Category Archives: Coal

Book Review: The Carbon Crunch

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How to Fix It, by Dieter Helm, Yale University Press 

“If the future of our climate rests on the ethical outlook of Vladimir Putin and the emerging Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, then there can be little grounds for optimism.” 

Dieter Helm has met the enemy, and he is coal. The rap-sheet against coal is long, of course, and starts with mass murder: the thousands of coal miners who die in China every year, gruesomely, in explosions or of asphyxiation, the thousands more in other countries who die similarly, the tens of thousands of miners whose lives are ended prematurely by coal dust. Then there are the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of miners who have died in coal’s bloody two-century rampage, a quarter of a million in the UK alone, to say nothing of the millions of civilians even now in Beijing and Ulan Bator whose lungs wheeze and breath rasps from sooty, sulfuric smog. But unchecked coal, abetted by its lesser accomplices oil and gas, has yet more murderous plans in store: ruinous climate change.

Coal these days is mostly about China, whose share of current world coal-burn is close to half, which is adding electricity capacity equivalent to the entire UK grid every year, most of it still coal, and which plans to add coal capacity equivalent to Europe’s total coal capacity this decade. Then there’s India: between the two of them, Helm claims, they are adding three coal plants a week. The World Resources Institute’s Global Coal Risk Assessment report lists c1,200 coal-fired power stations planned globally, three-quarters in China and India, with total capacity of c1,400GW, about seventy times Europe’s solar capacity.

Then beyond coal and China, there’s a wall of new energy demand that will be stimulated by economic growth and population growth: as Africa’s population doubles over the coming couple of decades, it is far from immediately obvious that the main energy sources of the newborn will be carbon-neutral windmills and solar panels. Try severing oil subsidies in Nigeria and you’ll be in for a nasty surprise from the Lagos street.

(All of this renders Fukushima the silly little storm in a nuclear teacup that it was.)

You might then expect the enlightened leaders of our Western and Eastern democracies to be eagerly discussing—and acting on—the real threats of coal, China (and coal in China), and economic and population growth, but instead we are led a dance of denuclearization in Japan and Germany and fobbed off with tumultuously expensive turbines in the Thames estuary and photovoltaic panels in unsunny Potsdam, which will have negligible anti-carbon impact. Helm caustically asks, “What is the question to which offshore wind and rooftop solar is supposed to be the answer? It can’t be global climate change.”

As Helm surveys the two decades of utter failure since Rio in 1992 to seal a binding international agreement on emissions and the dismal but absolutely certain prospect that nothing will be done this decade, the reader is treated time and again to the swooshing of the author’s word-sword scything into the comfy shibboleths of all concerned. Wind? Crippled by its miserable load factor, the need for “Goldilocks wind”—not too strong, not too weak, and not too gusty—the requirement for an entire parallel generation system for those nasty no-wind days, and the zero-marginal cost problem, which forces all other competing power suppliers off the grid, to name but a few. Biomass and biofuels? Leaky carbon loop. Corn ethanol for E85? Needs more acres of corn than there is farmland in the US. Nuclear? Shale gas has “pulled the economic rug from under nuclear’s feet,” with even the risk, waste, and proliferation issues overshadowed by the wonky economics of new nuclear, whose capital intensivity renders it hypersensitive to the cost of capital and needy for long-term contracts, bringing immense political risk. Energy efficiency? So sorry, just leads to increased demand via the substitution effect—a drop in the price always results in an increase in demand (the Jevons Paradox)—and the income effect, whereby income saved on energy bills is spent on stuff, and the production of such stuff naturally involves energy consumption.

Some fondly hope that the world will run out of fossil fuels before they cook us all. Not a chance, says Helm. Peak oil? Perhaps, but new finds, unconventional, offshore, the Arctic, and technology that wrings more out of existing wells will keep the tail fat. Doesn’t matter much, anyway, because of the shale gas revolution, unconventional gas in the shape of coal-bed methane and tight gas, and our old friend, super-abundant coal, supplies of which are ample enough to get us to the next century, with “the embedded carbon in that coal … sufficient to bring about catastrophic climate change.”

Why have two decades of international talk-fests on climate change yielded next to nothing? Because carbon targets are “a classic case of free-rider incentives” and climate change negotiations are a textbook real-world instance of the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory, in which betrayal is always more advantageous than cooperation—except that with climate change negotiations, the true prisoners (unborn future victims of climate change) aren’t even in the room and the ultimate penalty (the rise in temperature) is unknown, rendering betrayal even more likely than cooperation. “The realistic conclusion,” Helm sighs, “is that there is going to be no legally binding, international, and enforceable, deal for at least a decade, and possibly never.”

So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done? Helm offers a three-tined proposal: impose carbon taxes, in particular carbon border taxes, to properly price the negative externality of carbon and stop “carbon offshoring”, something at which the EU has excelled; dash for gas as a transitional solution, the least-regret way of swiftly cutting carbon; and the Hail Mary of investment in R&D into next-generation no-carbon technologies. Of these, a dash-for-gas seems most achievable but no ultimate panacea; carbon border taxes, while not, Helm insists, protectionist, are unlikely to be perceived that way by noisome free-riding polluters; and hopes for next-gen tech sees Helm at his most rosy-tinted—“my email inbox is full of excited reports of the latest ‘breakthrough’”—and a tad too harsh on current renewables, as opposed to future, pie-in-the-sky ones.   

