Yubari: Withering into truth

I was recently commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to profile dear old Yubari in a short article; you can read the fruits of that endeavor, should you care to, here. However, the piece was hacked about and chopped down to make it more digestible for the hurried browser, so I thought I would post the unexpurgated version here, the director’s cut, as it were, with the scenes that were left on the cutting-room floor restored. Veteran Spike readers will be familiar with the tale, but there were a few twists and turns in it I hadn’t anticipated when I began the research process. Revisiting all the places Spike made it to in the blog’s five-year run every five years or so would turn into a Sisyphean task, like the painting of the Forth Bridge; a fascinating grand travaux but not one I’ll be undertaking in this life. I apologize for any infelicities in the prose, which I ascribe to the rigors of contemporary journalism. As Stella Gibbons observes in the foreword to Cold Comfort Farm, “The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So is his style.”

Few cities in the developed world can have been put as comprehensively through the wringer as Yubari, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and in its heyday known as the capital of coal: from a peak of just shy of 120,000 people in 1960, its population plummeted by four-fifths, to 21,000, in 1990, the year the last colliery closed and the last miners fled, and has since more than halved again, to below 10,000, as those who stayed on aged and died or drifted away in the wake of the city’s tumultuous 2007 bankruptcy.


Ramshackle hostelry aflame with rust, upper Yubari. All photographs: Richard Hendy for The Guardian

Yubari now is a city of superlatives, mostly invidious ones: demographically, it is the oldest city in Japan, probably the world, and possibly ever to have existed, with a median age in 2010 of over 57 set to rise to 65 in 2020, when more people will be over 80 than under 40, making Yubari perhaps the world’s first pensioner-majority city. The population is still falling precipitously, down by a sixth in just five years, and there are fewer children, proportionately, than in any other city, with barely one in twenty of the population under 15—some dozen old-timers die in Yubari for every child born. Following the bankruptcy, Yubari has the most onerous debt burden and close to the weakest finances of any Japanese city, while its bureaucrats and mayor draw the lowest salaries—about £18,000 in the mayor’s case. For the city as a whole, per capita taxable income fell by nearly a third between 1998 and 2012.


Miners’ row houses, some of the very last ones left, with allotments. The reroofed house is still inhabited.

After five years in the Tokyo hot-house since my last visit, I was eager to return, to ring the continuities and changes in such a rapidly shrinking place and to see if it would be possible to tease out a more guardedly optimistic narrative of managed senescence than the one customarily presented in the national—and international—media, for in the five years I’d been away much had changed, not all for the worse. Spurred by the rigors of bankruptcy, the schools, of which Yubari—like much of Japan—had far too many, have been consolidated, into a single elementary, junior high, and high school apiece, the wherewithal has somehow been found to build two tracts of considerately single-storey public housing, jobs have been created with the arrival of Chinese herbal medicine factory, and Japan’s oldest city in 2011 elected the country’s youngest mayor, the dashing and energetic Naomichi Suzuki, who had just turned 30 on election and who has come to relish his role as PR costermonger-in-chief for Yubari produce. Were there lessons in how to die with dignity in the Yubari experience for Detroit, which followed its now miniscule Japanese cousin into bankruptcy last year, and for the future Detroits waiting in the wings?


Yubari Melon Soda has the mayor’s seal of approval.

An epochal national event had occurred in the five years I had been away, too: Japan’s population, after several years at a plateau, began in 2011 to turn unambiguously lower, making the nation the first and so far only major developed country with a declining population. Currently close to 85% of municipalities in Japan are shrinking, compared to less than 5% of local authorities in England and Wales in the 2011 census. Demography is front-page news in Japan: alarmism reached feverish levels this spring with the publication of a report that asserts more than half of Japan’s municipalities are “at risk of extinction” by 2040 as their numbers of reproductive-age women halve versus 2010—or in Yubari’s case, fall by 85% to just 100.


Movie posters on the side of an old warehouse, upper Yubari. Yubari has tried to promote itself as a city of cinema, with indifferent success.

This makes Yubari fascinating as the demographic canary in the Japanese, erm, coal mine, a Dorian Gray portrait of the country’s future as much as its past. When celebrated doctor Tomohiko Murakami, who helmed the post-bankruptcy downsizing of Yubari’s only hospital into a clinic before he was felled in a bizarre love triangle-cum-attempted murder incident, describes contemporary Yubari as a “microcosm of Japan in 2050”, he exaggerates only mildly: by around 2060, the over-65s are projected to account for four out of every 10 Japanese, a ratio Yubari reached about a decade ago.


Buckling electrical goods store in the Yubari district of Nanbu, which has lost a quarter of its population in the last five years.

In the late 1970s, the city elders, confronted with the imminent demise of the city’s backbone industry, pumped up by febrile talk of Japan as an emergent lifestyle superpower, and oblivious to Yubari’s frigid climate (the mean annual temperature is below 6°C and the city is snowbound half the year), threw in their lot with the fickle deity of tourism and built a vast theme park, replete with the usual attractions such as a roller coaster and giant Ferris wheel, as well as some more outré ones, such as a World Stuffed Animal House, and plenty whose purpose cannot be fathomed from their names alone—roller luge, atomic coaster, and Great Poseidon.


