A city on the edge

What follows is a translation of the prologue to a book whose title might be translated as “In pursuit of the Yubari problem: The city’s bankruptcy and comeback struggles”, accredited only to the Hokkaido Shimbun Research Team and first published in April 2009. The book is a hugely granular account of the bankruptcy of the city in 2006 and its subsequent woes, running to some 430 dense pages. The prologue deals mainly with April 2007 to March 2008, the first year of the restructuring plan imposed after the city went bankrupt in 2006.

The translation is slightly abridged, chiefly because of repetition, which Japanese adores and English abhors. It’s not a polished translation by any means, as it was done at a pace some five times faster than a book translator would probably want to proceed, but should not be incomprehensible at any point.

I decided to devote a couple of days to translating the prologue for a number of reasons. First, because I think it will complement well what I will—eventually—write about Yubari, which will necessarily be more impressionistic, as I have no journalism credentials and have spent just three days there.

Second, because although it will never win the Pulitzer (or Japan’s equivalent), it is a very solid piece of in-depth reportage of the sort that is simply inconceivable in the West any more. Can you imagine for even a split-second a provincial newspaper in Britain or the US having the resources to allow its reporters to produce a paperback of more than 400 pages that retails for a mere Y676 ($7.50, GBP4.75) on the bankruptcy of a city with just 12,000 or so inhabitants (although Yubari’s significance is far in excess of its much diminished population), the result of at least one reporter being more or less permanently stationed in the city for several years? No, neither can I. Fortunately, the Japanese are still willing to pay for their news, a habit that has gone decidedly out of fashion in the West. As with anything else, you get what you pay for.

Third, the tale the prologue tells is—at least to me—a gripping if harrowing one of a city on its absolute uppers and on the brink of the abyss, a city struggling to keep its own buildings heated through vicious Hokkaido winters, struggling to keep its ambulances on the road, and at the same time a very ordinary tale of people of all ages and in all walks of life coping with adversity as best they can. The complete absence of cliché that so often infiltrates, consciously or not, Western reporting on Japan is what makes the narrative so refreshing and compelling.

The story builds slowly, assumes a certain level of knowledge that few readers of the English will possess, and at times seems to get bogged down in the minutiae of budgetary detail, but is well worth persevering with, I feel.

Foreknowledge of two things will help in navigation through the story. First, the Japanese fiscal year runs from April 1st to March 31st, so for instance fiscal 2007 refers to the year from April 1st, 2007 to March 31st, 2008. Second, very approximately Y1mn converts to $10,000, Y10mn is $100,000, Y100mn is $1mn, and Y1bn is $10mn. This should help in the appreciation that many of the sums being referred to are tiny—the city cannot, for example, find Y1.5mn (roughly $15,000) to repair its own boilers—while facing a debt repayment total of Y35.3bn ($392mn, GBP248mn).

(Finally, a lament from a tired translator: Japanese names are a veritable nightmare; there are somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 surnames, against roughly 200 in Korea and 3,000 in China, and many of them have multiple readings. There are potentially millions of given name combinations possible, many of which also have multiple readings. In some cases I have had to simply take stabs at how names are read from an array of possibilities; mistakes here, and any other errors in the translation, are my fault alone.)

Prologue: Endless blows

A press conference with downcast eyes

It’s the afternoon of March 9th, 2009 in a meeting room on the fourth floor of Yubari City Hall.

Yubari Mayor Hajime Fujikura announces the city’s fiscal 2009 draft budget, which is the third to be compiled since the start of the city’s Fiscal Rebuilding Plan.

“In the new fiscal year, we’ll work steadily toward eliminating the deficit, put to rest an assortment of problems, and I want to reflect this in the new Fiscal Revitalization Plan we’ll be putting together”.

The draft budget estimates general account revenues down 1.4% versus the initial fiscal 2008 budget at ¥8.18bn and expenditure down 0.9% at ¥7.16bn. The ¥1.01bn gap between revenue and expenditure will be used to repay the deficit.

On the revenue front, city taxes are expected to decline by 12.9% to ¥893mn due to population outflow and other factors. On the expenditure front, the city will begin to repay the principal on the loss guarantees on third-sector projects that went under when it declared bankruptcy, so commercial and industrial expenses are expected to rise by 6.8x year-on-year to ¥455mn. Conversely, there were some municipal bonds on which repayments had finished, so bond expenses are slated to fall 26.5% to ¥1.63bn.

In new projects, the city will book a total of ¥13mn for firefighter hose maintenance, paramedic training, subsidies for emergency medical care on holidays and at night, and grants for health checks for pregnant women.

Under the provisions of the Local Authority Fiscal Revitalization Act, which comes into effect in fiscal 2009, Yubari will draw up a Fiscal Revitalization Plan to start from fiscal 2010 to replace the current Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. From the start of 2009 the city has been scrutinizing new issues, such as the maintenance and upkeep of obsolete facilities, to be incorporated in the Fiscal Revitalization Plan.

The city is planning from April 2009 to put a team of three to five people in its District Revitalization Department to be charged with drawing up the plan.

At the same time, the city will start to hold project meetings to look into the rebuilding of the increasingly decrepit municipal clinic and other issues together with local medical associations and start to look at incorporating proposals into a supplementary budget in the new fiscal year and into the revitalization plan.

After hearing the opinions of the Yubari citizens, the revitalization plan is due to be drawn up within the course of fiscal 2009 following debate at the municipal assembly and the approval of the Minister of Internal Affairs.

At the press conference, Mayor Fujikura stressed that the fiscal 2009 budget plan, which would be a new milestone on the road to rebuilding the city’s shattered finances, had been drawn up “With due consideration of the need to put citizens’ minds at rest”.

From start to finish, however, the mayor merely read aloud from prepared notes, eyes downcast. We hadn’t heard the real voice of the mayor since the mayoral election in the spring of 2007, when he spoke of his passion to rebuild Yubari, promising to act as “a salesman for the city”, and there were many times since when he looked exhausted.

Let’s now wind back the clock and look back over the two years since the mayor was first elected.

An angry mayor

April 26th, 2007. Mayor Hajime Fujikura, elected for the first time in the Yubari mayoral election, visited Tokyo on his own dime ahead of his inauguration the following day to meet with Minister of Internal Affairs Yoshihide Suga and seek his cooperation with the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. Suga responded that all the national government could do would be to back Yubari as much as it could. The mayor responded by expressing the hopes of his constituents: “The people of Yubari want the city to get back on its feet as quickly as possible. I want to do everything I can to achieve that goal”. Suga exhorted the mayor, who had left his post as a company president to take on the post, to pay heed to how managers in the private sector would handle the situation and do his best.