Despite the inability of shilly-shallying humanity to halt the march of its beloved carbon in its tracks and the exceptional “wickedness” of the climate change conundrum, Helm concludes with the declaration that he is an optimist (do publishers insert a Mandatory Optimistic Conclusion Clause into authors’ contracts these days?Ed). All—all!—that needs to happen is for politicians to stop lying to their electorates that we can waltz effortlessly and painlessly into a carbon-free future: “the cost of the decarbonization of entire economies is likely to be very high, and it is going to involve sacrifices,” as “decarbonizing requires the coordinated replacement of almost all of the capital stock—of the world.” The pain of investment in that from savings is bound to mean less present consumption. Consumers, in their turn, “must … be willing to vote for politicians who will force them to pay.” All that, though, to purloin and amplify one of the author’s favorite expressions, is going to be a very big ask.


Holiday in Fukushima: To the zone of exclusion

It’s time to taste what you most fear,
Right Guard will not help you here,
Brace yourself, my dear,
Brace yourself, my dear,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
It’s tough kid, but it’s life,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
Don’t forget to pack a wife…

(With apologies to The Dead Kennedys)

 Japan’s Golden Week break in late April and early May is often a wash-out: the four national holidays regularly fall in part on a weekend, the roads seethe with epic bumper-to-bumper jams, hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and even if you finally reach your chosen destination, queues of hours for the attraction are inevitable if it is at all popular.

This year augured better, though: the national holidays distributed themselves beautifully across the calendar, meaning a whole week off could be had for the price of a single working day’s vacation, and the national mood of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disaster was leading the media to predict that traffic volumes would be down by a third to a half. It was time, I decided, to leverage these fortuitous circumstances. Where would the roads be most deserted, where would the hotels be emptiest, where would the queues be shortest, I mused. It was time, I decided, for a holiday in Fukushima.

An accident on the elevated expressway out of the capital brought an hour of almost total immobility, with the trucks thundering past on the inbound lanes causing the ancient, rickety structure to vibrate like an endless earthquake. Eventually we were unshackled, and heading north was like rewinding the clock of spring: while the new verdancy in Tokyo was already dazzling, here the landscape was draped in tentative greens and the delicate pinks of cherry trees.

Few vehicles were left on the expressway as the border loomed. Welcome to Fukushima, said the sign, with inauspiciously high waves menacing a lighthouse, and welcome to Iwaki, where the Hula Girls were born.

Fukushima has been cursed by the decision of a nameless apparatchik or faceless committee many decades back to name Fukushima Daiichi and Daini not after the city, town, or village where they are located, as all but one of the nation’s 15 other nuclear power plants are, but after the whole of the prefecture. Had the decision fallen differently, the litany of nuclear tragedy would read Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Okuma, but now the entire prefecture and its two million inhabitants are tainted by association, a contaminated brand.

Iwaki is huge—at some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, it’s as large as a small English county, and its very northernmost fringe intrudes into the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. Like many a Fukushima municipality, it’s an artificial creation, in this case the 1966 amalgamation of 14 cities, towns, and villages. Once a coal-mining region, it has made a relatively successful transition to industry and tourism since the last mine closed in 1976. The first port of call was to pay my respects at the spiritual home of those Hula Girls, Spa Resort Hawaiians.

The cladding around the new hotel going up on the hill lent it an unfortunate resemblance to one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The sign to the right announced that the resort would be closed for a while, due to the March 11 earthquake and to another earthquake that had escaped my attention, the April 11 Iwaki aftershock, which turns out to have been an M7.0 temblor directly under the city—just another flick of the catfish’s tail.

Overshadowed by the kitschy glamour of Spa Resort Hawaiians, the neighboring hot-springs district of Iwaki Yumoto has been moldering away for years. Almost all of the hotels were closed, the notices on their doors citing the earthquake and aftershock, with some throwing in “harmful rumors” or “reputational damage” (風評被害), one of the expressions of the moment, for good measure. Traces of a grimier past were not hard to come by: what might have been an old collier’s house stood across the road from one of the largest hotels.

Another expression of the moment, “ganbaro” (がんばろう or ガンバロウ or 頑張ろう), which might be rendered as “hang in there” or “tough it out”, was much in evidence. Here an image character, Tairamon, encourages Iwaki, while a hand-drawn sign encourages Yumoto.

Down at the port of Onahama, a convoy of volunteer buses was parked in serried rank as streams of people who had sacrificed their vacations to help out in any way they could carted debris out of La La Mew, a fish market, gift center, and restaurant complex, and I felt the first prickings of guilt. Fortunately I found company with other rubberneckers watching dockside salvage operations, a man perched precariously on the stern of a sunken vessel.

No matter how many video clips of tsunami inundation you can brace yourself to watch, no matter how many survivors’ tales you can bear to hear, nothing prepares your senses fully for the experience: at Onahama it was the stench that was overpowering, first the acrid taste of spilt diesel on tangy salt air, then the stinking assault of rotting fish, now the rank odor of toxic garbage fumes. Although the waves had reached only a couple of hundred meters inland here, barely crossing the portside dual-carriageway, on the unlucky side of the road the Onahama Tourist Center had been eviscerated, its entrails carried who knew where. 

