day returning to the Tadami Line and riding on one of the steam locomotive-pulled trains, but I never ended up getting around to it. Once I saw the damage caused by the rain last year I realized I may have permanently missed my chance. Oh well.

    Also, considering that this is about closing down train lines, I figured it would be relevant to point out that a few months ago I finished parts two and three of the Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail videos I’ve been (slowly) working on. If you enjoyed the Haboro Line video, you may enjoy the Tempoku and Shinmei lines:

    http://vimeo.com/album/1773138

    • Glad you liked it, not for everyone this one…
      I knew that the Tadami Line had quite low passenger numbers, but I didn’t realize that it’s the lowest-ridden line since the suspension of the Iwaizumi Line.
      Once you get up into the mountains past Aizu Bange, there really are very few people around until you come down into Uonuma in Niigata close to, what, 90km-100km later…
      One day I ended up taking shelter from the rain at Tagokura Station
      Tagokura is an extraordinary place, isn’t it? I have a photo of the platform with a mountain of fly-fishing gear on it but noone around.
      Once I saw the damage caused by the rain last year I realized I may have permanently missed my chance.
      I don’t think you have. Although there is still a 50km chunk missing around Tadami itself, which must have felt more isolated than ever last winter, as I believe there is no way out south/west without the train, there are absolutely no plans to scrap the line–JR East wouldn’t dare even propose it.
      Thank you for the video links, will enjoy later!

      • Considering that I initially found this site last year by searching for “Japan abandoned railway” and finding your “Requiem for a railway” holding the top spot, I’d say that this kind of article is exactly why I first started reading your writings.

        Ahh yes, the nothing that’s in the mountains in that area. A few km after I finally ventured out of Tagokura and started up the mountain my bicycle chain snapped, but luckily a guy eventually drove by and gave me a lift. I was a bit worried.

        While at Tagokura I was trying to figure out why the heck the station was there, and it’s only just now that I found out that it’s used as a starting point for climbing the nearby mountains.

        And actually while I was talking to my wife she reminded me that we actually have ridden on the Tadami Line when we went to Aizu-yanaizu around two years ago. I suppose that in my mind it didn’t count because we didn’t go the whole way.

    • Adam, I finally got around to your Tempoku and Shinmei videos, and what treasures they are, a true labour of love to which I can only tip my hat. Each must have taken dozens of hours of post-production editing. I particularly enjoyed, as before, the way you theatrically present the dynamics of the dysfunctional relationship between you and your spouse–it’s not like that in real life, of course, is it? And congratulations on finding somwhere the video of the final run on the Shinmei–very poignant. How that escaped privatisation is extraordinary, given the way that between Nayoro and Fukagawa it ran through huge tracts of nothing. What’s next?

      • Oh, thank you.

        They’ve certainly taken longer to make than I expected. It was originally meant to be a single half-hour episode that I’d finish in a few months, but I realized I couldn’t do each line justice in such a short time frame. I’m still slowly working on finishing up the fourth and final episode, a combination of the Shihoro and Temiya lines.

        Beth and I like to tease each other, so it’s mutual and all in good fun. I make sure that Beth approves each video before I upload it, so they all have her seal of approval.

        I was quite happy that I was able to find and permission to use all of those videos and photographs. The Shinmei Line is a rarity in that there’s a decent amount of footage of it out there. I assume that the amount of available video of the Shinmei Line is due to it lasting until 1995, so more people had video cameras than when most of the other lines were shut down in 1987.

        I did some YouTube scouring and fired off emails to a few different uploaders who had good, usable footage. Most of note is that for the goodbye footage the guy who shot it all actually burnt and sent me a DVD of all the footage he took of the final few days of the line, and act for which I’m extremely grateful.

        Actually I was going to include the explanation as to how the Shinmei Line lived so long, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. In the late 50s/early 60s lumber transport on the line dried up, and the line was earmarked for closure in 1968. Unfortunately, it was the only transportation link for many of the settlements on the line. A lack of freight and the extremely low population density along the line led to, according to Wikipedia, the Shinmei Line bleeding the most money of any post-privatization rail line, with a 1992 average daily total ridership of 354 people.

        Before they could shut down the line and open up a substitute bus service they had to build a transportation link for the residents on the northern and western sides of Lake Shumarinai. This road’s (Prefectural Highway 688) construction was apparently quite difficult and took until 1995 to complete that section. Once 688 opened up they were finally able to shut down the Shinmei Line.

        And as an aside, construction of 688 was authorized in 1970 to directly connect Enbetsu with Nayoro, but 42 years later it has still yet to fully be completed.

      • Before they could shut down the line and open up a substitute bus service they had to build a transportation link for the residents on the northern and western sides of Lake Shumarinai.
        Do we have any idea how many of them there were/are? The maps suggest mere handfuls… And why does Horokanai have a spruce high school, I wonder–just because it is so tough to get anywhere else? Although Shibetsu isn’t so far away… And why was the reservoir constructed? And, in 1941-1943, by whom? Ah, questions, questions…

      • Do we have any idea how many of them there were/are? The maps suggest mere handfuls… And why does Horokanai have a spruce high school, I wonder–just because it is so tough to get anywhere else? Although Shibetsu isn’t so far away… And why was the reservoir constructed? And, in 1941-1943, by whom? Ah, questions, questions…

        In addition to the DVD that was burnt for me, I also purchased a DVD of the full line through the train’s front window. I can’t give you exact numbers as to how many people lived along that remote stretch of the reservoir, but from reviewing that footage of the full line, I can say most certainly say not many at all.

        As for your other questions, we’ve unfortunately arrived at the end of my knowledge on the area. Maybe you’re about due for another Hokkaido trip?

      • Maybe you’re about due for another Hokkaido trip?
        This late September-early October, just as the weather turns raw and the hotels empty out, with a sad, mad botanist who’ll be pillaging the uplands for his nursery. But whether we make it to Horokanai is another matter…

  3. Reblogged this on Hoofin to You! and commented:
    Great piece about a rural service train line in Japan, that the home office in Tokyo wants to axe. Three million to run, but only collects $100,000 a year. Operates along a landslide risk.

  4. “Truly, madly, deeply, Japan is geek heaven.”

    Comically, too.

    I have been slowly savoring the essays on your blog. It took a month to wind my way through Hokkaido. And now (sadly, not comically), I see the devastation continues in Honshu. During my Tokyo Era (1986-2000), I used to lament that Japan had no ruins. Ruins are lovely, whether in the Mayan jungles or in modern Japan (they are tranquil; you usually have the whole site to yourself for wandering around, kicking stones, wondering what went wrong, where all the people went, and contemplating your own pending ruination).

    And now I see, thanks to Spike Japan, that Japan was full of ruins all along.

    Thanks for wasting your free time writing essays for our pleasure. They need to be put in a big, fat coffeetable book.

    -Endwahl

    • Oh, we’ve certainly been working our way up the ruins tables since 2000. It’s genuinely hard these days to go more than a couple of dozen or so kilometers on a rural prefectural highway without coming across an abandoned pachinko parlor. Ours are not yet of the epic splendour of the Mayan, but one day…
      Thanks for wasting your free time writing essays for our pleasure. They need to be put in a big, fat coffeetable book.
      My pleasure, it’s a compulsion really.

      • I understand your compulsion … otherwise known as “a labour of love” methinks.

        I did similar with: http://gerryhiles.hubpages.com/hub/Natural-Philosophy-Science

        but I did not follow up.

        Accelerating world affairs swamped all attempts at calm reflection, nay mind the fact that 99% of people would not have a clue what I was going on about, though I am of the 99% who never achieved anything much in material terms … but I did come to understand all those I mentioned in my one-off essay/blog.

      • Highway? Hah! My town has an abandoned pachinko parlor right at the station, a delight for the haikyo enthusiast until you see it every day for two years. It’s not even ownerless, it’s just derelict and awaiting its eminent domain buyout.

      • Yes, you don’t actually have to venture down the highway. Could you share your town name, please, it’ll make more sense (to me at least) then…

  5. my being a real estate nutter also draws in studying the parallel relationships of building density and transportation infrastructure on land usage — both endeavors being the primary (only?) way the supply of real estate can be increased for a given population.

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/05/secret-tokyos-rail-success/2044/

    touched on the idea briefly but the author didn’t really lay out the dynamics of land development and ground rent capture that well.

    Rail can essentially create new land for settlement at the “wholesale” level — it gets people in and products out.

    Now, looking at Iwazumi’s terrain in google maps, I can opine that what I think of as the Iwazumi “terrane” — the fundamental economic subdivision delineated by physical access — isn’t that hot a place for anyone to reside from the wealth-creation perspective.

    And cruising down highway 455 in google’s camera car towards the coast I see it’s a perfectly serviceable artery for Iwazumi’s needs. Even picturesque in its noticeably commercially devoid state.