Mayor Fujikura made his first appearance at City Hall on the morning of the following day and addressed the assembled employees enthusiastically: “I don’t want to get caught up in a blame game about the city’s bankruptcy, I want to face the future and take a determined step forward”.

Mayor Fujikura had arrived at City Hall at 8:30 that morning. After he was presented with a bouquet by the employees, he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, having learned that the use of the elevators by city employees had been banned as an economy-saving measure. He greeted some 50 or so employees in a meeting room. He cited five goals typical of someone who had come from corporate management: the philosophy of putting the customer first, the pursuit of profit, the need to win in the competition among local authorities to improve performance, putting results ahead of anything, and prioritizing action, stressing the need to import corporate consciousness into the administration. And as someone born and bred in Yubari, he appealed to them: “My beloved Yubari is in crisis. Let’s work together to rebuild it”.

Mayor Fujikura subsequently told the press corps that ahead of the establishment of a Citizens’ Revitalization Committee he had pledged to set up citizens’ committees to discuss how to dispose of and cut down on garbage, as the city would be charging for garbage disposal from July. There was effectively no separation of burnable and non-burnable garbage in the city and there had been many complaints from Yubari citizens about this. He said that he hoped that hearing from citizens themselves about garbage disposal methods would lead to a change in awareness about garbage.

A month later, however, the mayor had quickly come to fully understand that the Fiscal Rebuilding Body (i.e., the city of Yubari) had been put in an extremely difficult position.

On May 24th, Mayor Fujikura spoke at a press conference at Yubari City Hall, less than a month after taking office: “I knew things were bad but the rebuilding plan is unbelievably tough. The city and I have far too little room for maneuver. I’m really upset. In fact, I’m infuriated”, he said, letting his frustrations boil through.

At the start of the conference, the mayor gave a quick-fire solo performance lasting for around 10 minutes, using only the notes he had at his hand. “Is the state and the prefecture really interested in getting Yubari back on its feet again? There’s some play in the steering wheel of a car but there’s absolutely none in Yubari’s budget”. He went on to bewail his inability to put the skills he had picked up as a company president, when he had succeeded in a corporate turnaround: “Our problem is that we’re out of money. We can’t do anything.”

For the mayor, who prided himself on his activist approach and was constantly talking about how he would go out and pitch Yubari to the world, the biggest immediate headache was business trip expenses. Under the rebuilding plan, the city could only spend money on tangibles such as gasoline. Citing the way he would be forced to miss the National Mayors’ Conference, to be held in early June, Mayor Fujikura said, “I may have become mayor but I can’t do anything—my hands are tied and my ankles are shackled. If I can’t jet about the country putting Yubari’s case, I can’t do anything. The national government is just useless.”

He then turned his ire on the people of Yubari. “Rent arrears on city housing amount to Y330mn. The responsibility lies with each and every citizen”, he said, pleading for people to change their mentality.

Broken, broken, broken

Budget shortfalls extended to every area of city life. The gravest problem of all, though, was finding the money to renovate and repair broken city facilities.

On July 4th, two and a half months after Mayor Fujikura took office, the city firmed plans to renovate the rundown buildings of the municipal Yubari Medical Center within the fiscal year and started coordinating with the prefectural and national governments. The aim was to reduce maintenance expenses by making the heating facilities more efficient and other initiatives. The work was expected to cost more than Y10mn and the city wanted to fund it using prefectural subsidies and the Sorachi Coalmining District Development Fund, a fund established to support the development of areas hit by mine closures. As well as repairs to the tumbledown buildings, the city also decided to consult with the prefecture and the national government on the possibility of either moving or partly rebuilding the center.

In the first year of the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, Yubari transferred 19 beds in the 171-bed Yubari Municipal Hospital to a clinic that specialized in private-sector operations in public facilities and subcontracted the day-to-day hospital operations out to a medical corporation, Yubari Forest of Hope (director: Tomohiko Murakami). The hospital is a reinforced steel concrete building completed in 1972, covering a total of some 9,000 square meters, and it was taken over in its entirety by the medical corporation.

The heating system, however, heated the whole building and could not be turned off even in wards that were no longer in use, and the heating and lighting costs were expected to amount to as much as Y40mn a year, nearly twice what they would be in an efficiently heated building of the same size, so the medical corporation asked the city to address the problem in any way it could.

So in a bid to save on heating and lighting expenses, the city decided to switch to a heating system that only heated places where heat was needed and to move the dental department and meeting rooms on the second and third floors to the first floor. It also decided to renovate the toilets to make them usable by the disabled.

The share of the cost to be borne by the city was kept within the cap on facility management expenses provided for by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, the city asked the prefecture for financial support in the form of subsidies, and the prefecture indicated that it was willing to help out. On the question of tapping funds from the Sorachi Development Fund, the use of which was limited to projects that would lead to the creation of new industries, the prefecture’s response was that medicine and welfare was one of the industries covered by the fund and that the partial rebuilding of a hospital would fall within the scope of permissible draw-downs.

That summer, a boiler at City Hall broke. Under the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, however, contingency funds in the city budget had been set at zero, and there was no real prospect of the city finding the Y1.5mn needed to repair it. The city scraped what it could off departmental budgets but initially it could only muster Y500,000. In 2008, it would be 30 years since City Hall had been built and people were now saying that if further major repair work became necessary, it would be difficult to respond within the provisions of the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan.

Yubari City Hall consists of six storeys plus a basement, and the two diesel boilers for the hot-water heating system had not been replaced since it was built. A routine check of the boilers in June revealed cracks and leaks in one of the boiler’s furnaces, but it would cost more than Y10mn to replace, an impossible sum.

To struggle through one of Yubari’s ferocious winters on one boiler would place a heavy burden on City Hall employees, and if that boiler too broke, the building might be left without heating altogether. Additionally, the heating pipes that ran around the building were badly battered and bruised, and the cost of replacing them was expected to run to tens of millions of yen.

By the order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Yubari was barred from booking contingency funds. So to scrape together funds for repairs, the city had been gathering construction work funds left over whenever the contractor’s bid price came in below the expect cost of construction from various departments and accumulating money this way, but for a long time it was in a constant state of uncertainty about whether it could amass enough to deal with the unexpected.

There were provisions in the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, however, that allowed for the plan itself to be altered when the city had to respond to unforeseeable natural disasters and there was a possibility that unexpected breakdowns would qualify. Several senior officials at City Hall suggested the city should carry out a thorough inspection of schools and other city facilities and state its opinions forcefully to the national government.