The details appalled: the exuberantly colorful albacore on the side of a fishing boat,

the acres of railroad tracks, their ballast replaced by sea-disgorged sand and stones, and the untouched cement works, with its neat piles of coal, in the backdrop of the carnage.

Located on a sea-jutting wharf, the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima is the jewel in Iwaki’s tourism crown, and its post-earthquake travails bear uncanny animal kingdom parallels with the woes of Fukushima Daiichi. Flooded throughout the ground floor by the tsunami, its backup power generators kicked in to power up the indispensible filtration systems while the big beasts—sea lions and walruses, seals and otters—were evacuated to other aquariums, as were the piscine stars of the show such as gar and greeneye, but the diesel for the generators and the food for the fish ran out, leaving 200,000 marine organisms of 750 species dead in oxygen-starved tanks.  

Chastened, I turned inland and stopped for a snack at a Seven-Eleven to make my first, very modest, contribution to the revival of the Fukushima economy. An old woman cried from back of the store, “Earthquake! And I’ve only just finished cleaning up!” to a tremor I failed to feel. Some people were still jumpy.

Heading north up the coast, at the places where the road was forced by topography to hug the sea, the devastation was callous in its capriciousness. Fate had been too cruel: one house furthest from the shore in a cluster of a dozen stood untouched, while its companions sat back on their haunches or listed like fish with swim-bladder disorder. Houses sheltered by a headland lay a stone’s skim from scenes of utter destruction. The new things pained the most: a brace of freshly built homes, their first-floor guts ripped out, a pin-fresh hotel with deep scars and smashed windows. No more photos, at any rate not here, I told myself, as a man strapped into his camera strode gleefully off to capture a car upended and tossed, with almost wanton whimsy, into a paddy.

Route Six runs for some 350km up the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Sendai, but it pierces the heart of the zone of exclusion at Futaba and it’s no longer possible to get to Minami Soma from Iwaki. I turned right and headed north toward Fukushima Daiichi.

(Observant pistonheads will notice the car in front of me is a Nissan, as are the two minivans facing camera behind the Nissan dealership—that’s because Iwaki is a Nissan town, being home to the Nissan plant responsible for the VQ engine series, which featured on Ward’s annual 10 best engine list for 14 straight years from 1995 to 2008.) 

Soon it was goodbye Iwaki and hello Hirono—crossing the border meant I was now a couple of kilometres inside the 20km-30km radius from Fukushima Daiichi that was initially designated as the “stay indoors” zone (室内避難区域) until the boundaries were redrawn on April 21, leaving the whole of Hirono but none of Iwaki in the “prepare to evacuate in an emergency” zone (緊急時避難準備区域).

Some lazy hacks have taken to calling everywhere along the Fukushima coast from Minami Soma in the north to Iwaki in the south “nuclear ghost towns”. They’re not, but Hirono is, and I hope never to see another one in my life. No rampaging steers running wild here, no cows lying dying in barns, no dogs turning feral as there are in the 20km zone of exclusion; this had been an orderly departure, leaving in its trace only silences and absences—of cars from garageless driveways, of washing from steel clothes poles, of people from the tidy sidewalks. Every roadside enterprise, from humble ramen stand to ubiquitous convenience store, was locked and deserted. What, I wondered, would an observer catapulted forward in time from two months ago (has it really only been two months?) make of this post-apocalyptic scene.

As so often, it was the signs that were most poignant. One on a hillside proclaimed that Hirono was the town, by virtue of its southerly location, that announced the coming of spring to the north-eastern Tohoku region, while another called for support for the women’s soccer club Mareeze (yes, it’s a portmanteau of “marine” and “breeze”) of Fukushima Daiichi operator TEPCO—like the string of four pure-play nuclear seaside towns to the north, Hirono is a TEPCO company town, thanks to its mixed gas and coal thermal power plant.

Welcome to Hirono, says this sign, a town where you can meet others through soccer—Hirono is home to J-Village, the first national football training facility. It claims that Hirono, too, is the hometown of children’s songs—the two to which it refers, known by every child throughout the land, being The Dragonfly’s Glasses, written by a local country doctor, and Steam Train, whose connection with Hirono rests on a tenuous lyrical pun. Still, every little town must have its little claim to fame.

By the town hall, an elliptical message: everyone participates, a healthy town.

Dylan was drawling, “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” over the stereo as I parked up awhile to watch a procession of olive drab armoured personnel carriers, adorned with white bibs reading “disaster dispatch duty”, and police riot buses, windows begrilled, roll in from the south, realizing with mounting consternation that the buses were from Nagoya and other far distant places. Admittedly, there have been many reports of burglaries and even the odd mugging of an ATM within the zone of exclusion, but does it really take the whole of the nation’s boys in blue to restore law and order to a few rural towns? Or were they, I wondered, streaming in for slyer, more sinister purposes, to make recalcitrants among the workers for TEPCO and its subcontractors toe the radiological line?