    • That The Atlantic Cities article is one of the most hilariously misinformed screeds of nonsense I’ve read about Japan since, ooh, I last read an Eamonn Fingleton piece, thank you for the laughs! Who on earth is Eric Jaffe?!? Has he ever, I wonder, actually looked at the financial statements of Tokyu Corp.? Of course not! (Naughtily, I am straying into areas I shouldn’t, but what the heck). Has he any inkling about the profitability (or otherwise) of the department store operations versus the railway operations? The department stores are by and large basket cases these days. What worked in the 20s (or the 60s) doesn’t necessarily work a near-century later. What’s interesting about the likes of Tokyu (founded 1922), is that, as private-sector companies, they had a brief period of interwar breathing space in which to build their empires. As for Calimente… Tokyo achieved enviable rates of public transit usage because it had no freaking choice! You might as well idly speculate as to why Hong Kong also has an excellent public transport system. Tokyo holds precisely no lessons for urban and transport planners in the US.
      Now, looking at Iwazumi’s terrain in google maps, I can opine that what I think of as the Iwazumi “terrane” — the fundamental economic subdivision delineated by physical access — isn’t that hot a place for anyone to reside from the wealth-creation perspective.
      But why, in an internet-enabled era, not? There are plenty of pretty little Colorado towns (I’ve always had a hankering after Durango, probably a Dylan thing) that can overcome the tyranny of geography.
      And cruising down highway 455 in google’s camera car towards the coast I see it’s a perfectly serviceable artery for Iwazumi’s needs.
      The 455, lovely as it may be, doesn’t take you anywhere you’d want to go. Residents want to go to Miyako, south down the 340 and then along the 106, and the 340 looks nasty in places, especially at the Oshikado Pass:

      http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%8A%BC%E8%A7%92%E5%B3%A0

      Of course, we’re dealing with an effete contemporary Japan that even in its remotest nooks worships convenience above all else, which is why I thought the Mainichi article was so funny.

      • What’s interesting about the likes of Tokyu (founded 1922), is that, as private-sector companies, they had a brief period of interwar breathing space in which to build their empires.

        speaking of which, http://www.amazon.com/The-Brothers-Hidden-Japans-Richest/dp/0679425543/ was a semi-interesting read on that.

        The 455, lovely as it may be, doesn’t take you anywhere you’d want to go. Residents want to go to Miyako

        Well, the train (assuming it’s back in service) from Omoto to Miyako is only 36 minutes, so if you can make the 18km transit from Iwaizumi to Omoto in under an hour you’re doing good.

        Oddly, there’s no transit connection between Iwaizumi and Omoto according to Google.

        There are plenty of pretty little Colorado towns (I’ve always had a hankering after Durango, probably a Dylan thing) that can overcome the tyranny of geography.

        like the distribution of entrepôt economies, virtual economies are also pretty much a zero-sum distribution.

        Beautiful country up there, but if I’m going to be living off a net connection in rural Japan I’d pick a nice place in Kanagawa-ken, an hour or two from Shibuya . . . yes, Samrat’s lunch special is that important to me : )

      • “speaking of which, http://www.amazon.com/The-Brothers-Hidden-Japans-Richest/dp/0679425543/ was a semi-interesting read on that.”
        Hadn’t realized that anyone would have thought to write a book on the Tsutsumis, but then it was the early-mid 90s. Who *is* Leslie Downer, why did she then turn to writing about geisha, for goodness sake, and why are her blog posts so unsatisfying?

        http://www.lesleydowner.com/2012/03/15/in-snowy-aizu/

        Or am I just jealous?
        “So if you can make the 18km transit from Iwaizumi to Omoto in under an hour you’re doing good”
        I do love your deep research, Troy. People prefer to stay on one form of transport for the entirety of their journey, though, don’t they? I wonder if anyone has researched bus-train connection aversion?
        “Oddly, there’s no transit connection between Iwaizumi and Omoto according to Google.”
        Google doesn’t yet know everything, which is why we humans have to fill in occasionally. There are plenty of buses east and then south to Miyako via Omoto:

        http://www.iwate-kenpokubus.co.jp/pdf/iwaizumi.pdf

        Which is one reason I am not overburdened with sympathy with for the railway sentimentalists, much as I love railways.
        “Like the distribution of entrepôt economies, virtual economies are also pretty much a zero-sum distribution.”
        You’ll have to explain that one to me in words of one syllable.

      • Ah, Leslie Downer, now I understand–cheap sentimentalism run amok:

        http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/69efc10e-a668-11df-8767-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1vbyJsJ71

        People pay good money for this, you know. The shame, the shame.

      • “You’ll have to explain that one to me in words of one syllable.”

        This is my sorta-physiocrat school thinking again I guess.

        Entrepôt economies exist due to locational advantage and accidents of history.

        With regard to entrepôt-ness, AFAICT not all local economies in the world can be regional middle-men of long-distance trade like Singapore or Dubai; the expansion of one entrepôt necessarily diverts trade from other regional entrepôts (unless these other entrepôts are already running at capacity).

        Earlier in my life I thought Japan might profit as an entrepôt between E Asia and N America, but apparently trade can be drop-shipped from eg. Shenzhen w/o Japan’s direct involvement.

        An inverse dynamic exists in the primary sector industries — 農林水産 (+ 鉱業)– which generally do not suffer this zero-sum effect until over-production collapses wholesale prices (and/or over-harvesting damages the productive stock of the commons).

        Same thing with tourism. While regional development can float all local boats starting out, at some point over-development hits and the local tourist trade becomes zero-sum too, if not regionally then certainly in the larger picture, where Hokkaido’s tourist win becomes Okinawa’s loss.

        Kinugawa, Atami, Echigoyuzawa, Karuizawa — 60Hz Honshu has no shortage of scenic spots in the middle of nowhere.

        Looking at Durango, CO’s economy:

        http://www.yeslpc.com/la-plata-economic-development-alliance-economic-facts-figures

        I see government + health/assistance is 1/3 of their wage base (and thanks to the velocity of money those sectors probably support another 1/3 of regional spending).

        I do think a centralized Japan is a more cost-efficient Japan, and I think that is a subtheme in your posts.

        If gasoline were free, and Japan not so damn hilly (adding to transportation costs), depopulating Japan could afford to remain so spread out.

        http://www.newgeography.com/content/001463-labor-force-growth-population-growth-age-15-64-2000-2050

        is pretty stunning, but as I’ve said before I’d rather have Japan’s demographic problem to “solve” than the US’s, for Japan’s pretty much solves itself (the overpopulation of the baby boom ages and dies), while the US socio-political system is going to be stressed immensely by our demographic profile — the US replaced its baby boom with a new same-sized generation (plus ~1M/yr in immigration), and Japan did not.

      • Many very sophisticated – I choose that word deliberately – comments and replies here.

        I have just one question: Fukushima?

      • Ouch, I don’t like the sound of “sophisticated” there Mr. Hiles! What are you driving at?!?

      • With regard to entrepôt-ness, AFAICT not all local economies in the world can be regional middle-men of long-distance trade like Singapore or Dubai; the expansion of one entrepôt necessarily diverts trade from other regional entrepôts (unless these other entrepôts are already running at capacity).
        It’s an interesting question, the zero-sumness or otherwise of entrepôts, and there are probably not a few academic papers out there on the topic. But surely as global trade grows, and in a globalizing world it’s growing much faster than global GDP, as the cake gets bigger why shouldn’t there be opportunities for new, upstart entrepôts? (I suppose we are using “entrepôt” in a meaning divorced from its strict old, tax- and duty-advantaged sense, to refer to somewhere that has advantages of say law, language, institutions, or even petro-dollars. Whatever gets physically shipped into and out of Hong Kong these days, large as the port remains, must make up a fairly small percentage of the total economy). You mention Dubai–well, where was Dubai as an entrepôt in 1980? Perhaps we could even include Macau as a nascent if fragile entrepôt that has emerged in the last decade? Essentially, it’s all about arbitrage opportunities.
        Earlier in my life I thought Japan might profit as an entrepôt between E Asia and N America, but apparently trade can be drop-shipped from eg. Shenzhen w/o Japan’s direct involvement.
        Fanciful stuff! Sometime last year, in a very brief spell in which I subscribed to the paper-and-ink edition of the Nikkei (old school, I hear you cry, but millions still do), I read an editorial on the ports, which there’s no hope of finding on-line because of Japanese newspapers’ woefully benighted habit of taking down their content after a couple of months. The relative decline in the last 15 years has been massive but unsurprising. Japan’s ports are strangely like its airports: there are too many of them, their scale is too small, their costs are too high…
        Same thing with tourism. While regional development can float all local boats starting out, at some point over-development hits and the local tourist trade becomes zero-sum too, if not regionally then certainly in the larger picture, where Hokkaido’s tourist win becomes Okinawa’s loss.
        Only if you assume a static number of tourists! Is this the “lump of tourist” fallacy?!? While there may not be much—any—hope from the domestic market, for obvious reasons (although mid-sixties retirees do offer a ray of light), there are 1.5bn+ people within a few hours’ flying time of Japan who have growing disposable incomes and a little time and curiosity to spare, and there’s no good reason I can see why inbound tourism shouldn’t double over the next decade. Anecdote time: in grim old Yubari in the summer of 2009 I was amazed to see one of the two grim old late 80s-early 90s resort hotels athrong with families from somewhere in “greater China”.
        Kinugawa, Atami, Echigoyuzawa, Karuizawa — 60Hz Honshu has no shortage of scenic spots in the middle of nowhere.
        Hehehe! Not sure I’d call any of them “scenic”… But then my tastes are not East Asian ones. Like the expression “60Hz Honshu” a lot, BTW.
        Looking at Durango, CO’s economy
        Yes, Durango certainly wasn’t a prime example of a wired rural society… But the point I’m trying, no doubt ineptly, to make, such as by asking how many Japanese cities with populations under 50,000 are growing in size, is to highlight the headlong retreat from the rural and semi-rural. You might say that Japan likes to think its city-states of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya are entrepôts, but they aren’t, and their hinterlands are falling apart. Domestic agricultural production by calorific value is down by more than a third since 1985 (I will source that eventually…)—how long can the city-state enclaves rely on the kindness of others to keep them fed?
        I do think a centralized Japan is a more cost-efficient Japan, and I think that is a subtheme in your posts.
        It is, but then so is an opposing tension—that everywhere outside the metropolises needs to be reinvigorated. Ultimately, the solution to that can only come from a fundamental rethink of the post-Meiji, post-WWII hierarchy of values on the part of the Japanese people, and I see zero sign of that happening.
        I’d rather have Japan’s demographic problem to “solve” than the US’s, for Japan’s pretty much solves itself.
        I don’t envy the US the extra 100mn bodies (?) it will add over the next 40 years, mostly in all the wrong, water-starved places, but it would be naïve to be too sanguine about Japan either. Perhaps the conclusion is that, as with real estate prices, populations are best kept static.