There were other breakdowns, too. It was discovered that the oil feed pipes at the Heiwa Fecal Matter Processing Plant were leaking diesel into the river, and the city firmed plans in August 2007 to book approximately Y16mn in pollution clean-up and repair expenses in the supplementary budget. With this, the renovation of the municipal clinic, and other matters, the city was forced to make a string of changes to the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. The Ministry of Internal Affairs permitted absolutely no repair and renovation expenses other than those that were clearly deemed necessary at the start of a fiscal year. City officials were growing critical of the plan, complaining that the need to amend it every time an unforeseeable breakdown occurred was completely inefficient.

Changing the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan

Eventually the city announced on August 28th, 2007, that the standing administrative committee of the municipal assembly had decided that the main planned changes to the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan would be incorporated in the supplementary budget due to be submitted to the assembly in September. Unplanned additional expenses amounted to more than Y60mn, with the city having been forced to make big changes just five months after the plan’s inception.

The main unforeseen additional expenditures were roughly Y10mn for repairs to the Yubari Medical Center, Y17mn for cleaning up the pollution caused by the Heiwa Fecal Matter Processing Plant and repairing it, and Y5mn in additional expenses for the purchase of school buses made necessary by the closure and consolidation of elementary and junior high schools. At this point funds—subsidies from the national coffers—had only been found for the school buses. The District Revitalization Department, which was the city’s finance division, was subsequently rushed off its feet trying to find funding before a municipal assembly session in mid-September.

Yubari altered the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan again in March 2008, at the end of fiscal 2007. Changes were made to both the fiscal 2007 book-closing and to the fiscal 2008 budget. Revenues and expenditures for fiscal 2007 were both cut by about Y480mn and the fiscal 2008 budget increased in the same way by Y27mn.

This was firstly because revenues at the fiscal 2007 book-closing from both local taxes and national taxes awarded to local governments had slumped versus initial expectations. It was decided to cover the revenue slump with the previous year’s surplus of roughly Y370mn but concerns were mounting that if population decline and other revenue negatives were to continue, tax revenues would fall more than allowed for in the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan.

In the fiscal 2008 budget, expenditures not included in the initial Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, including Y16mn for ambulances and Y3mn for snow removal equipment to be loaned to volunteer snow-removers, were authorized by the assembly.

“We’ll be in trouble if any more employees leave”

In his first year in office, Mayor Fujikura was given the most headaches by the resignations of City Hall employees and the resulting shortage of labor, and the situation worsened in the summer of 2007.

More than half of the city’s employees had left in city’s transition to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status, and it became clear in a questionnaire conducted by the city’s labor union on July 4th and 5th, 2007, that of those remaining, some 30% wanted to quit in the course of the first year of the rebuilding plan. Groaning under excess workloads, pay cuts meant they were struggling to survive and worried about the future. The city would be prevented from providing even the minimum level of service if employee numbers kept on dropping dramatically and it set to work conducting its own survey. It decided to put the results together within a week and explain to the national and prefectural government what was going on.

A year earlier there had been 259 employees at City Hall; by April 1, 2007, there were 127 left, with the headcount cuts targeted by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan for fiscal 2009 already almost achieved. Three more employees quit early in the new fiscal year and by the end of July another five had announced plans to resign.

Of the 114 people, including 14 managers, who had completed the labor union questionnaire, 42 had said they would be forced to resign before the end of the fiscal year. Another 37 had replied that they would have to quit within a few years, so a total of 79 people were thinking about leaving.

The reason was that the mass departures had got in the way of work and long hours of overtime had become entrenched, while the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan cut average annual salaries by an average of 40% and capped overtime allowances at a maximum of just 2.5% of pay. Among questionnaire respondents 51 agreed with the statement “cannot see any bright prospects in the future”, 44 agreed with “cannot survive financially”, and 38 with “cannot physically hold out” (multiple responses allowed). Labor union head Tsukasa Atsutani commented, “The working environment is grimmer than we had been forecasting. We’re in no position to hold on to people who want to leave”.

The city said that, having conducted its own survey into excessive workloads and other matters, it would plead with the prefectural and national governments and probably need to fine-tune the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. Wearing a pained expression, Mayor Fujikura commented that the city would be in trouble if any more employees left and that he was taking the situation seriously.

The problem of overtime pay

The biggest cause of Yubari being unable to staunch the exodus of its own employees was the deterioration in pay and benefits. Above all, the mass departures accompanying the transition to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status had resulted in botched handovers to the remaining employees and an increase in their work volumes, which forced them to do long hours of overtime without pay.

As noted, the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan initially held down overtime allowances for City Hall employees to a uniform 2.5% of pay.

At the beginning of July 2007, Mayor Fujikura asked the prefecture for changes in the plan that would enable the payment of overtime allowances after the overtime system had been toughened up and he received a positive response.

Traditionally, when working overtime employees had simply reported in advance to their managers on the details and the duration of the overtime. Mayor Fujikura’s proposal was 1) that after toughening up the system, such as by requiring consultation on details and duration in advance prior to any authorization of overtime, allowances would be paid that exceeded the 2.5% cap, and 2) that prior to this system starting the following April, payments would be made to the greatest extent possible, after a survey of overtime conditions.

The mayor said that he wanted to execute the plan within two or three months and his proposal might also lead to a resolution of the 2.5% problem, which some had pointed to as an infringement of the Labor Standards Act.

Three more City Hall employees threw in the towel at the end of August 2007. More than 10 had now quit since the start of fiscal 2007. The prefecture, which also saw the situation as serious, conducted its own survey on the working environment, while the city, after setting a stretch goal of reducing overtime hours through enhanced efficiency, started concrete discussions with the prefectural and national government so that it would be able to pay overtime allowances.

City Hall employees were by now working an average of three or four hours of overtime a day, the bulk of which was unpaid. On August 31st, the prefecture dispatched the official responsible to Yubari, who heard in detail from city executives what the reasons behind the long hours of overtime were.

Meanwhile, a personnel expense surplus was now expected to emerge because employees were quitting faster than the plan had anticipated, and a plan surfaced among city officials to use this to pay overtime allowances. There would be no need to review overall personnel expenses, which were defined by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, so feelers were put out to the prefectural and national governments and approval was obtained to enter concrete talks.

On August 10th, the Ministry of Internal Affairs firmed plans to allow the payment of overtime, on condition that Yubari revised its working procedures and reined in overtime hours, given the way unpaid overtime had become the norm due to the mass departure of City Hall employees.

The city held talks with the labor union on September 3rd, explaining that it would introduce a system from September whereby each City Hall department would indicate the amount it had to allocate to overtime allowances and any overtime beyond that amount would be restricted. The measure was designed so that the city would still effectively be holding down allowances to within the 2.5% of pay prescribed by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan.