Route Six was blocked at the 20km limit, as expected. A cop waved traffic off to a diversion to the right and I found myself facing the twin chimneys of the otherwise invisible power plant, not a comforting sight.

Another diversion, this time to the left, and I wound up at J-Village, requisitioned by the state soon after the disaster as the front-line base for the nuclear drama.

TEPCO and subcontractor workers at Fukushima Daiichi get three days R&R here after three days on site, although as according to its own website, J-Village has no running water, it’s unclear how much rest or relaxation anyone might get.

And this was truly the end of the line: I was now 9km south of Fukushima Daini and 20km south of Fukushima Daiichi. Entry forbidden by the Basic Law on Disaster Response, Article 116, Paragraph 1, Item 2, threatens the sign, violators may be punished. With a Y100,000 ($1,250) fine or—more likely—a month in chokey, say the media, and not fancying 30 days in the slammer—prisons hereabouts are no holiday camps, by all accounts—I resolved to venture no further. In a van by the sign, a bunch of Hitachi Transport System employees—what were they doing here—were nodding off or dozing on as a busload of hired hands from general contractor Taisei shipped out of J-Village. Everyone, but everyone, was wearing facemasks, fine for pollen allergies but as likely to stop radiation in its tracks as a picket fence would a bull elephant in heat. A cop car cruised past, sirens silent but lights ablaze, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps because of an overdose of Kafka—at least a sievert’s worth—at too impressionable an age, I’ve always feared groundless arrest and prosecution, and although I wasn’t committing any illegal act, my presence, I felt, was no longer required. Life was turning into the first reel of a low-budget sci-fi gore fest, and I had lost the desire to stick around to find out what happens next.

On returning home, I discovered the depth of the Faustian compacts in which these Fukushima seashore towns had engaged with TEPCO. While the prefectural average per capita income in the year to end-March 2009, the latest year for which data are available (Japanese-only link to a mine of fascinating Fukushima factoids here), was around Y2.75mn ($34,000 at the current rate), it was Y5.65mn (over $70,000) in Hirono, by far the highest in Fukushima, and Y4.85mn (over $60,000) in Okuma, home to most of Fukushima Daiichi. In the sublimely implausible event that Hirono and its 4,500-odd inhabitants were to declare independence, it would rank somewhere above Switzerland and below Norway as one of the nominally half-dozen wealthiest nations on the planet. Remember that the next time you fork over for your electricity bills, Tokyoites.

The nuclear shoreline is also impervious, it would seem, to the vicissitudes of recession. While the rest of the prefecture—and the rest of the world—were left reeling in wake of the global financial crisis, the Soma district (essentially the Fukushima coast minus Iwaki) was clocking up gross product (i.e., GDP at a local level) growth of 6.4%, a figure that would not bring dishonour to the average emerging economy.

This bastion of electric wealth is unlikely to see its fortunes crumble anytime soon. While TEPCO is seeking a 20% cut in its peons’ pay and the toothless in-house union has folded its hand without a whisper of dissent, the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and, as now seems likely, Daini, will provide decades of arduous but lucrative work, while the five generators at Hirono will be even more pivotal to keeping the lights on in the capital.

I headed northwest, inland, to the city of Tamura then backtracked east, so I was now due west of Fukushima Daiichi and closing in on it, my destination a celebration of all things coleopteran and the rhinoceros beetle in particular, Kodomo no Kuni (“children’s country”) Mushi Mushi (“insect insect”) Land, whose attractions include the Rhinoceros Beetle Mansion and the Rhinoceros Beetle Natural Observation Park.

Lying just 33.4km west of Fukushima Daiichi, Mushi Mushi Land had gamely struggled on after March 11 until, bizarrely, someone realized around a month later that eight households in the area were inside the 30km zone and the city mandated the evacuation of the whole district. This much I knew in advance, but the word was that somehow the on-site accommodation facility, Sky Palace Tokiwa, was still open. Many of the backroads leading to Insect Land had been ripped asunder by the earthquake, however, the signposts were unhelpful, and dusk was stealing in, so with reluctance I gave up my quest to spend the night in coleopteran company.

Just down the road I found a ramshackle single-storey hot-springs hotel, Kanda no Yu, an agglomeration of at least eight wings, ells, and extensions of varying age. The proprietress—let’s call her mother—seemed to take a shine to me.

“Have you come to volunteer?” Again the twinge of guilt.

“No, I’ve come to support Fukushima. And to do a little research.”

Raucous laughter emanated from a party in the interior.

“It’s getting pretty lively back there.”

“Yes, the cherries are in full bloom. It’s the first booking we’ve had in quite a while. Since…” Her voice trailed off.

“I had hoped to stay up at Insect Land, but it seems to be all shut down.”

“Is it? That is a shame. The beetles are just coming into season now, too.”

Grandmother gave me the once-over with a beady eye as I carried my bags in. Somehow I found myself looking up with her at a swallow’s nest in the eaves.

“It’s a swallow’s nest.”

“Yes, I see. But the swallows haven’t come back yet, have they?” I knew as soon as I blurted this out that the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

“Of course they have!” she said in high dudgeon, pointing to a trace of swallow droppings below the nest. “You don’t think we’d’ve left the shit there from last year, do you?”