      • Like the expression “60Hz Honshu” a lot, BTW.

        nb, I flubbed it though. since my 50hz stuff still works here in the US I get confused sometimes.

      • So you did…

      • Domestic agricultural production by calorific value is down by more than a third since 1985 (I will source that eventually…)—how long can the city-state enclaves rely on the kindness of others to keep them fed?

        This recently caught my eye:

        “According to the Asahi article, if the rice tariff is eliminated, it is estimated that 4 million tons of foreign rice will be imported, or about half Japan’s yearly consumption, and the wholesale price will drop to about ¥83 per kg for Calrose and ¥116 per kg for California koshihikari, which everyone says is pretty tasty.”

        http://blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living/how-much-money-do-rice-farmers-need-to-make-from-farming/

        $5B/yr in rice imports with those numbers (assuming 50% koshihikari, LOL)

        1Q12 trade surplus against the US is $20B thus far . . .

        http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5880.html

        it is a conundrum. Outright welfare is bad, but so is a bunch of tax-dodging rural farmers burning up dear diesel imports tilling their 1.6 hectare plots for no good economic reason.

      • Ah, good old Philip Brasor! There are worthwhile ways of tackling issues, and then there’s simply regurgitating what the vernacular press says, in this case about a couple of randomly selected (?) rice farmers, which is the modus operandi of so many journalistic “mediators” of Japan. You simply cannot have a convincing take on immensely complex subjects like, say, farming, on the basis of a perusal of the morning papers, which is why I mostly only sidle up to the big themes and address them obliquely. For instance, I suspect that the number in this (unsourced) sentence is out by an order of magnitude:
        “What’s important to remember is that the government now spends ¥560 billion a year on farm subsidies.”
        If it were correct–just Y560bn in a Y500trn economy–1/1000th or so of GDP, then I’d say it was a bargain for preserving some semblance of rural life for a generation or more than would otherwise be the case. I’m generally an ardent free-trader, but agriculture is an exception–I can’t see a country the size of Japan without an agricultural sector except for some market gardeners around the big cities and a few potato and corn farmers in Hokkaido as anything other than a bizarre experiment on which noone should want to embark.
        I was going to go to a lecture this evening on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, given by a professor of international economic law at Tokyo University, but the title eventually put me off: “What will happen when Japan joins the TPP?” Well, it’s not going to happen (and not just for agricultural reasons) any time soon, so why waste your breath and my time?
        Guess I’m going to have to write a big old agriculture post sooner or later.

  6. Interesting read and photos as usual; is the old lady sitting in a converted twin-baby stroller?

    Part of being geeky (obsessed) about something is a willingness to spend money and time that you do not really have, sometimes in unhealthy ways, as long as you can enjoy your thing or event. Maybe JR East run on that principle? Of course, explaining a behavior does not make it good behavior.

    I partly wonder if it is possible to have the “peak season” tourist rides make enough money to justify keeping the lines up during the off-peak times.

  7. Andrew S. Mooney

    Ah, a train article…The economics of that line are just terrifying.

    Could you explain a bit more about the original purpose that the line was built for? You said something about fireproof bricks during the war, but the reason why the rest of it was built is not clear. Was it just a form of rural LDP Pork?

    The way that they can get it closed is actually the following:
    A thing to watch upon the political level is if the local population is invited to take the line into private operation, as a way for JR East to fob it off. The reason for suggesting this is that this has happened before to a route called the Takachiho Railway, down in Miyazaki Prefecture. (It may be an article in itself.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takachiho_Railway

    It has a similar history in that it was partially completed during the war and “finished” in 1970 with a massive gorge bridge to the shrine at Amanoiwato. The local population eventually got it “offered” to them for the tourist trade.

    The first time there was a typhoon, (Nabi?) several of the bridges got washed away, and that was it, as there was no public money to rebuild any of it.

    In response to a situation like this one, no one will wield the knife openly, but that is what will probably happen.

    • Could you explain a bit more about the original purpose that the line was built for? You said something about fireproof bricks during the war, but the reason why the rest of it was built is not clear. Was it just a form of rural LDP Pork?
      Phew, that’s quite a question… What follows is based on 20 minutes of net research, any more than that and we’d be talking hours in the library.
      It seems the line was planned originally under the Revised Railway Line-laying Law of 1922, for what purposes I can only guess. Originally it was supposed to turn east and extend another 20km-30km to the sea, but that was never built. The clay extraction purposes saw 15.8km of the 38.4km completed by 1944. After the war, it seems that construction went on, perhaps as a rural make-work project in the Hunger Years, with the 3km long Oshikado tunnel completed in 1947, and another 10.9km (including the tunnel) added by 1957, taking us up to 26.7km–perhaps this was just post-war inertia. The final 7.4km is the interesting part, as there must have been a big lull in constuction in the early 60s. It seems that the sponsor of the final round of construction was the Japan Railway Construction Public Corporation (aka 日本鉄道建設公団, aka Tekken, 1964-2003 RIP, c255 real Google hits in English, shockingly low), which was, as you rightly suspected, a vehicle mostly for delivering prime Tanaka pork to the provinces–I think it’s summed up best by their seven categorizations of lines, of which “A lines” were “regional development lines” (地方開発線) and “B lines” were “regional trunk lines” (地方幹線). No prizes for guessing which of the two were more likely to be viable (and for unfamilar readers, it’s not A)… I suppose now in retrospect that Tekken accounts for that very, very late splurge of railway building that includes the Iwaizumi, the Tadami, and your Takachiho (which I must investigate)–and no doubt quite a few others besides.
      A thing to watch upon the political level is if the local population is invited to take the line into private operation, as a way for JR East to fob it off.
      Yes, I thought about the old dai-san sector involvement, a classic 80s/90s “solution”, but JR East have pretty much eliminated that as an option, given the purported costs of rendering the line safe. Now they might have inflated the bill a bit to $150mn (as the municipalities involved suspect, although I didn’t mention that), but even if it were merely a tenth of that… Miyako’s got plenty of other woes on its plate and Iwaizumi is not going to be in any position to pay. Looks like in this case either JR East will be forced to bear the burden or noone will.
      As an aside, I once–a long time ago–attended a barbeque in Nagano, to which my Welsh friend brought her shy mid-20s Japanese boyfriend. They rolled up in a brand new top-end Toyota. Afterwards, I mentioned the youth/flash motor disconnect. She replied, “You don’t understand, he’s Kakuei Tanaka’s grandson.”

      • Andrew S. Mooney.

        “My” Takachiho line? Here are some files: I first found out about this line because of it’s main bridge, which frankly ascends into the realms of being a special effect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRvy4IuCpNU&feature=related

        This file is very sad because it has pictures, and there is no way on Earth that local people could have rebuilt any of it. What else does it say? Your Japanese is better than mine: http://www.taisei.co.jp/giken/report/01_2006_39/paper/A039_004.pdf

        Iwaizumi is a great example of railway closure politics in that it reflects upon your “requiem for a railway” piece. The locals around the Kashitetsu could get a car and commute, draining away local supporters. Here though, there is a serious issue of hardship if the railway leaves, due to the nature of the regional roads and the realities of the Fukushima affair. There are precious few people living here as it is, and the locals evidently don’t like the substitute buses that they are being bribed with, so I would suggest that they will actually get away with having this line funded, simply due to scale of the debt and the precedent that it sets.