The labor union responded by saying that it was clear there was a shortage of manpower given the volume of work, that the city’s proposal did not come with any specifics on how to reduce overtime hours, and that it was hence out of touch with the realities of the situation. The union requested that the city pay fairly and squarely for overtime worked, but there was no response forthcoming from the city.

Overtime is finally paid, but…

Also on September 3rd, Mayor Fujikura held a regular press conference at City Hall. On the issue of employee departures, he indicated he intended to take stock after a year had elapsed from the start of the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, saying that he wanted those thinking of quitting to hang on in there.

On April 1st, the city had had 127 general administrative employees but by the end of August it was down to 107. The rebuilding plan called for the headcount to be cut to 99 by fiscal 2010. At the press conference, Mayor Fujikura commented that while the numbers were approaching the plan, he needed time to assess the situation, and he asked those thinking of leaving to stay for just another year in the spirit of public service.

In connection with the 2.5% problem, the city estimated that in the four months between April and July, a total of 311 employees had worked a total of 7,451 hours of overtime (a monthly average of 24 hours per person) and were owed Y12.27mn in overtime allowances under the new scheme. Taking away the Y1.03mn actually paid, the city announced that Y11.23mn (a monthly average of Y36,000 per person) would be paid in September and that allowances for August on would be paid monthly. At this point, total unpaid overtime amounted to an average of Y144,000 per person.

On September 21st, the city paid the entire unpaid amount together with September salaries. In the chaos of the transition to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status, however, timekeeping had been slipshod and some employees received far less in overtime pay than they merited, leading to calls that the arrangements were unfair.

There were no signs, however, that the departure of City Hall employees would be brought to a halt through the payment of overtime alone. At the start of November, it was revealed that a face-to-face survey by the city of its employees that a further 27 wanted to quit before the end of the fiscal year This number included a few management employees at the level of project manager or above.

The survey of general administrative staff had been carried out by department chiefs at the start of October. The people that wanted to leave cited the average pay cut of 40% imposed by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan making it impossible to live on City Hall wages and the lack of any future prospects as their reasons for going.

There had been 220 general administrative staff the previous year; the number was down to 127 at the start of the current fiscal year and people were continuing to stream out. There would only be 89 employees left if everyone in the survey followed through on their intentions to quit, almost hitting the plan’s initial target of 88 in fiscal 2010. At a regular briefing on November 5th, the mayor said that the city would be prevented from doing its job if there were any more resignations and that he had been going around the departments pleading with people to stay, acutely aware of the crisis.

The city decided that by December 3rd it would farm out again to the private sector routine clerical work such as telephone answering services on holidays and the reception of incoming documents, work it had previously brought in-house as part of its cost-saving measures, as it was placing too much of a burden on the remaining staff, and made plans to do the same for other work it handled itself.

At a briefing on December 3rd, Mayor Fujikura explained the reasons behind the renewed subcontracting, saying that “We are not making the progress with efficiency gains I expected and the remaining City Hall employees are completely exhausted with the duties that we took back on board”. The outsourcing would be funded with money left over in the City Hall building management budget and would fall within the scope of the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. The mayor also revealed that as employees were departing at a faster pace than the plan envisioned, consultations were underway with the prefecture and the national government on plans to end the voluntary retirement program for the fiscal year.

Emergency response system in crisis

The shortage of manpower was also becoming a grave problem at the municipal fire headquarters and fire station, a lifeline for the citizens of hyper-aged Yubari. (Note: Fire departments in Japan are also responsible for emergency medical response).

Five people were expected to quit Yubari fire station, which had already seen large numbers of employees leave in the Fiscal Rebuilding Body transition due to pay cuts resulting from the city’s bankruptcy, by end-September 2007. Of these, two were paramedics, and their departure would inevitably get in the way of emergency arrangements. Recruitment of replacements started but it was doubtful that the city would be able to employ anyone who could work the front lines immediately and fears mounted that the people of Yubari would be unable to receive adequate emergency medical care.

At the beginning of fiscal 2006, the Yubari fire department had 49 employees; by the year end 13 had quit. While two people were hired at the beginning of fiscal 2007, one person resigned at the end of June, leaving 37 employees as of July 2007, six fewer than the 43 provided for in the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan. With annual salaries having fallen by up to 46%, two more people were set to quit at the end of August and another two at the end of September, with only 33 people expected to be left.

With only eight paramedics, it was touch and go whether both of the two ambulances could be allocated one paramedic each around the clock, and at end-September the number of paramedics would fall to six. There were personnel shortages brewing elsewhere, and a fire station official commented, “It’s possible we wouldn’t be able to fully respond to calls to come out if there were simultaneous emergencies or large accidents or disasters”. Because of the shrinkage of the Yubari medical system, from fiscal 2007 patients with serious injuries or illnesses were ferried to Sapporo or elsewhere and the lengthening times that teams were out on any given call was a source of concern.

After consulting with the prefecture and the national government, the city decided on October 1st that it would aim to hire five people. It was unlikely that paramedics or other people with the right qualifications could be found, so the city resolved to hire regardless of experience. If people lacking experience were hired, however, they would have to attend emergency services school for six months and for that spell there would only be 33 people on the payroll, with no guarantee that nobody would quit in the interim.

A member of the emergency services team, saying that ambulances were the last bastion of the fight to save lives, expressed his desire to somehow keep the system intact but acknowledged that it would be a battle to do so. A city executive commented, “We’ll see what response we get to the recruitment drive and if we can’t fill the vacancies with people who can hit the front lines immediately, we’ll probably need to discuss matters again with the prefecture and the national government”.

In the event, hiring initiatives ahead of the October 1st D-Day led to 85 people sitting the initial examination, roughly 14x the number of vacancies available. Six people passed the exam, five men and a woman, ranging in age from 21—Sayako Ota, a fourth year student in the law faculty of Hokkai Gakuen University—to 39. Three had experience, but the three who did not would attend the emergency services school in the Sapporo satellite city of Ebetsu for six months from October 2 before joining the team in the following fiscal year.

Ota, who would be the first female employed by the Yubari fire department in its 105 years of history and would be attending emergency services school while still enrolled at university, had this to say: “I’ve wanted to become a firefighter since I was a kid. It’s precisely because times are so tough that I want to form close ties with the community and do my best.”

Even so it would be six months before the new team members without experience completed their training and returned, and a 38-member team, the minimum needed for the operation of two ambulances 24 hours a day, was not expected to materialize until then. In fact, there were other subsequent resignations and a 38-member team was not finally in place until October 2008.