Dining options in the center of Tamura were limited. I settled on a counter perch at this branch of Hakkenden (“legend of eight swords”), a kushiyaki chicken-on-a-stick chain. A lanky black-uniformed dude with a scraggly goatee, pierced nose, and an indecipherable and amateurish monochrome tattoo above his right wrist proved to be a disciplined twirler of the chicken batons on the charcoal and won my heart when he flipped the bird in some style to a customer acquaintance, the first time I’d ever seen the middle finger given on these islands. A queue of blossom revellers—no sombre self-restraint here—built up outside the restaurant. “Japan,” I thought to myself, “there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Back home, I wasn’t so sure. Like the rest of Fukushima, which is set to lose a fifth of its folk in the coming quarter century, Tamura is in dire demographic trouble. The population, heading south to 40,000, is already a quarter below the 1970 level and fell by 6.5% from 2005 to 2010 alone, outpacing the predictions of the demographers due mainly it seems to a tumbling birth rate, and is likely to fall by another quarter by 2035. Agriculture is in a state of collapse: while there were 11,000 farmers in 1985, only 4,400 were left on the land by 2005, perhaps because one of the primary crops is uncompetitive leaf tobacco, the sole and increasingly reluctant buyer of which is the former cigarette monopoly, Japan Tobacco.

As with Tamura, so with Hakkenden, a brand of a listed restaurant operator, Marche, which has some 850 restaurants, directly run and franchised, in various formats, around the nation. While Marche sales hovered around Y19bn-Y20bn ($235mn-$250mn) from 2002 to 2007, they have plummeted in the last five years. Marche is aiming for sales down 13% to Y13.5bn ($170mn) in the year to end-March, a target it will be lucky to achieve, as sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal year were down a calamitous 18%.

Back at the inn, the maid fussed, cautioning of morning chills, as I marvelled at the room’s tiny and prehistoric CRT TV. There was a choice of TEPCO reading matter—a hardback propaganda manga from a decade ago, “Environment company TEPCO: Together with wisdom to a living future”, and the latest edition of Nikkei Business magazine, whose cover bore a picture of TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu bowing and the stern Dostoyevskian legend “TEPCO: Crime and punishment”—but I was too tired for either. Serenaded by a sublime chorus of frogs, pebbly then tremulous, I fell asleep 35km and, according to my roadmap, three traffic lights due west of Fukushima Daiichi to my first ever nuclear nightmare, in which a vitrified radioactive waterfall atop which I was standing was about to melt.

Before breakfast next morning, I took a stroll around Tokiwa, the dusty corner of Tamura where I had pitched up, enraptured by the consumer electronics shop,

the ironmongers,

and the vendor of salt and Subarus (said the sign),

before coming across a photographer’s studio with something I’ve been longing to unearth—a two-digit phone number.

Around the corner of the shop lay a feast for the amateur iconographer.

All new cars, exclaims the ad for a driving school at the top. New that is, if a 1962 Nissan Cedric qualifies as new. The deeply faded wooden plaque pronounces the store owner to be a member of the Japan Photo Culture Association, which still exists, while below that there’s evidence that the phone number on the front of the studio hadn’t seen time lop a digit off.

On and on through Tokiwa thundered the trucks of the military and the police, bearing tell-tale number plates from Yokohama, Gifu, Toyama, anywhere but here, on their terrifying way to Fukushima Daiichi.

As I prepared to leave after a hearty country breakfast, mother pressed a couple of onigiri rice balls into my hands.

“For lunch. Made with mushrooms freshly picked from the hills.”

I accepted, embarrassed. Later I wondered whether this was some obscure trial of courage—or foolhardiness. Still, what’s the odd kilobecquerel between friends? I had one—just the one—for lunch. A little salty, perhaps, but delicious.

Spiked: The mechanics of modern journalism

Rebuilding Japan: Fukushima’s Hawaii girls go on tour to promote safety

Sitting on a hill just 28 miles from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one of Japan’s most peculiar and popular tourist destinations.

By Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall 7:52PM BST 18 Apr 2011

When it opened in 1961, Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park. It thrilled the hard-working post-war generation with a fantasy of palm trees, hot springs and hula girls dancing in grass skirts.

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity, changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers to its giant tropical dome, filled with water slides and a giant pirate ship.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

In the 1960s, however, as Japan turned away from coal to other forms of energy, including nuclear, Iwaki’s economy found itself on the verge of collapse.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

Today, however, the Spa Resort Hawaiians is closed for business, and in the shadow of the nuclear emergency at Daiichi, it is unclear whether it can ever attract hordes of tourists again. Builders are busy working on a new six-storey hotel, but no one knows if it will ever hold any guests.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

A spokesman for the resort simply said that repairing the damage the earthquake did to the pipes that funnel the area’s natural hot springs into the pools would cost “several hundred million yen”, and that he was worried that fearful Japanese may never come back to Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

In the coming months, as investment pours into Fukushima to rebuild its economy, there is an opportunity to remodel the economy once again and create new industries. But it is unclear if anyone will be able to make the same leap of imagination that led to the creation of the Hawaiian Center in the 1960s.

“We have to be patient,” said Professor Tadaka, arguing against any leap into an unknown industry. “We think we should return to agriculture, fisheries and forestries,” he said. “If young people wish to leave then they can.” And if the local economy declines, he said, it would simply be the responsibility of the people to consume less.