        It is the Japanese equivalent of being Greek right now.

      • “My” Takachiho line?
        Only yours because you found it for us.
        That video is lovely, so fragile and ethereal, especially when you know what happpened not long after.
        What the pdf report says is that we shouldn’t even have commissioned a major general contractor like Taisei, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to make the pdf report for us. The Takachiho, like the Iwaizumi, was a goner as soon as a natural disaster struck–its demographic profile is so very similar.
        Iwaizumi is a great example of railway closure politics in that it reflects upon your “requiem for a railway” piece.
        It does that.
        Here though, there is a serious issue of hardship if the railway leaves, due to the nature of the regional roads and the realities of the Fukushima affair.
        Call me callous, but I really don’t think motion sickness is “a serious issue of hardship”. And what does Fukushima have to do with anything?
        “The locals evidently don’t like the substitute buses that they are being bribed with”
        The locals didn’t use the train anymore anyway! Very generously, perhaps 100 people a day in Iwaizumi–1% of the population. The bus replacement service, except in a few tiny details (some people have to walk a few minutes further to the bus stop than the train stop), is not meaningfully inferior to the train, AFAICT, and I believe there is even one more round trip a day. Which is why I find the fight so fascinating.
        It is the Japanese equivalent of being Greek right now.
        You’ll hear Japan squeal like a stuck piglet when GDP contracts by 17% over five years.

  8. There are plenty of buses east and then south to Miyako via Omoto

    yeah, tooling around in google:

    http://g.co/maps/3xcfg

    clued me in to finding a bus schedule.

    is it just me or is google’s camera car a decent alternative to car-based tourism? I don’t see much difference, TBH.

    • Is it just me or is google’s camera car a decent alternative to car-based tourism?
      Erm, I think it’s you, although the camera car is a thing of wonder. The other night I found myself on that Rte 455, heading toward
      the Iwate coast, pressing the forward arrow dozens of times seeing if I could catch up with the little white truck in front… Never did.

  9. All else aside. What about Fukushima? Not mentioned in “polite society”?

    • Plenty of mention of Fukushima in polite society, although the intensity of the media coverage of not only the “incident” at Daiichi but also the quake/tsunami has noticeably dropped off since the first year anniversary. As Spike, though, I got bored quite quickly, as this is supposed to be “a look at the overlooked” and the events of March 11, 2011, were anything but “overlooked”.

    • He doesn’t think it will be a big deal . The radiation is still being leaked, although the “polite society” prefers not to mention it while quietly relocating the relatives to Kansai or another continent. This is his blog so his opinion is the most important one here, but at least it will decrease the already-low birthrate even lower, since all these Fuku-related defective fetuses will be aborted or considered to be ‘stillborn’ and will reduce the rates even further.

      • “Fuku-related defective fetuses will be aborted or considered to be ‘stillborn’ and will reduce the rates even further”
        Beautiful nonsense. Let me ask you a variant on one of my favorite questions: do you have any evidence, even the merest scintilla of a piece of evidence, of a higher rate of abortion or of stillborn fetuses in Fukushima versus any other prefecture in 2011 versus 2010? I’m betting 99-1 that you don’t reply.

      • Whilst I like this blog, it floats on a sea of metaphors, sentimentality and cognitive dissonance, e.g. that Japan is at “the end of the line” in global terms of us all being “on the Titanic” of a form of civilization which assumed endless growth and endless exploitation of all resources, not least including exploiting uranium for both power and weapons of mass destruction.

        Japan is on the pointy end both nuclear war – over sixty years ago – and, so far, the worst disaster to befall the civilian nuclear industry.

        It IS the “end of the line” for the global, industrial form of civilization – the Industrial Revolution – that began in England and notably with the construction of railways; with which I have an irrational attachment too.

      • “Whilst I like this blog, it floats on a sea of metaphors, sentimentality and cognitive dissonance, e.g. that Japan is at “the end of the line” in global terms of us all being “on the Titanic” of a form of civilization which assumed endless growth and endless exploitation of all resources, not least including exploiting uranium for both power and weapons of mass destruction.”
        Were you perhaps under the influence when you wrote that, Gerry?
        “Japan is on the pointy end both nuclear war – over sixty years ago – and, so far, the worst disaster to befall the civilian nuclear industry.”
        Er, no, Chernobyl was.

  10. looking at a map that line does seem pretty daft and long and windy. whyever dont they just have a much smaller eastwards line to the coast.
    Normally I’d oppose closing a railway line but as sad as it is it does seem the best option here.
    Interesting piece. Wish I had a car so I could get to some of these more remote places.

  11. Great read as always.

  12. Guess I’m going to have to write a big old agriculture post sooner or later.

    Yes, and will you please hope to it.

    The popular, if superficial, image of Japan is one of being an innovative and industrious nation. But then one looks a bit further than what is reported by the major media and major mediators and, of course, things are more complicated than and not as “cool” as they seem.

    However, the way Japan has steadfastly refused to bring its agricultural sector into even the mid-20th century is appalling. Of course it can never be organized in the industrial fashion we have in North America for good and ill. But as long as Japan continues to produce rice truck garden-style (so far as I know, the entirety of Japanese agriculture is still categorized as “intensive gardening”) the nation will continue to struggle feeding even a declining population.

    Though they comprise a miniscule fraction of the population, Japan still probably has about twice as many farmers as it needs because it still insists on using farm land as if everyone in the country still owned a couple hectares of it – inefficiencies abound.

    I agree that the agriculture sector of countries like Japan (too many people and not enough acres of affordably productive land), should be protected. But the Japanese could be doing a much better job than they do with what they have.

    You can take it from here.

    • Yes, and will you please hope to it.
      Hop to it? So many things stand in the way, sadly: more exams, a terrible backlog of other posts, and in the case of agriculture, for now I lack a neat travelogue hook on which to hang my coat-post.
      However, the way Japan has steadfastly refused to bring its agricultural sector into even the mid-20th century is appalling.
      Or you could argue that the way it (if Japan is a Platonic entity, which I doubt) brought the agricultural sector to the mid-20th century (in the late 20th century)–through the massive application of organo-phosphate fertilizer–is appalling. And it’s very hard, not to mention illiberal, to expropriate elderly farmers who don’t want to give up their half-hectare plot.
      “The nation will continue to struggle feeding even a declining population.”
      The nation doesn’t currently come remotely close to feeding the population, declining or not–the calorific self-sufficiency ratio is below 40%–and if memory serves me right, Japan has been a net rice/carb importer since about 1905…
      Japan still probably has about twice as many farmers as it needs because it still insists on using farm land as if everyone in the country still owned a couple hectares of it.
      No, no, no, they do still own a couple of hectares of it! Even my other half does (leased to neighbours for a pittance)…
      The Japanese could be doing a much better job than they do with what they have.
      Not convinced yet.

  13. . . . through the massive application of organo-phosphate fertilizer–is appalling.

    So true. I once sent a letter that, surprisingly, got publish in the old MITI English language propaganda magazine taking to task some fossil of an ag professor arguing along Shinto lines how pure Japanese rice farming was. The first thing I pointed out in my letter was that because crop rotation has never had much place in Japanese agriculture that most paddy fields had long been sucked dry of any natural nutrients and needed massive amounts of fertilizer to sustain a crop. In those days, I actually knew where I could find UN figures on the amounts of chemical fertilizers used round the world with which to hit the poor man over the head.

    . . . and if memory serves me right, Japan has been a net rice/carb importer since about 1905…

    Memory does not serve you with regards to rice. Japan has over-produced rice since, if memory serves me, since before the mid-80s or so. But because the cost of production has always been so high, it’s made more sense to warehouse the surplus than trying to sell it for export.

    Overproduction of rice, as a result of overplanting and a shift to other foods by the Japanese people, led the government in 1987 to adopt a policy of decreasing rice planting and increasing the acreage of other farm products.

    http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Asia-and-Oceania/Japan-AGRICULTURE.html

    Quickest link I could find.

    Otherwise, yes, Japan is a net importer of non-fish protein, vegetables and other grains. Again, it needn’t be at the levels it is if they’d consolidate the good farm land available.

    No, no, no, they do still own a couple of hectares of it! Even my other half does (leased to neighbours for a pittance)…

    Seems that way doesn’t it? My other half’s aunt and uncle still farm the family homestead though they are now approaching 80.

    The American occupation is, of course, partially to blame for this mess.