Citizens feel the pinch

Life in Yubari, which under the rebuilding plan was beset with hikes in fees for public services and cuts in the levels of welfare and medical services, was getting harder and harder, spurring population outflows.

“Perhaps we can claim welfare benefits.” That’s what Yoshio Abe (81) and his wife Kimi (77) of Yubari’s Suehiro district were saying to each other as 2007 drew to a close. Their only income was their pensions, a total of Y120,000 ($1,330, GBP840) a month. Yoshio had suffered a cerebral infarction a decade earlier and Kimi had cataracts, so they were spending around Y20,000 a month on medical bills. Increases in the medical expense burden they would have to bear themselves because of the bankruptcy loomed menacingly.

In fiscal 2007, the cost of the senior citizens’ bus pass—indispensible for getting to hospital and for shopping—rose by Y100 to Y300. The Abes now needed to buy 40 liter bags at Y80 apiece for garbage collection and were having to spend a total of Y1,300 or so a month more on city taxes and water rates. The city snow ploughs would now only be called out when there was 15cm of snow on the ground rather than 10cm, and there were now times when they had to pay people to clear the snow.

Kimi said, “It all adds up and it’s a heavy burden for us”. Yoshio added, “None of us old people have anywhere to go, we’re left in Yubari”.

In the year and a half since Yubari had gone bankrupt in the summer of 2006 its population had fallen by 1,000 and was on the verge of falling below 12,000. The percentage of people dependent on seikatsu hogo livelihood support welfare (note: this is for help with basic daily living expenses and available only to the indigent) had worsened to 2.7% from 2.4% before the bankruptcy. The percentage of the population aged over 65 had surged by 2ppt to 42.3%. People in their prime working years were leaving the city, leaving behind only the economically disadvantaged and the elderly.

The Fiscal Rebuilding Plan had been cobbled together in just over six months after it became evident that the city was bankrupt. One of its cornerstones had been the forecast by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR) that the city’s population would be approximately 7,300 when the plan concluded in 2025/2026 but this projection took no account at all of any acceleration in the flight of the working-age population.

The population had begun falling at twice the pace envisaged in the NIPSSR estimates and so miscalculations were occurring in the first fiscal year of the plan. The shortfall versus budget in the tax allotted by the central government to local governments on the basis of their populations and other factors was expected to come to around Y150mn and the shortfall in the city tax to around Y80mn. The accumulated deficit in the city’s National Health Insurance accounts swelled from around Y33.87mn at the end of fiscal 2006 to around Y100mn at the end of fiscal 2007.

A grim employment situation

The local economy, the main pillar of employment, was also suffering. Senior director of the Yubari Chamber of Commerce, Toshio Kozuna, said that among the chamber’s members, a halving of sales compared with pre-bankruptcy days was the norm, and that some members were reporting sales down by 70%. Membership was down by close to 60 companies and was about to fall below 260.

Conditions were particularly bleak in the civil engineering and construction industries. In the city’s fiscal 2007 budget, civil engineering spending in the general account was set at around Y540mn, down a steep 35% from the previous year. The housing management account in the previous year’s budget of around Y950mn and the housing development account of approximately Y300mn had been abolished.

A male construction company employee (27) saw his monthly wages cut by around Y13,000, to Y220,000 ($2,440, GBP1,540). His wife was bringing up three children. “I’d like to stay living in Yubari, where I grew up”, but he lamented, “If my pay falls any further we’ll have to get out.”

The Yubari Construction Industry Association has 22 members; the number of people employed by association members, not long ago over 1,000, has plummeted to 600. Association chairman Tatsuto Ishikawa had this to say: “Fiscal austerity is leading people of working age to leave and creating a vicious circle pressuring the city’s finances. Surely there’s no-one in Yubari left who believes that the plan to pay back Y35.3bn in 18 years will work”.

The reality of hyper-aging

In winter 2007, the first after Yubari had transitioned to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status, the city was covered with neyuki (snow that wouldn’t melt until the following spring) much earlier than usual. The stringencies of bankruptcy were felt most acutely by the elderly, who now made up 42% of Yubari’s population. The percentage of the Japanese population accounted for by the over-65s is expected to exceed 40% by around 2055. Yubari has gotten there a half-century earlier, and those who have grown old there can’t just cast aside their love for the area, so they stay.

“Aside from short trips, I’ve never left Yubari once”. We’re inside a municipal housing unit built 40 years ago as a light snow floats down outside. Minoru Ota (79) lives alone in this unit, which consists of a living room-cum-kitchen and a single three-mat (six foot by three and a half foot) room, and little by little her story unfolds. From the next day, she’ll be spending the winter at her eldest daughter’s place in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, and the family of three that have come to collect her crowd round the tiny dining table.

Ms. Ota moved with her family to Yubari from Esashi in southern Hokkaido in 1946 and married the following year. Her collier husband died of an unspecified illness 10 years later. She raised two boys and a girl while working on sewer projects. She lived in municipal housing for single mothers with 36 other households in similar circumstances, with whom she became friends, and supporting each other, they worked their fingers to the bone. Even in her old age, she says that she has plenty of friends, there are gatherings at the old folks’ club, and that she never feels lonely at all.

She feels the city has become more gradually more difficult to live in since it went bankrupt. There used to be public baths provided by the coalmining companies in every district in Yubari, so many houses had no bathrooms. As the population fell, so did the number of public baths, and now there are only four left. Ms. Ota, who has trouble with her knees, has a friend who used to take her in her car to the public baths together, but the friend was hospitalized in July. It’s impossible for someone like her to walk even 30 minutes in Yubari in winter.

After thinking it over, Ms. Ota decided to presume on the kindness of her daughter’s family. She hopes to return to Yubari come spring, as she has many friends here who have been struggling for many years, but her concerns are mounting that she will no longer be able to live alone if she gets and more frail.

All the elderly of Yubari share a love for the place. People who lived in the nagaya row houses of the coalmines, separated from the family next door by only a paper-thin wall, never locked their doors—the whole neighborhood was family. Takao Aoki, deputy director of the Coalmine Memory Promotion Group, a local NGO, comments: “In the old days if an accident occurred, the neighboring mines were all in the same boat, and there was an abundance of places to associate with others, such as the shops and the public baths. Even now, Yubari people find it hard to adjust to life in the big city, where interpersonal relations have attenuated”.

As of October 1, 2007, Yubari’s population stood at 12,270. The elderly population had risen to 5,168, with some 30% of them living alone.

Under the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, there was a pronounced decline in the level of welfare and medical services: subsidies for the municipal Welfare Hall for the Elderly and clubs for the elderly were virtually eliminated and the municipal hospital downgraded to clinic status.