“If you earn two million yen a year (£15,000) then you must learn to live within that.” The professor is pencilling in at least ten years for the North East region to fully recover from the triple calamity of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Others blame Japan’s stultifying political system for a failure of vision. “Even if someone came up with an excellent idea, such as creating a solar power industry here, it would never get off the ground with all the bickering and back-and-forth,” said Teruhisa Nakamura, the president of the Sendai 89ers basketball team. “The ideas that worked in the 1970s and 80s will not work now the era of growth is over. What we need now is some kind of change,” he added.

The story of Iwaki, the Joban coal mines, and the inevitable kitsch of Spa Resort Hawaiians is one I’ve been meaning to write about for ages, so I was naturally curious when a friend forwarded me this article from The Telegraph, which beautifully exemplifies the shocking mechanics of contemporary, cut-and-paste “journalism”. Off we go…

When it opened in 1961…

Only five words in and the authors have set off on their carefree venture across the minefield of error. The source for this is undoubtedly the English-language website of Spa Resort Hawaiians, here. But wait a moment—in this chronological history, January 15, 1961 occurs after April 1, 1965. The careful hack should know better than to trust any English-language website in Japan, especially one that proclaims on its homepage, “Hawaiians can be enjoyed in any type of weather!” (I’m sure they can!) All one has to do is go to the Japanese-language site (or to the Wikipage in Japanese or English) to confirm that this is a typo and Spa Resort Hawaiians actually opened on January 15, 1966.

Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park

This is also sourced from the Hawaiians History page on the Spa Resort Hawaiians website and may actually be correct!

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity

Or not, as the case may be—the Hawaiians History page in both English and Japanese suggest that visitor numbers peaked in 1970 at 1.55mn. According to the financial results of resort operator Joban Kogyo (Japanese only link here, page 4 of 42), the resort attracted 1,487,000 people in the year to March 31, 2010.

changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers

Wow, 3.8mn hotel guests, that’s impressive. That would mean, for instance, that every man, woman, and child in the whole of Fukushima spent two nights a year there. Yet what looks to be the biggest of just four hotels at the resort has only 305 rooms (Japanese only link here). Let’s generously say the other hotels are the same size and all rooms are doubles, giving us 2,400 beds a night—people would have to sleep four to a double bed and the hotels would have to be fully occupied 365 days a year to accommodate 3.8mn guests. The financial results of Joban Kogyo linked to above, however, reveal that the guest tally was a more modest 362,000. Wrong by a factor of 10x.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

This at least seems to be correct and is sourced from here.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

This is well-known and could have been sourced from Wikipedia. By the time I reached this passage, a distinct feeling of déjà-vu was setting in, for this is a classic “me-too” piece of journalism inspired by two earlier articles. The first is from the Asahi, is dated April 10, is available here, and is reproduced in abridged form below.

The 2006 Japanese movie “Hula Girls” is set in a decaying coal mining town in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in the 1960s. Based on the real-life Joban Hawaiian Center resort that opened in Iwaki in 1966, the town is planning to build a mock-Hawaiian resort, and a young woman (Yu Aoi) is interested in responding to a recruitment ad for hula dancers. She tells her mother (Junko Fuji) so during supper, but the mother admonishes her sternly: “Forget it. Hawaii in these boonies here in the northeast? Ain’t happening.”

But the struggling town sees its only hope of survival in the Joban Hawaiian Center, which will use the region’s natural hot springs. Miners’ daughters get busy practicing hula dancing, but many locals remain hostile to this new project because it only suggests the imminent closure of the coal mines.

The ardor of the project’s supporters gradually turns nonbelievers into believers, and this “Hawaii of the Tohoku Region” blossomed into a successful venture. It has since been renamed Spa Resort Hawaiians, and attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year.

Then the March 11 quake and tsunami struck, followed by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster 50 kilometers away. Spa Resort Hawaiians has been temporary shut down, and this is said to represent a worse crisis for the locals than when the coal mines closed.

About 30 hula girls, now out of work, will shortly begin performing in the Tokyo area and some parts of the Tohoku region, and later tour the nation.

The second article comes from Agence France Presse (AFP), and was widely picked up by rags around the world, such as The Age, on April 15. Here it is, slightly abridged.

They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan’s “hula girls” plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists but a group of sexy Hawaiian style dancers plan to do just that.

“People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said dancer Ayumi Sudo. “I want to get rid of that image.

“We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated.”

Sudo and her hula girls twirled their naked waists outside a Tokyo train station this week to promote safe farm produce from their Pacific Coast hometown of Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture.

Iwaki was made famous in the 1960s when the declining coal town was revived by an elaborate Hawaii themed spa resort thanks to its hot springs, a story immortalised in the 2006 movie Hula Girls.

The tourist attraction, now called the “Spa Resort Hawaiians”, was largely left unscathed by last month’s giant seismic disaster but has been closed since.

“Our facilities got cracks, and windows were shattered. But the major reason why the spa is still closed is rumours surrounding Fukushima,” said resort marketing official Takashi Wakamatsu.