    • In those days, I actually knew where I could find UN figures on the amounts of chemical fertilizers used round the world with which to hit the poor man over the head.
      Well done! I recall seeing very similar stats within a couple of months of arriving in Japan in the mid-1990s and being absolutely horrified by them (although those fertilizers sure can juice up the yields). No wonder the (Japanese) Crested Ibis—possibly the subject of a future post—was essentially extinct in the wild by the late 1970s—paddies had become deadzones.
      and if memory serves me right, Japan has been a net rice/carb importer since about 1905…
      I got that, half-remembered, from The Making of a Japanese Periphery, 1750-1920, by Stanford University professor Karen Wigen:
      Japan’s rice production kept pace with domestic needs until near the end of the 1800s, but shortly before the turn of the century, demand began to exceed supply. As a result, the nation was forced to turn to overseas sources. By 1915, Japan was importing 183,000 tons of rice annually; over the next twenty years, that figure increased by an order of magnitude. At the same time, domestic grain production became increasingly dependent on foreign fertilizer, with imports of soybean cake from Manchuria rising sharply after the Russo-Japanese War.
      I added “carb”, because as rice consumption topped out in the early 1960s, the substitute carbs were, I believe, mostly imported, although more research is needed here. I guess the question of carbohydrate self-sufficiency since 1900 remains open.
      Otherwise, yes, Japan is a net importer of non-fish protein, vegetables and other grains. Again, it needn’t be at the levels it is if they’d consolidate the good farm land available.
      I do have serious reservations about the feasibility of consolidation, even in the most prosaic terms of, say, a road that bisects two largish paddies that could be better farmed as one. How to get rid of the road? But consolidation is ongoing, perhaps more quickly than many realize. Take a look at Figure 4 in the MAFF 2010 Agricultural Census here:

      http://www.maff.go.jp/j/tokei/sokuhou/census10_zantei/index.html

      You have sub-1 hectare farm numbers down by about a fifth in 2010 versus 2005 and farms of over 30 hectares increasing by a fifth. Not a reprehensible rate of progress, and one that’s been helped along by legislative changes making it easier for the corporates to open their own farms. Indeed, recently a friend was invited to inspect the tomato gardens of Kagome, one of the biggest vegetable drink and all-things-tomato producers—sadly, the gardens were in Iwaki, about 50km south of Fukushima Daiichi.
      Consolidation doesn’t mean that the farming that results will be any greener, of course, indeed probably less so, as the aze banks between paddies, which are something of a wildlife haven, are leveled, much like hedgerows in England have been grubbed up over the last half-century. These issues are thorny in the extreme…
      The American occupation is, of course, partially to blame for this mess.
      But with the best of post-Imperial intentions…

      • . . . as the aze banks between paddies, which are something of a wildlife haven, . . .

        I’d read a related article about how allowing no longer farmed rural paddy fields to go fallow were now destroying a wetland habitat! The fact that these fields are, on the whole, heavily contaminated with chemical fertilizers and artificial in any case didn’t even figure in the discussion. A bit like lamenting the draining of artificial lakes behind dams.

    • The American occupation is, of course, partially to blame for this mess.

      Wealthy landowners who lost land to the reforms have one point of view on that, and their tenants who were able to purchase their economic freedom, another.

      Dunno about tenancy farming in Japan, but if it was like housing:

      “In 1941, 22 percent of all dwellings in Japan were owned by the people who inhabited them. By 1948, the portion had swelled to 48 percent in the cities and 67 percent nationally.”

      it could have used a little reform. As David Lloyd George quipped, “to prove a legal title to land one must trace it back to the man who stole it” — particularly apt wrt Japan’s long and bloody feudal history.

      Ah, I see paddy fields were 50% tenant-worked prior to the forced redistribution effected by FDR’s communistic occupation:

      “The level of rental rate dropped to about 7% of production cost of rice (formerly it was 50%)”

      http://phalthy.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/land-reform-in-japan-in-early-post-war.pdf

      • Yes indeed, that’s why I described the occupation land reforms as having the “best of post-Imperial intentions”–and I wasn’t just referring to the Japanese Empire. But they have bred their own problems sixty years down the line, although sixty years is not a bad stretch of relative success by any means.
        As David Lloyd George quipped, “to prove a legal title to land one must trace it back to the man who stole it”.
        Great quotation, and one I’d never heard. Nonsense, of course, taken out of context, but great in the way that the best quotations do their job. Nonsense in the first place because in (post)industrial democracies legal title to land is not easily stolen (and no eminent domain talk, please and thank you), and nonsense in the deeper, second place because it assumes that all land was expropriated from some “rightful” owner deep in humanity’s past, which unless the “owners” were the birds and the bees seems implausible.
        That’s not to say that on a practical level, land redistibution by the FDR New Dealers in 1946-1949 was a bad idea at all. Wonder why the New Dealers never got similarly stuck into the Philippines when they had a chance. (I’m sure there’s an answer to that.) Would have solved so many contemporary problems.

      • Wonder why the New Dealers never got similarly stuck into the Philippines when they had a chance.

        It turns out Mason Gaffney (my go-to economist-historian) has some half-formed notes on that:

        http://www.masongaffney.org/workpapers/Philippines_Land_Reform_Through_Tax_Reform.pdf

        Truman’s last ambassador, Adm Spruance was a (known) committed Georgist like me but from that:

        “An occasional American does, to be sure, preach land reform. First, the Bell Report [1950]. Then Robert Hardie, 1952, fresh from the heady success of reshaping Japan under MacArthur, now with STEM of MSA. Hardie expelled, his report recalled and suppressed under Quirino.

        “Adm. Raymond Spruance, U.S. Ambassador, 1952-55, a believer in Henry George. As hero of Midway Island, dealt from some strength. Demonstration effects spill over from Japan, Taiwan. Land Reform popular with U.N., World Bank, IMF, etc. Charismatic, popular President Ramon Magsaysay, 1953-57, dedicated to land reform. But Spruance, appointed by Harry Truman, was quickly made a lame duck by another hero, President Eisenhower. It was also the sick and sinister age of Jos. R. McCarthy and Edward Lansdale, who prevailed. No reform, to the shame of Republicans.”

        Speaking of Lansdale and Republicans, it took us 15 years in Vietnam to successfully implement their much-needed land reform of the early 1970s:

        “The Thieu government last week introduced in the National Assembly a bill that would revolutionize land ownership in South Viet Nam, where the best acreage still is held by the rich and privileged few. According to the legislation, due to be enacted into law this month, South Viet Nam’s 800,000 tenant farmers, at no cost to themselves, will be able to take full possession of the land they now till. The 40,000 landowners who hold more than 80% of South Viet Nam’s cultivable riceland will, in effect, be bought out by the government for a total of $400 million in cash and bonds. The U.S. has promised to provide 10% of the amount. Says Thieu’s new Minister of Agriculture, Cao Van Than, who is the architect of the reform program: “We are trying to take the initiative from the Communists.”

        (the best articles on Thieu’s “Land to the Tiller” reforms are behind JSTOR and Time Magazine paywalls, but that will do)

        I note that worst of the rent-collection in Vietnam was at the same level as Japan, up to 50% of the crop:

        “For years, U.S. and other foreign advisers impressed on a succession of Saigon rulers the need to end the inequitable system by which peasants are forced to turn over 25% to 50% of their harvests as rent to absentee landlords.”

        As for Lloyd George, the philosophy behind the quote is that all land titles are bogus, since in the geoist regime we are only rightfully entitled to that which we labor to create. The land was already here — free for the taking — before we were, so the chain of title was bad at its origin.

        The interplay of this idealistic philosophy vs. Japan’s actual development is of great interest to me (don’t get me started on the Mori brothers).

      • That Mason Gaffney screed is a truly fascinating text–I love the way it veers elliptically between his GI experiences, the Philippines in the mid-80s (which was when I was last here), and a welter of historical references. It goes to show how close to realization serious land reform in the Philippines was in that critical first decade after WWII and the cruel paradox that in most circumstances, the difficulty of achieving land reform rises in correlation with the need for it. As for the larger Georgist themes, well, give me a few days to respond.
        The interplay of this idealistic philosophy vs. Japan’s actual development is of great interest to me (don’t get me started on the Mori brothers).
        Tell me more about the Mori brothers…

      • Tell me more about the Mori brothers…

        Ah, I see one of them passed on . . . as for père: “Forbes ranked Taikichiro Mori the world’s wealthiest individual in 1991 with an estimated net worth of $15 billion.”

        “The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed”.

        It saddens me that van Wolferen’s “System” is looking at a 10%+ consumption tax regime when there is so much ground rent untaxed, but then again if indeed all taxes come out of rents maybe it’s all good.

        To bring this back to sorta on topic I was going to observe that Japan’s population of the remote and quite marginal hinterlands like Iwaizumi reminds me of the Taira of local legend evading the Minamoto.

        Back in the 1990s I had a coworker somehow find and lease an old house that was accessible to the last bus stop out from Musashi Itsukaichi . . . the would-be landlords don’t have much pricing power way out there in the middle of nowhere.