Adventure slider Kilimanjaro, Coal History Village theme park, Yubari.

The theme park staggered on for years with backhander subsidies from the city before going belly up in 2006. Five years ago, the odd family still strolled the carcass of the park but this time around, with the remnant facilities in a more pronounced stage of decay, my only companion was an aggressive male stonechat, pounding out a chek-chek-chek in defence of his territory from the intruder.


Clock tower in collapsing pastel, Coal History Village theme park, Yubari.

Yubari’s other claim to fame is its eponymous cantaloupe melon brand, which first rose to prominence in the go-go days of the 1960s. This May, the first pair of the season fetched an eye-watering £15,000 at auction, equaling the record high and making them surely the most expensive fruit ever sold. Even the solo melon on the turn of mediocre quality I picked up at the airport at half-price set me back £11. The melon farmers are consequently doing very nicely, thank you for asking, but they are ageing fast, too.


In the Japanese language, melons do not serve as a dirty-postcard euphemism for a secondary female sex characteristic.

Yubari’s main arterial road, its umbilical cord to the world, has recently been bypassed by an expressway, allowing all but the most dedicated tourists to give the city a miss, with a predictably calamitous impact on the souvenir emporia. One emporium, in a flailing bid to ride Japan’s interminable cuddly mascot boom, has come up with a radical new character, Melon Bear, which pushes the boundaries of cute into the realm of creepy and which has emphatically not been embraced by the Yubari establishment. Indeed, it took me three days’ driving around Yubari, which sprawls across an area half the size of London, before I was able to hunt down the Melon Bear lair.


Do bears crap in the woods? Not Melon Bears, apparently.

The once vast souvenir emporium now occupies perhaps a tenth of its original size; in this nook I marveled at the gamut of tawdry Melon Bear knickknacks on offer as a TV played reruns of an encounter between Melon Bear and its handler, a woman in late middle age known as Nacchan, and a member of Japan’s most famous boy band, SMAP, in which Nacchan was mocked mercilessly for her doltish rusticity. And then the real Nacchan popped up behind the counter as a huddle of tourists from Hong Kong, who had evidently come on holiday to Yubari by mistake, blundered into the shop, and Nacchan nattered away to them in a language it was not plausible they would understand about how they could have this box of six plastic Melon Bear piggy banks, cunningly packaged like real melons, for the unbeatable price of £50. I stepped in to interpret but failed to effect a deal.


Desperate times, desperate measures.

One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks of defeatism. When the city had the money in the 1970s and 1980s, it tore down vast tracts of miners’ housing, and standing in the upper Yubari valley gazing up at the verdant hillsides, it is almost impossible to conceive that they were once covered with sooty tenements. One far-flung settlement, once home to 25,000 souls, has been entirely razed and partly entombed by a reservoir, the only vestige of its existence now a quartet of black granite obelisks commemorating its long-gone schools. Almost all trace of the coal mines, save the odd slag-heap, has been expunged. Compare and contrast with Detroit and, say, its Packard Automotive Plant, shuttered in 1958 and still a ruin. Work remains to be done—roughly a third of the city’s stock of public housing, in which half of Yubari’s denizens dwell, lies empty, a ratio that will only rise—but the bulk of the task is over.

As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who’s come in a small act of public spiritedness to water the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the undergrowth by the line. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently”. A brace more deer vault in front of my car on Yubari’s main drag the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has recently been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down now pristine rivers and catch now abundant stag beetles.


Nature always wins.

Yubari has other lessons for the rust-belts of the West, too, although the lessons may be unlearnable. There’s no graffiti, no vandalism, and scarcely any crime. Whole years can elapse without a single felony troubling the police blotter and in 2013 there was less than a single crime of any description a week. Best of all, the state has not abdicated or shirked its responsibilities: there are still at least a dozen post offices, the fire engines are spit-polished and ready to respond to the monthly fire, and the public payphones, should you need one, are immaculate. Nor is the state rapacious: if you qualify, two-bedroom apartments in newish public blocks rent for around £150 a month, there are forty sheltered housing units for the elderly that rent for less than £30 a month, and if you’re old and poor enough, someone will come and shovel your snow away for nothing.


An elderly woman walks home to her new public housing, which at £100,000 a unit, wasn’t cheap to construct.

So what does the future hold for Yubari? More of the same: between 2010 and 2040, the population is projected to shrink by another two-thirds, a projection that is all but certain to unfold, as it is based mostly on the age profiles of people already alive. The grand folly of monument-driven tourism is over, the lessons expensively, ruinously, learned. Reading between the bromides of the bureaucrats, the 2012 Master Plan for the city calls for an orderly retreat from the fringes to the core, with the emphasis on preventative healthcare for the old, who will more and more have to tender to the very old. Yubari is in its last throes now, learning, with a few pratfalls but many successes, how to die with dignity.

With the world’s population set to fall from mid-century, it might just be that Yubari is a harbinger of how humankind’s span on our pale blue dot winds down, not with the bang of nuclear war or environmental degradation but the whimper of a bronchial cough and a slip in the bath. Which is why the city is so magnificently instructive: there are few spots in the world more congenial to the contemplation of humanity’s futility and mortality—and one’s own—than this place, busily withering, to purloin Yeats, into truth.


Junior high school boy on his way home.