Veteran dancer Sudo, 45, said she had been told that evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant had faced discrimination elsewhere, and that cars with Iwaki licence plates had trouble buying petrol at filling stations.

Sudo is one of a stream of Iwaki dancers who have kept the spa running since it was established in 1966 to revive the mining town amid the country’s shift from local coal to foreign oil as its main energy source.

As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of Iwaki hula girls, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago.

In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize, the daughters of hardened coal miners initially drew frowns and indignation from their fellow townspeople when they put on hula dresses and bared their skin.

“We are in the similar situation again,” said Sudo, who runs a hula dance school under her stage name of Linolani. “So we and younger dancers should all gather together to help bring life back to the town.”

“I would like to see tourists come back and help revive Iwaki as it was before — with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

This paragraph strongly suggests that one or other of the authors actually visited the site of Spa Resort Hawaiians. But did they? I only ask because on the same day, April 18, the dynamic duo put out no fewer than four articles, this one on Spa Resort Hawaiians, one on Hitachi, one on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and one on Japan’s Long Road Ahead.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

This paragraph is a composite of the Asahi and AFP articles above, with the central quotation a carbon copy of the AFP article. Plagiarism? Surely not: there must be some identical root source for both, mustn’t there? Mustn’t there?

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

This wins the prize for my favorite paragraph! It is largely lifted directly from the English-language Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Because of the favorable climate, many of the agricultural products grown in Japan, including rice, are produced in Fukushima. The prefecture ranks among the top producers of such fruits as peaches, apples and pears and such vegetables as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. Livestock farming is also active. Fukushima’s 159 kilometer-long Pacific coastline is the site of the prefecture’s vigorous fishing and seafood processing industries and the area’s haul of fish is among the nation’s largest.

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

Yes, I’ve been watching the nightly news, too.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Try as I might, I couldn’t track down the good professor. No combination of searches at the Tohoku University website, nor on the Internet as a whole turned him up. Does he really exist, I began to wonder? And then I found him—Professor Toshifumi Takada, an audit specialist in the accounting department. Japanese names are so confusing, aren’t they?

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

Now this paragraph—another absolute gem—is phrased as though our hack heroes actually spoke to someone at the local government’s international affairs division. But they didn’t, as the passage is lifted directly (again!) from the Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Although agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases each year. The rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem, as does the increasing competition among agricultural producers.

So there you have it—the mechanics of modern journalism, exposed. Piggyback an existing story, do a quick trawl around the Internet for some factoids, stir in a couple of quotes that may have involved a telephone call or two (although I have grave doubts about the veracity of what the professor and basketball manager are reported to have said), and hey presto!—an article is born. In all likelihood, it took me longer to write this exposé than it did Mr. Moore and Mr. Ryall to concoct their farrago.

Omuta: The shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies

Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. … The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as US Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter (1942)

 Omuta kept its pre-trip promise to be a different kind of town as soon as I crossed the city limits and came across this brace of beauties, a pair of modern genius loci guarding the spirit of the place.


In scrap-and-build, tidy-it-away, spick-and-span Japan, sights of the vintage of the 1981 Nissan Cedric on the right, to say nothing of the 1969 Toyota Crown on the left, rotting by the roadside under a crumbling ceiling, are vanishingly rare. Heartened, I pressed on.

Omuta is an old coal town: the stones that burn with a flame are said to have been discovered as long ago as 1469. Mining was industrialized across the Mitsui Miike coalfields in the late 19th century but the post-WWII history was grim: massive strikes rocked the region from 1953 to 1960 against redundancy programs and then in 1963 a dust explosion left 458 miners dead in Japan’s worst postwar industrial disaster. A mine fire in 1983 took the lives of another 83 colliers and the last mine closed in March 1997. But coal had attracted an array of chemical and other heavy industrial firms, many linked to the mighty Mitsui combine, and the loss of coal did not bring on complete collapse. 

Nevertheless, there’s precious little hiring going on down at the docks, where in January 2009 Mitsui Chemicals shuttered a huge facility for the production of toluene diisocyanate, a key ingredient in polyurethane, wracked by the collapse in global trade. Omuta’s current claim to notoriety is that it is bleeding people faster than any other city of its size in the country: 15,000 out of a starting population of 138,000 in the last decade alone, with the population projected to fall to below 83,000 by 2035.

Driving the city streets, Omuta felt like a patient in the last stages of terminal cancer, skin and bones clad in clothes now many sizes too large: half of everything could be torn down and carted away and it would have no impact on what life remains in the city. But where were the shopping arcades decried by Professor Ito in his Ugly Japan report?

 Stopping at the main station to orient myself, I noted with shock the absence of a convenience store and later came to learn there were none at all downtown, so atrophied has it become—this in a country where the biggest six operators have nearly 40,000 outlets between them, where there is at least one store for every 2,000 people.  

Rather than radiating out from the station, as is often the case, the shopping arcades of Omuta were a few hundred meters distant from it, which may have in part been behind their decay into their present pitiful state. 

Meandering across five blocks, the drear arcades of New Ginza, built around the apogee of the town’s prosperity in the late 1950s, had been named in a provincial kowtow to The Ginza, the still swanky shopping and entertainment district of central Tokyo. Time has mocked the pretensions of the namer. I caught a Ginza sign reflected in sodden street stones.