        The story of land is an important part of the economy. It had its role in Japan’s boom-bust story, the US’s recent land-leveraged debt boom, and the ongoing PIIGS parallel crises.

        Yet economists in the neo-classical school have been trained to ignore land as a factor. It’s just capital, like everything else.

        But it’s not.

      • “It saddens me that van Wolferen’s “System” is looking at a 10%+ consumption tax regime when there is so much ground rent untaxed, but then again if indeed all taxes come out of rents maybe it’s all good.”
        It saddens me more that “the system” isn’t contemplating a carbon tax, which would presumably lower fossil-fuel consumption, improving the balance of trade and cutting GHG emissions, send sales of Toyota Priuses even further through the roof (and remember, what’s good for Toyota is good for Japan), and generate more abandoned gas stations, which are among my favourite ruins…
        “Back in the 1990s I had a coworker somehow find and lease an old house that was accessible to the last bus stop out from Musashi Itsukaichi . . . the would-be landlords don’t have much pricing power way out there in the middle of nowhere.”
        I can see the smile on your face as you wrote this. Do you think it is possible that your distaste for the rentier class was influenced by the rapacity of Tokyo landlords? Did you have an unfortunate experience or two with them?
        “The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed”.
        Isn’t the key to this lovely Adam Smith quotation “like all other men”? To turn moderately philosopical for a moment, if the Georgist position is that nature endowed humans collectively with land (seems very anthropocentric but let’s ignore that for now), why is that not true of all natural resources such as coal and oil and iron ore? In a Georgist world, why am I allowed to catch a fish or kill a rabbit and consume its flesh but not own land? Why not go the whole Marxist hog? Why is land so special? Should I be allowed to use my intelligence, which is an endowment of nature, to amass more capital than my fellow man or woman?
        My solution to rentier envy was simple: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So I bought a couple of London flats.
        “The story of land is an important part of the economy. It had its role in Japan’s boom-bust story, the US’s recent land-leveraged debt boom, and the ongoing PIIGS parallel crises.”
        In Ireland and Spain more than in Portugal and Greece and Italy. But is anyone really disputing this?

      • Did you have an unfortunate experience or two with them?

        My main LL in Tokyo 1995-2000 was a model of how the housing service should be extended to transient populations. He & wife lived on the first floor, the son was in a 2nd-floor unit, and the other 3 units were rented out, all on a postage stamp lot not far from the National Azabu. 5 households living in this land footprint smaller than most houses in this very desirable area was an excellent use of capital and I don’t begrudge the ¥7M in rent I paid at all — I was living in relative luxury and at any rate getting what I was paying for. The place was built in 1985 and probably wasn’t doing so hot cash-flow wise anyway. It’s named after him so I hope he owned the land before the run-up.

        Truth be told, if I had $20M sitting around I’d love to head to Tokyo and create a gaijin-friendly apartment block to rent out for profit.

        Things are different now, but during the demographic crush of the 1970s and 80s I gather that the LLs really held the whiphand and profited immensely.

        At least Japan has the UR option to give the masses a partial escape from all this rent-seeking.

        I think watching TBS’s “Soredemo ie-wo kaimashita” back in the day poisoned my mind more than my actual experiences in Tokyo . . .

        if the Georgist position is that nature endowed humans collectively with land . . . why is that not true of all natural resources such as coal and oil and iron ore?

        “Land” encompasses all natural opportunity. Land in the economic sense is the bearer of all wealth — that which provides utility — in the universe, extending to eg. EM spectrum.

        In a Georgist world, why am I allowed to catch a fish or kill a rabbit and consume its flesh but not own land?

        To the extent there are scarcity rents in fish and rabbits found in nature — like say tuna — there should be severance taxes involved. But if you labored to create the wealth you sell (eg. stocked the fish in the first place), you owe nobody nothing.

        Philosophically, this does not run far from John Locke:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockean_proviso

        Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice was also a fore-runner of Henry George.

        Oil and mineral resources are non-renewable, so any takings from the commons should come with severance taxes (or outright socialized capture of the resource rents as Norway’s Statoil has been operated).

        Why not go the whole Marxist hog? Why is land so special?

        Because land is how the wealthy are parasitically profiting from the public creation of wealth — the value of a given piece of [urban] land depends on everything that exists OUTSIDE of the lot lines, for good or ill. When Azabu-Juban subway station was opened, I expect rents and home values went up there (more than they were already elevated). [Then when the Moto-Azabu Forest Hills towering mass got installed, I expect home values went down, but that is another topic . . . ]

        Echoing Churchill’s 1909 speech here, “Land” isn’t the only mechanism by which the modern world is messed up, but it’s a primary systemic imbalance — of wealth transfer from working poor to wealthy.

        Capitalists can build buildings increasing the supply of housing, but they can only increase the supply of land by expensive investments in land reclamation and transportation infrastructure.

        But no land has been created within the yamanote-line since it the first trains ran. The realtors’ “location” mantra is no joke.

        I don’t begrudge the Mori empire’s ownership of their capital improvements (well, other than that menacing mace of a tower); I find offense in its continued capture of Tokyo ground rents.

        But I’m hopeful that continued depopulation will continue to mitigate this issue for Japan (if not Tokyo).

        And If my economics thesis is correct, the 10% consumption tax is going to come right out of Tokyo rents and land values at least.

      • Troy,
        Sorry not to have gotten back to you in so long, and sorry that I won’t be addressing your points above directly–too little time, too little time. However, I do have a couple of anecdotes you might find amusing. The first came from a lecture I attended last week by an economist called Richard Katz, who wrote what I think is still the seminal work on where Japan went wrong: Japan, The System that Soured. That dates from 1998 but I’ve been rereading parts of it and it strikes me as relevant as ever. Anyway, his lecture was titled Noda’s mistaken economic priorities: Why Japan is not Greece and was essentially a tirade against the consumption tax hike. To me, his most, if only, persuasive point was that it is a big mistake to be taxing something you don’t have enough of… He suggested several alternatives, such as taxpayer ID, to stop tax evasion by small businesses and farmers, a tax on so-called fake farmland (I don’t really buy this as I don’t think there’s a lot about, but I could be persuaded), and (this is the bit you’d like) a landholding tax, coupled with a lower capital gains tax on the sale of real estate (surely capital losses for most these days) to stimulate development. He went on to say that he’d put these ideas to pen-pushers at the Ministry of Finance about a decade ago, only to be rebuffed with, “Do you think we’re stupid? We came up with these ideas donkey’s years ago. But we’d never get a landholding tax past the real estate lobby!”
        The second anecdote comes from Lesley Downer, who has been mentioned in these pages before. She was interviewed in the JT at the weekend, and had a revealing comment to make about the Tsutsumis of Seibu, who were in their heyday real-estate magnates (among other things) on par with the Moris:
        Tell me more about the Tsutsumi brothers who you wrote about in that book — why did you become interested in that business dynasty?
        At the end of the ’80s, the Tsutsumis were huge. Yoshiaki Tsutsumi — the son of Yasujiro Tsutsumi and his favorite mistress — was the richest man in the world according to Forbes magazine’s listing for six of the seven years 1987 to ’93, and there was this sibling rivalry between him and his half-brother, Seiji — the son of Yasujiro and his second wife. It was just a great story that needed telling.
        But I thought it was also a great way of exploring how people saw Japan and “the Japanese.”
        Seiji Tsutsumi was a poet and an ex-communist who owned [the department store group] Parco, and he bought the Intercontinental hotel to spite his brother — then went bankrupt. He was a Westernized man. But Yoshiaki Tsutsumi owned the Seibu Lions baseball team and was a very traditional chap. I saw Yoshiaki once, surrounded by the top guys of the Diet. They were all bowing very low and he was just nodding. It was totally obvious who held the strings.

        So perhaps we have to have a consumption tax hike because the landowners won’t have anything else. Why, it’s enough to make you a Georgist! But as you say, it could well come indirectly out of Tokyo real estate prices anyway… Demand is always elastic for items to which a hefty percentage of the household budget is dedicated…

      • thanks for the long and interesting response, and apologies for taking so much bandwidth in your comments with this hobby-horse of mine.

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  15. . . . as the aze banks between paddies, which are something of a wildlife haven . . .

    I read a related article recently (I think it was connected to that “green conference” held in Nagoya a few months back) about how rural paddy fields being allowed to go fallow is jeopardizing a wetland ecosystem. A valid point but one that seems to ignore the level of contamination typical of these fields and that promoting something man-made like this is a bit like lamenting the draining of a lake behind a dam once it is removed and a river is allowed to flow freely again.

    • This is all to do with the ideology of “satoyama”, that hilly coexistence of nature and people that covers so much of Japan. Still can’t quite decide whether it would be better for it to be preserved or go extinct, but there’s plenty of food for thought:

      http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20101013e3.html

      This Winifred Bird article I thought was interesting:

      http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20090823x1.html

      It’s important to remember that the species that “depend” on satoyama didn’t originally and will probably in most cases survive without it.
      The draining of a lake behind a dam once it is removed and a river is allowed to flow freely again.
      Ah, dams and rivers and reservoirs, so much on my mind the past year.