The closure of the municipal nursing care home for the elderly, decided that spring under the plan’s mandates, was particularly serious. The 44 residents were at their wits’ end. Aya Takeshima (97) looked back on the days after the closure was announced, saying, “I would wake up every night seized by anxiety”.

In mid-November, the facility was transferred to a social welfare corporation in the Sapporo satellite city of Eniwa and informal agreement was reached on continuing operations in the current location. The residents of the facility celebrated and cried together on learning that they would stay in Yubari.

However, Kyoji Shindo, deputy director of the prefectural Elderly Welfare Facility Council, cautioned that, “It’s not just Yubari; the operation of facilities for the elderly is going to get tougher and tougher, as funding woes lead to cuts in national and local authority spending on welfare”.

It’s only natural to want to live out one’s days in the town you’ve grown accustomed to, living a quiet existence together with your friends—but this dream is growing distant.

A succession of lonely deaths

Yubari’s bankruptcy spurred an exodus of people from the city, mainly those of working age, and the number of elderly people living alone keeps on rising.

It’s April 22nd, 2007, the day of the Yubari municipal election. At a meeting of the residents association formed by the people living in the municipally run Megumi housing estate in the Suehiro district of Yubari, deputy chairman Keiji Honma (79) is worried that Haruo Katane (76) hasn’t been seen around recently.

On visiting Mr. Katane’s home to bring him the bread and juice handed out at the residents association meeting, Mr. Honma discovers that newspapers have accumulated in the mailbox. Strange, he thinks, and immediately contacts City Hall. The city employee who dashes round opens the front door and they discover Mr. Katane sitting on a chair in his living room, dead. Three days have passed since he died of a heart attack; he may just have come back in from shoveling snow, as he is wearing a heavy winter coat and the stove is still on.

Mr. Katane was something of a local celebrity. In the past, he had played the lead role in a collier theater troupe. Every year he would appear at Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival events and in the nighttime streets sporting an Edo-era chonmage topknot and a sadogasa straw hat, and he was in great demand for souvenir shots with tourists. He also made a point of attending local festivals and had a reputation as a big-hearted and compassionate man.

The residents of the Megumi housing estate, which consists of four blocks and 121 households, are mostly elderly people moved from falling apart tanju colliery housing in the Shako and Takamatsu districts of Yubari in 1999. Thinking about the demolition of the tanju, which happened the following year, Mr. Katane had sighed that he was really nostalgic for them and did not want to see them torn down, adding that all his friends felt the same way.

“In the old days, we’d never hear of people dying alone. If Mr. Katane had been in the tanju, someone would probably have noticed something.” So bemoaned the chairman of the Megumi residents association, Tomio Odagiri (82).

The tanju generally consisted of four nagaya row houses and postboxes were visible from outside. The head of the women’s section of the residents association, Masa Sato (79), noted that “The way housing estates these days are constructed, it’s possible to overlook departures from routines. What’s more, conmen of every stripe come knocking and everyone nowadays locks their doors.”

There are some 1,600 elderly people living alone in Yubari and police sources say that there are some 15 or 16 cases of elderly people dying alone every year. On the Megumi estate alone, Mr. Katane was the third case in the previous eight years. Few surveys have been conducted on the elderly dying alone, but one by the Toyama prefectural police found 150 cases in the prefecture in 2006, about 1.4 people for every 10,000 residents. Simple comparisons are impossible, but the rate in Yubari is about ten times that. Thus emerges the true face of a town where the younger generations have all left in search of work and the elderly are left only with each other.

Meanwhile, the number of welfare officers, who keep a watchful eye out for the elderly living alone, fell by four to 54 on April 1, 2007, due to the exodus of people from Yubari. The Yubari city welfare department commented that it had become difficult to find welfare officers due to the aging of the population. The efforts of local people are indispensible if lonely deaths are to be avoided. The municipal social welfare council, together with local residents, was distributing lunchtime bento boxed meals at low prices in the Nanbu and Minami Shimizusawa districts of Yubari and at the same time making sure that the recipients of the lunches were safe and sound.

Kyoko Mishima (46), a member of the Citizens’ Revitalization Committee, which works with the city on promotion of the Yubari district, came up with a proposal for a movement to reach out to people living alone. To start with, the plan was to have the elderly themselves map the courses they took on their daily strolls and record on them the locations of the residences of elderly people living alone, which would be useful in checking to see if they were okay. Ms. Mishima says that, “With the days of the tight-knit communities of the tanju colliery housing gone, it would be good if the elderly themselves could keep a watch out for each other in their daily lives without having to over-exert themselves”. The struggles of the residents continue in the town that has been forced to offer the lowest level of services in all Japan.

The mayor, backed into a corner

Hounded by the string of breakdowns, departures of city employees, changes to the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, and the straightened circumstances of the people of Yubari, Mayor Fujikura looked as though he was on the brink of total physical collapse in the autumn of 2007. His face was drained of color, his eyes were vacant, and his expression was one of black-dog despondency.

In December 2007, a regular session of the municipal assembly had passed eleven bills unamended, including a draft ordinance on structural reform that would reorganize the city’s current seven departments and 12 sub-departments into one supervisory office, four departments, and 10 working groups, effective January 1st, 2008.

At this assembly session, Mayor Fujikura repeatedly misread the drafts of his speeches. In one speech lasting just a few minutes, he made as many as a dozen mistakes, leaving the assembly members, the members of the public in the gallery, and the media to sigh and wonder just what was going on.

Assembly members complained that there had been insufficient debate on the structural reforms and that decisions had been taken too hastily. Deputy mayor Kazuhiro Hashiba told the assembly that, with droves of city employees quitting, the early introduction of a working group system was essential to enhance efficiency and reduce burdens. He made it clear he would fully inform all of the city employees of the reforms in training to be held before year-end. The assembly also approved nine account settlements, including the general account for 2006, in which Yubari posted a deficit of Y34.96bn.

Mayor Fujikura later said endless meetings with the labor union on employee resignations and other matters had left him exhausted. But it was really more the problems related to the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan going awry that had dogged him ever since taking office that were weighing heavily on him.

But it was not necessarily a bad thing that the mayor had been backed so far into a corner. As the end of 2007 neared, the mayor came to think that the only way forward was for him to share his most candid feelings with the city’s employees. At the ceremony to mark the winding down of the working year on the morning of December 28th, 2007, he gathered the city’s employees, thanked them for their troubles in riding out the chaos, and touching on the rash of departures, appealed for their commitment: “The pain wrought by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan hasn’t even begun yet. Things are going to be awful for the next 18 years. I want you to hang on in here. The strength amassed when the going gets tough will serve us well in the future. I want you to reflect level-headedly on yourselves and Yubari over the year-end holidays and lend me your strength to revive this city”.