      • Ah, dams and rivers and reservoirs, so much on my mind the past year.

        Did you happen to see this?

        http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm

        Not big, but it’s a start. The most remarkable change over the last 45 years or so has been the almost complete disappearance of a meaningful salmon run of any species in Puget Sound.

      • Thanks for the link Jeffrey, I hadn’t seen it but “dedamming” is very interesting (well, to me, anyway). I’d like to think it was the way of the future, but at least in Japan–which might be the likeliest country in East Asia to see dedamming given its wealth (though that’s not at a high bar)–there is no sign whatsoever of it occurring, although I suppose we should be grateful that dam-building seems at last to have come to an end.

      • Jeffrey,
        On the subject of Japanese agriculture (and how it relates to Japan’s free-trade relations), you might be interested in this:

        http://www.nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=257

        Ms Mulgan seems to know her beans.
        Not to be a doomsdayer but I liked this in particular:
        In the absence of an agricultural-reform orientation in government, future trends will be a continuation of current negative trends. It is inevitable that the Japanese farm sector will go into an even more pronounced decline owing to many challenges: more land under cultivation lost and more abandoned farmland leading to even less cultivated land and a lower utilization rate of cultivated area; a continuing drop in the agricultural working population and a possible demographic crisis, with the average age of that shrinking group rising above the current 66 years; fewer farm successors; a contraction in private investment in the farm industry; a decline in the value of gross agricultural output and agricultural income produced; and falling food self-sufficiency levels. The direst prediction is that if the current situation continues, there will probably be no farmers left in Japan after ten years and food production will stop.
        The direst prediction is no doubt too dire, but…

  16. That’s happy reading. I guess if we do “retire” there we really will need to find an abandoned farmstead in Gifu to rehab just so we’ll have enough to eat!

    • 5M less people to feed by 2020:

      warewarenihonjin are going to gain about 100m2 per capita in living space with that decline . . .

      Getting some urban gardens going in Tokyo-to in 2020 sounds like a plan!

      http://binged.it/MbHKJY are already on it!

      (I just discovered that the typical Seibu-sen stop ridership (“Hibaraigaoka” in my case) has apparently lost 1,000 riders — 7% — since ~1995.)

      http://www.toukei.metro.tokyo.jp/tnenkan/1994/TOBAI1AP.XLS

      http://www.toukei.metro.tokyo.jp/tnenkan/2010/tn10qa041300.xls

      for the data

      • “5M less people to feed by 2020″
        And 5mn fewer consumers to buy stuff…
        “warewarenihonjin are going to gain about 100m2 per capita in living space with that decline . . .”
        If only that were true in any meaningful way… People in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya aren’t going to see their living spaces suddenly double in size over the decade, that’s for sure.
        “Getting some urban gardens going in Tokyo-to in 2020 sounds like a plan!
        http://binged.it/MbHKJY are already on it!”
        Love it. Those are called allotments back where I’m from. In Nerima, they’ll’ve always been there, and must these days be threatened by a combo of population growth (to 716,000 in 2010 from 619,000 in 1990 for Nerima) and smaller households, although I concede that these forces are not as strong as they were and will have mostly petered out by c2020.
        “(I just discovered that the typical Seibu-sen stop ridership (“Hibaraigaoka” in my case) has apparently lost 1,000 riders — 7% — since ~1995.)”
        That is fascinating. Somehow it never occurred to me to go and look at station-level data for Tokyo lines. I did the maths for the Seibu Ikebukuro line as a whole: the decline between 1994 and (the average of the four years to) 2010 for season ticket holders is about 18% (i.e., the salaryman stiffs) while for the others it’s about 3.4%. I also did the maths for my station, on the Toei Shinjuku line, and the total passenger decline was even more striking—about 30%. There are obviously various and complex factors at work here, so it would be foolish to leap to conclusions, but you might tentatively conclude that scandal-tainted Seibu’s planned return to the stock market later this year and the subsequent fortunes of its stock will not be a Google-like experience.

      • One for the Georgists, on the 100th anniversary of Woodie Guthrie’s birth–how could you fail to be moved, despite the superstar contingent:

      • yeah, as for farming in Nerima-ku, thatwasthejoke. In the previous post referencing central Shinjuku-ku I mentioned the postwar-era aerial mapping. . .

        http://link.maps.goo.ne.jp/map.php?MAP=E139.35.56.861N35.43.29.598&ZM=9

        is this location where you can inspect the 1947 and 1963 surveys of this area.

        Seibu’s capital investments in their transport capacity upgraded this land from its jomon-like agricultural existence right into metropolitan Tokyo’s sphere of development, converting literally dirt-cheap 畑 land into very dear land, with valuations still ¥300,000 per m2 (and up), twice the valuations of the similar former farmland surrounding the US’s most profitable company (Apple).

        I never played it, but such simulations as Artdink’s Take the A Train hold obvious attraction to me :)

        And forgotten Iwaizumi-cho is an echo of this same story — the loss of its convenient transportation connection to its neighboring economies.

        But of course this is not just capital investment, it’s a story of population dynamics and industry, or lack thereof.

        AFAICT China’s daily wage is still Japan’s hourly wage, so with the current JPY-CNY cross, Japan’s disappearing workforce has a tough row to hoe in remaining relevant.

        ISTM Tokyo will continue attracting people throughout this century. It’s not like the countryside has anything to beat the metropolis economy with (natural beauty aside).

        But Tokyo’s actual wealth-creating industrial prospect remains a mystery to me. Japan as a whole enjoys a $3T capital position in the world, if it can get 10% return on capital, that’s around $6000/yr per household, pretty decent capital income if redistributed into the Japanese economy.

      • Apropros of nothing except the price of land in Japan, you might raise a titter (as we Brits say) at this:

        http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2012/07/18/hokkaido-town-offers-land-for-a-song-to-attract-younger-crowd/

        All nonsensical, window-dressing of course. And yes, I have been to Yuni. Looks lovely in comparison to its
        neighbour, Yubari.

      • While I hate to knock a location that’s ~1 hour and ¥1000 away from Japan’s #4 metropolis, but ¥6000 per m2 is pretty steep still!

        With a depopulating countryside — Japan is going to lose the equivalent of Hokkaido from its working-age population by 2020 — the best use for this land is probably going to be paddy land.

        And if my math is right, with 5,000 kg per hectare production — 0.5kg per m2, and ¥200/kg net margin, that ¥6000 is 60 years of rice income.

        Will Japan even have a population to feed in 60 years???

        And of course that ¥200/kg net is under immense pressure, both from declining demand and competition with imports.

        Yesterday I was looking at your Niigata-area minka rehab listing service and getting all excited about $25,000 houses, then realized I was missing a zero in my conversion.

        My problem with staying in California is I’m afraid this state is really the “bug in search of the windshield” this decade and next.

        Japan’s problems are completely different, and it’s challenging trying to figure out what’s going to happen.

        I think either place’s problems are solvable, but the problems exist at the political level, not the nuts & bolts (wealth-creation) level.

      • “While I hate to knock a location that’s ~1 hour and ¥1000 away from Japan’s #4 metropolis, but ¥6000 per m2 is pretty steep still!”
        $8,000 for a 100m2 plot? That’s a Billy Bargain! (OK, I’m ambivalent about that). Always hard to recall that Sapporo really is No. 4–Tokyo has, well, everything, Nagoya has cars, Osaka has sleaze, what does Sapporo have?
        Surely all your maths proves is that it would be better to transform Yuni into a high-tech exurb of Sapporo? Though it’s hard to see how that could really happen…
        “Yesterday I was looking at your Niigata-area minka rehab listing service and getting all excited about $25,000 houses, then realized I was missing a zero in my conversion.”
        You mean they’re selling them off for $2,500?!? Seriously, though, there are quite a few (many, actually) sub-c$50,000 places out there in rural Japan. How about, to take this almost completely random example, a Y4mn trad bungalow in historic Bizen, with its superb pottery, in Okayama:

        http://www.inakanet.jp/cgi-bin/database/database.cgi?cmd=dp&num=15869&dp=

        Bit bijou but I’m tempted myself. It’s a supply and demand thing. You can see the Bizen demographics here:

        http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%82%99%E5%89%8D%E5%B8%82

        California though doesn’t really have supply and demand working in long-term favor of property aspirants, does it?

    • Cheer up, there’ll be plenty of fish about–or maybe not. This one’s a bit of a shocker (italics mine):

      TOKYO (Nikkei)–Seafood prices are rising sharply due to reduced catches caused by depleted fisheries and changes in the maritime environment.

      The wholesale price of bonito is double what it was this time last year, as is that of whitebait, due to poor catches. Overall wholesale prices had been falling because of consumer spending, but the soaring price of mainstay items has pushed the market as a whole into positive territory in recent years.

      The average fishery product price at Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, a common benchmark, had been falling due to a consumption slump. Prices hit bottom in 2008 and 2009, mostly on the back of lower prices for larger species. From January to May, the average price was 837 yen per kilogram, up 3% on the year and 6% higher than the same period two years earlier.

      According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan’s production of fishery products, defined as the total amount of fish caught and farmed, was down 17% in 2011 compared with five years ago, due largely to depleted resources in waters near Japan and the aging of commercial fishermen.

      At Tokyo’s Tsukiji seafood market, the quantity of bonito landed in June was down by half on the year, doubling its wholesale price on the year to 750-800 yen per kilogram. Supermarket retail prices for bonito are about 20% higher than in an average year.

      The wholesale price of tuna at the Tsukiji market is up about 30% on the year. Tuna catches landed in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, a major tuna fishing port in summer, have fallen by about half from the previous year.

      Catches of whitebait, or immature sardines, have been scant nationwide, possibly because of low water temperatures in early spring. Dried whitebait goes for around 3,000 yen per kilogram at Tsukiji, about twice as much as the previous year. Retail prices are up by about 20%.

      The nationwide haul of conger, which is in strong demand as a replacement for eel, was sharply lower — only about one-tenth what it was five years ago. An official at a fishermen’s cooperative in Osaka says no one in the group has been fishing for conger lately because it is unprofitable.

      Most of the conger traded on local markets are from South Korea. The wholesale price of conger at the Tsukiji market has climbed 30% on the year. That of Japanese icefish, which mainly comes from Hokkaido and Tohoku, is 5,000 yen per kilogram, a jump of 70% on the year.

      According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, global production of fisheries products in 2011 was up 12% compared to 2006 and reached 154 million tons. That owes to higher global demand due to greater health consciousness in the U.S. and Europe and more consumption in fast-growing countries such as China. However, the number of species at risk of depletion and overfishing is on the rise.
      (The Nikkei, July 11 evening edition)

  17. I think it’s pretty well established that there has been a dramatic decline in local Japanese waters for a couple decades at least. And just as the Japanese fleet has gone further afield to satisfy domestic demand, demand in the U.S., the 800-pound gorilla in the world economy, has grown substantially as well. But as long as the Japanese continue to eat tuna in all forms seemingly regardless of the price, Atlantic blue fin will certainly be gone in a couple of decades and one can only assume that the Pacific blue fin will follow by only a couple decades. Farmed tuna are even more environmentally problematic than farmed salmon.

    Dog help us if another couple hundred million Chinese become “middle-class.” The Malthusian in me has no hope that “science will save us.”

  18. OK, this next comment is kinda dumb but this depopulation thing got me thinking . . .

    is a spreadsheet showing the notional age 20-60 population of Japan by year. 1973 was apparently the peak year for this demographic, at 85M.

    If I do go back to Japan, I hope to see at least 2040, so that was a good year to cut this projection off. Anyway, if my numbers are right there will be 35M less working-age people by then.

    The prefectures are the years when this demographic lost that amount of people. Ie. the Japanese actually lost the current population of Shikoku by the late 80s. Kyushu has taken longer but is going to age out next year, and Hokkaido will be gone in about 10 years.

    Following these 3, I added some peripheral Honshu prefectures to give further scale to this process.

    I don’t know whether to be scared or book a flight back tomorrow.

    • Nice spreadsheet, but where do the underlying numbers come from? I’ve never seen any Japanese bureaucrat parcel them out so nicely. I’m suspicious because all the evidence I can marshal in 10 minutes suggests you’re way too early with your peak. Take a look here at the NIPSSR’s split, which is for 0-19, 20-64, 64-75, and over 75:

      http://www.ipss.go.jp/syoushika/tohkei/Popular/P_Detail2012.asp?fname=T02-09.htm&title1=%87U%81D%94N%97%EE%95%CA%90l%8C%FB&title2=%95%5C%82Q%81%7C%82X+%94N%97%EE%81i%82S%8B%E6%95%AA%81j%95%CA%90l%8C%FB%82%CC%90%84%88%DA%82%C6%8F%AB%97%88%90%84%8Cv%81F1920%81%602060%94N

      The 20-64 peak comes in 2000, which coincides with the generally accepted peak in the working population, which came in c1998. We’re headed for a 10% decline in that cohort in a couple of years and then a falling off to 53.9mn, close to a third off the 78.7mn 2000 peak, by 2040. Not close to your 48.5mn, even though 20-64 obviously includes more people than your 20-60 cohort does.
      You know, though, even by 2040, Japan is still NOT back to its 1970 population. Of course, there won’t be so many under 20s around—perhaps half of the 1980 peak of 33.5mn (but we’re already down to c22mn, MORE than half the journey there)—and there’ll certainly be a few more old-timers around (at 22mn, ten times the number of over 75s in 1970), but assuming we can get from here to there without going bankrupt (big ask), Japan might not be such a bad retirement home. It often strikes me as a supremely comfortable place to grow old, growing old with those around you in the fastest aging developed economy.

  19. Those numbers came from adding up raw annual births 20 to 60 years prior and do not factor in any deaths along the way, so eg. WW2 had its impact that is not reflected here. The numbers themselves are from a wikipedia article so perhaps they’re off, too.

    It often strikes me as a supremely comfortable place to grow old, growing old with those around you in the fastest aging developed economy.

    I’m 60% leaning towards moving back this decade. I’ve said this here before, but socio-economically it’s probably better to have to few working-age people than too many. Theoretically, housing costs will go down and wages will go up . . . what’s not to like?

    That Japan Inc could do so well 1960-1990 with such overpopulation is the curious thing. I guess they had impeccable timing and did a lot right — the successes of japanese multinationals speak for themselves. And the Japanese people worked their asses off, that helped too.

    Or maybe things were really tough for a lot of people 1950-1980 and what I know about Japan is only filtered through the past ~20 years of what I’ve read and seen.

    The yen at 320 for so long was both a blessing and a sacrifice, too. Nice structural trade barrier.

  20. A bit off topic, but this guy seems like he’s lived a sort of charmed gaijin life.
    While his new gig involves preservation of historic Japan, what’s dismayed me as much has been the level of disregard of late Meiji and Taishou era buildings.

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120805x1.html

    • Hah, me old mucker David Atkinson! I’ve come to the conclusion that the gaijin community in Japan is so small there are only two degrees of separation between any of us–in David Atkinson’s case he is the former colleague of a close former colleague of mine. Charmed life? Silver spoon. From fairly serious Old Money, I hear, and the Goldman partnership, at a time when the money center banks just backed up the truck to bank analysts’ bank accounts–that won’t have hurt the family fortune.
      As for the Meiji and Taisho buildings, I suspect they’re not really regarded as part of the racially pristine cultural baggage, more like ha-fu interlopers. The Meiji and Taisho architecture suffers also from being laic rather than clerical, doesn’t it, and thus resides in the realm of real or imagined “progress”. The dojunkai apartments are a case in point:

      http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120617x1.html

      Used to love the ones on Omotesando, so atmospheric, so unlikely. All gone now, of course. If it’s any consolation, I watch the renovation of Tokyo station (1914, classic early Taisho) from my 16th floor perch every day, and the brass cupolas are looking resplendent, all on course for the last scaffolding to disappear by the 100th anniversary.

      • Yes. A partnership at Goldman’s certainly ensures after a few years (unless one had a large Bolivian powder problem) that working for a living becomes “just a memory.”

        I loved the dojunkai apartments along Omotesando-dori! For me, they anchored a “neighborhood” that had a lot more character back in the ’80s.

        And to think that there was serious discussion at one point to tear down the station back in the late ’80s. I’d love to stay in one of the new hotel rooms just because.

    • Hey, off-topic is what we do here, at least until I finish the post in the hopper. You might have missed this really pretty competent slab of hackery from Bloomberg on Japanese agriculture and the TPP negotiations from Bloomberg.

      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-02/japan-s-free-trade-nemesis-built-on-part-time-farmers-empire.html

      Thanks to the immense amounts of dosh Bloomberg rips off the banks for his cumbersome and completely counterintuitive terminals, it (he?) can fund newsdesks in places where few human hacks are left to tread. Nothing really new, but good to learn that Japan Agriculture has deposits on par with Barclays and to have old prejudices reinforced about the almost Soviet collectivist power that JA exerts over rural Japan. For some reason, there’s a dumbed down version for the plebs at Bloomberg Businessweek with prettier pictures but an utterly stupid graphic showing that–shock, horror–agriculture’s share of Japan GDP has shrunk over the last forty-odd years, just as it has in every single last country in the world…

      http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-08-02/japan-wants-free-trade-dot-its-farmers-dont

  21. Postscript: The Iwaizumi Line was indeed formally axed on April 1st, 2014. (No joke.)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iwaizumi_Line#Suspension_and_closure

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