The City Hall employees listened with earnest expressions to the mayor’s desperate appeal.

But the mayor had saved his last card for later. At 6pm that evening, he again gathered the employees together, this time in utmost secrecy and unbeknown to the media. This time he ventured further than he had dared go in the morning. “I probably don’t have what it takes to do this job. I know I’ve put you through so much since I became mayor. That’s my fault. But I promise I’ll look out for you. So I want you to stop thinking about quitting and follow my lead”.

This heartfelt appeal clearly touched the hearts of more than a few city employees.

At a briefing on February 7th, 2008, Mayor Fujikura indicated that so far there had not been any mass submission of letters of resignation and that he would continue to plead with city employees to stay at their posts. The was only one scheduled resignation in the pipeline, at the end of February, and the mayor stressed that he was working through the section chiefs to persuade people not to leave. While the city’s survey the previous autumn had suggested that close to 30 people wanted to quit before the fiscal year-end, giving rise to fears that services would be affected, the mayor expressed his hopes that the city could get away with just a few people resigning.

In the end, the city managed to avoid a mass exodus of its own employees at the end of fiscal 2007.

“An astronomical sum”

“Repaying Y10bn over a decade would represent the very limit of our physical capabilities. [The number in the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, which calls for the repayment of Y35.3bn over 18 years], is an astronomical sum, far beyond Yubari’s ability to repay.

It’s April 2nd, 2008. A year has now passed since the transition to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status. At a briefing, Mayor Fujikura suggests for the first time that he thinks it will be tough for the city to see the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan through to the end. The briefing was also the first time the mayor quoted specific figures on the amount of the deficit he thought could be erased and the time-span.

This was the mayor, who had overcome a crowded field of seven candidates, all new, in the Yubari mayoral election of April 2007, and who in the close to a year since his inauguration on April 27th, had been battling to navigate Yubari, the only Fiscal Rebuilding Body in Japan, through uncharted waters, pouring out his true thoughts.

At the briefing, the mayor shared his impressions of fiscal 2007, the first year of the rebuilding plan, now that it was over. “I feel the sense of crisis hanging over the city. The plan is leading to people flooding out of Yubari, city employees quitting, and collapses in living standards. From the experiences of the last year, my instinct tells me that Y10bn over 10 years is the limit”.

In less than two years since the summer 2006 bankruptcy, the population of Yubari had fallen by around 10%–more than a thousand people—and was now below 12,000. The current state of Yubari, with its decline seemingly endless, was giving the mayor an acute sense of crisis. He commented at the briefing that, “The very existence of Yubari is threatened”.

The mayor said of the plan to eliminate around Y1.6bn of the deficit in fiscal 2008 that the city would try and do so but that if a string of expenses outside of the plan were incurred, it would be difficult to achieve. He again made it clear he planned to look into a review of the plan over the long term.

He also stressed that the bankruptcy was not the fault of Yubari alone and that he would like to pursue the accountability of the national government, the prefecture, the coalmining companies, and financial institutions. With a pained expression, he wondered whether the national government and the prefecture feel no responsibility at all, whether there was to be no form of support forthcoming from them.

The pool roof caves in

Exactly a month before Mayor Fujikura’s April 2nd, 2008, press conference, an event had occurred that shocked even battle-hardened Yubari.

The roof of the only swimming pool in the city, the Municipal Swimming Center, caved in on the morning of March 2nd, due to accumulated snow and the age of the pool. Under the terms of the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan, Yubari had closed four outdoor swimming pools in fiscal 2007 and if the pool roof could not be restored, swimming lessons would be affected.

The pool had been built in 1971. It was a partly two-storey reinforced steel concrete affair, with a total area of 2,200 square meters and a 25m pool and a splash pool for toddlers. More than 300 square meters of the roof, directly above the main pool, had collapsed.

A local resident out for a stroll that morning had discovered the collapse. It was believed the roof caved in overnight, and nobody had been injured. There was close to a meter of snow on the roof. The pool had once been open all year round but it was shuttered at the end of December 2006 because of the city’s bankruptcy. In 2007, it operated only for a limited period in the summer, July 13th through August 24th. When it had been used all year round, the heating in winter had melted the snow.

There had been a succession of heavy snowfalls in February 2008, with 133cm of snow on one day, 25cm more than in a typical year. But under the extreme fiscal austerity imposed by the rebuilding plan, clearing snow from the roof of idled facilities was work that went undone.

The city had been planning to open the pool in the summer of fiscal 2008, too, but there was not the remotest chance of that happening now. The head of the city’s education committee, who had rushed to the scene, said, “I’d like to apologize to the kids, who were looking forward to going swimming. We don’t have a clue yet whether we can repair the roof or not”.

“It’s a symbol of Yubari as a whole, crushed by the rebuilding plan”. So spoke Kazutoshi Terae (46), head of the citizens’ department at City Hall, the day after the accident, with a painful look.

Mayor Fujikura thought the same. With his hands and feet shackled by the rebuilding plan, he felt he had finally succeeded with a delicate balancing act in riding out the chaos of the transition to Fiscal Rebuilding Body status and the procession of unforeseen events. The collapse of the pool roof was truly symbolic.

A subtle discord

“I’m going to make it my mission to get the pool reopened as quickly as possible”. Mayor Fujikura had come to inspect the collapsed roof of the pool on the afternoon of March 3rd and let slip his plan to repair the facility.

This statement caused controversy back at City Hall, however. Some officials voiced concern that when it was hard enough to simply investigate the cause of the accident and prevent a second disaster, the mayor, by stating so clearly without looking into it further that the pool would be repaired, might be getting the hopes of the people of Yubari up prematurely.

There was anyway friction between the mayor, who hailed from the private sector, and city executives, due to differences in their ways of thinking.

One anonymous staffer said, “He’ll go, ‘I want to do this!’ in response to the desires of the people of Yubari, but when he takes the proposal to the national government or the prefecture and is sent away with a flea in his ear, it quickly gets stuffed away in a drawer”.

In mid-January, at a meeting with residents in the Yubari district of Nanbu, the mayor bewailed the unconstructive attitudes of City Hall executives.

The mayor wanted to respond to the desires of his constituents: “increase the number of places where the elderly can meet up”, “provide support for children’s sports”… But the city executives wanted to avoid anything that wasn’t strictly necessary and soberly implement the rebuilding plan.

What else was in store?

The collapse of the swimming pool roof became much more than the problem of a single facility, blowing up into a major issue. Many of Yubari’s facilities, inherited from the old coalmining companies, had grown decrepit, and dealing with this would only put further pressure on Yubari’s straitened finances.

Yubari decided a week after the roof collapse to carry out safety checks on other dilapidated buildings, but found that it lacked both the staff and the budget to do so under the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan and that there were no prospects of it being able to.

Seen as being in most danger was the municipal housing stock of more than 4,000 units. Many of the units were blocks of four hiraya bungalows, company housing inherited from the mining firms, and the oldest were over 60 years old.

More than 30% were vacant and the city handled the job of getting the snow off their roofs. On March 4th, 2008, a city subcontractor fell from the roof of a house while removing snow. Inspections were an urgent matter, not least because elderly people living alone were not fully able to clear snow from their roofs.

The city also had a huge number of decaying facilities that had been closed due to population decline and the bankruptcy—halls for martial arts, clubhouses for young people and women, public baths, public toilets, and abandoned elementary and junior high schools. Education head Nobuo Kobayashi told the standing administrative committee of the municipal assembly on March 5th that he wanted safety checks on other facilities conducted urgently. The number of city employees had halved, however, and there was not a cent in the contingency reserves. With the heavy snowfall of the winter, even the budget for snow removal was bound to run out. City Hall executives said they had their hands full just clearing the snow off the city’s roads, and the methodology, targets, and timing of any checks went undecided.

Even the survey of the collapsed roof ran into difficulties. The prefecture dispatched a buildings specialist on March 7th, but there was a danger that the parts of the roof that had not collapsed would fall in and thoughts of a survey of the entire facility were abandoned for the time being.

Any survey needed to determine whether the pool could be repaired or not, but some were of the view that a survey would be impossible until the snow on the roof melted.

In the end, the Yubari education committee gave up any hope of repair in mid-April, about a month and a half after the roof collapsed, and decided to renovate the Shimizusawa outdoor pool that had been closed under the rebuilding plan.

The plan was to cover the Shimizusawa pool with a retractable steel-beam sheet and make it usable in the summer for a couple of months. The work would cost Y72mn. Together with the Y28mn cost of dismantling the indoor pool, the plan would cost around Y100mn, but fortunately, the damage to the pool roof was covered by nonlife insurance, which would pay out Y67mn, and the city decided to cover the remaining Y33mn with prefectural subsidies.

The renovation of the Shimizusawa pool would not happen in time for the school swimming classes of summer 2008, so the plan was to use the pool for a while before repairs began, borrow the pools of the adjoining towns of Kuriyama and Yuni, and start renovation work in late August.

The collapse of the pool roof symbolized the way Yubari had drifted in its first year of fiscal rebuilding and at the same time sowed the seeds of concern about just what else was in store in the minds of the mayor, the city hall employees, and the people of Yubari.

The crisis continues

Mayor Fujikura ultimately succeeded in steering the city’s finances in fiscal 2007, the first year of the plan. This success, however, depended on fund carry-forwards from the previous fiscal year, when urgent savings were made ahead of the start of the rebuilding plan, and he had only just made the targets while treading on very thin ice.

In fiscal 2007, there had been a revenue shortfall of more than Y300mn, including about Y148mn in tax allotted by the central government and about Y80mn in city tax, but the city had savings of around Y370mn from the previous year, so this was used to shrink the deficit. Ultimately the city was able to erase Y1.48bn of the deficit as scheduled.

In fiscal 2008, shortfalls of around Y98mn in city tax and a total of Y45mn from municipal housing rents and garbage collection fees were anticipated; the plan was to reach the deficit elimination target of Y1.65bn through lower interest rates on the rollover of municipal bonds and cuts in personnel expenses. While there would be a revenue shortfall in the new fiscal year, the city would push for deficit elimination in line with the plan through spending cuts.

Revenues from tax allotted by the central government and the city tax were falling and falling as people fled Yubari. Even so, the city was making unstinting efforts to cut spending and pushing deficit elimination in line with the plan, something it was going to have to keep on doing for 18 years. This was to be Yubari’s destiny–a tale graphically told by the fiscal 2007 accounts.

“Is it really possible?” Doubts were shared by not only Yubari citizens and City Hall employees but by everybody who had anything to do with Yubari, doubts expressed by Mayor Fujikura when he called the Y35.3bn over 18 years demanded by the Fiscal Rebuilding Plan an astronomical sum.

Hokkaido Governor Harumi Takahashi, prefectural executives, and the people responsible for Yubari at the Ministry of Internal Affairs all expressed their displeasure with the mayor’s comment. Yubari was being coldly rebuffed: officials were saying that the city had to serve out its destiny come hell or high water.

Ultimately, no answer was forthcoming the question of whether Yubari really could repay the Y35.3bn, and with the millstone of the debt around its neck, the city staggered on.

7 responses to “A city on the edge

  1. Brunette Coleman

    Highly readable.

    Perfect for a slow Friday afternoon.

  2. Very good read, thanks for taking the time to translate it and make it available like this.

  3. What can I say.

    I wonder if this could happen in other countries. I understand that the US is having to do similar cuts.

    I wish Mayor Fujikura well, he seems to have the will to go through all that and still not wish to be doing something else, like finding another job or even retiring.

  4. Thank you for this exceedingly dry, yet highly evocative account of the fiscal travails of Yubari for it is our future writ small. And by “our” I mean all OECD countries: Yubari is there now but we will be following in its footsteps sooner rather than later.

    A debt jubilee seems inevitable but surely will only delay the inevitable contraction of wealth and complexity by some small measure.

    Brilliant blog, Spike Japan is. Bravo!

  5. Excellent piece…thank you. This scenario of shrinking population, decaying structures, service cutbacks, unpayable debts, and catastrophic failures is going to be repeated in thousands of cities throughout the developed world.

  6. I have a really dumb question. It comes from desire to improve my own abilities, not from “wanting to nitpicking translations”, so please don’t take it as such.

    You described the “Heiwa Fecal Matter Processing Plant”, and I was just wondering why this wouldn’t be described as “Heiwa Sewerage Processing Plant” or similar. Is there a difference between the two?

    • Goodness, I think I was just having an off day and being a tad too literal. I’ve mislaid the original source material, but I suppose this is the
      Although now I think about it again, “屎尿処理場” is a pretty unusual (old-fashioned?) expression, garnering only 37,000 hits at Google, versus
      555,000 for “下水処理場”, which I think is the preferred modern euphemism, i.e., “sewerage processing plant”, so I guess I wanted to preserve
      a little of the relative archaism, as I saw it, in the translation.
      Does that make sense?

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