Each block has just one surviving store: in the first, the man behind the counter of a school outfitter had given up all pretence of busyness and was fiddling blankly with his mobile phone.


In the second, a greengrocer’s with bowed shelves and random produce soldiered on.


In the third, the beautician’s sign under the rotting vaults boasted of full air-conditioning.


Here and there, small fires had broken out, charring wood and melting wires.


In places the cheap plastic roof had caved in, stripping the arcades of their shelter.


In the fourth block, the sole survivor was a mercer’s, a term now so obscure in English that for most it requires explanation: in a Japanese context, it refers to a dealer in kimono silks. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Family Income and Expenditure Survey, average annual household spending on Japanese clothing (mainly kimonos) tumbled 85% between 1990 and 2009, to around Y3,000 (about $35) from around Y20,000. Spending on all clothing and footwear is down by 43% over the same period, to around Y165,000 (about $1,900) from Y290,000.


I attempted to engage the proprietor in conversation.

“It’s lost its vitality, this street.”

“I suppose.”

“When did everyone start shutting up shop?”

“About thirty years ago. One by one. Business is slow.”

I asked to take her portrait, but she recoiled in horror and hid behind her racks like a hunted animal until I took pity and gave up.

At the top of the fifth block, I was caught trying to steal a snap of the last store standing, a tea emporium exuding an elegance wholly out of kilter with its surroundings, and got snarled at by a tiny grandma and her yappy dog for my sins.


Arcades of the vintage and debility of New Ginza are now rare but not extinct across the land: not long ago, NHK aired a 30-minute documentary on the last denizens of a very similar one in Kita Kyushu, Japan’s first post-million city. They’re to be found above all, I suspect, in big, rusty ports long past their prime, places like Kure in Hiroshima, Iwaki in Fukushima, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi.

 New Ginza was merely the entrée, however; the plat principal came in the arcades leading off it, which went by a variety of names: Sun Route, Gallery, and Ginza yet again. These arcades were thrown up in the early 1980s, but scarcely a shop survives.


Whole blocks have already been razed into wilderness, leaving only the skeletal frames of the arcades themselves to give scant shelter to pedestrians.


At one end of the Gallery arcade stood pachinko parlor L’aimant and its karaoke parlor Santa Claus (motto: “Let’s enjoy Santa Claus!”) Four stories of car parking above the shop had not been enough to save either.


Parlor Lucky is hanging on.


But the rows of empty seats say its luck will soon be running out.


It might seem to go against everything we’ve just witnessed, but according to the latest Census on Commerce from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, mom and pop shops (which I’ll define as outfits with up to four workers, thereby excluding convenience stores, which tend to have 10-20 full- and part-time workers on their books) still accounted for 775,000 (68%) of Japan’s 1.14mn retailers (one for every 111 people) in 2007, ringing up Y20.2trn (15%) of total retail sales of Y135trn. 

The absolute number of retail outlets peaked in 1982 and is now lower than at any time since data collection began in 1952. While the number of corporate-owned stores, which have been declining since 1999, fell by only 2.3% between the 2007 survey and the previous one in 2004, the number of stores owned by individuals, which have been declining since 1982, when there were a total of 1.72mn stores, a third more than today, fell a staggering 13.4% in just three years. 

Total retail sales in Japan topped out at Y147.7trn in 1997 and are off nearly 9% since; although sales rose 1.1% in 2007 from the 2004 survey, this was mainly due to soaring gasoline prices; sales at the smallest mom and pop stores, those with one or two workers, fell 3.6% in just three years. 

These, then, are some of the bald statistics behind the desolation. Strangely enough, the United States might be said to share some of the responsibility for the hollowing out of countless downtowns across Japan; to find out why, let’s rewind the clock to 1937, when the first ever piece of legislation to protect small shopkeepers, the Department Store Law, was enacted by the Imperial Diet at the behest of smaller retailers worried by what were then the dominant threat to their position, department stores. The law was repealed by the Allied occupation forces in 1947 but swiftly reenacted in 1956 once they had left. 

By the late 1960s, however, new superstores had discovered a way to drive a coach and horses though the Department Store Law’s 1,500m2 threshold, above which store opening permits were required, by creating separate legal entities, each below the threshold and operating on different floors of the same building but under a common corporate identity. Small shopkeepers squealed, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, for which they were an important source of votes, listened, and the bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) drafted the Large-scale Retail Sales Law (LSL), often assigned the adjective “notorious” in US trade circles in the 1980s, which came into effect in 1974. By the time of its even stricter 1979 amended incarnation, the LSL imposed a formidable set of obstacles to opening stores with anything more than 500m2 of floor space. A process of notification and adjustment afforded small shopkeepers a powerful temporizing tool and in some instances an effective veto on new larger stores in their neighborhoods. Larger new stores took an average of 34 months to open, and where opposition was particularly vehement, much longer: general merchandiser Ito-Yokado applied to open an outlet in Shizuoka City in December 1976, with the outlet finally opening in May 1986, nearly a decade later.     

In the US-Japan trade disputes of the 1980s, the LSL climbed to the top of the agenda as a key non-tariff barrier, with the US side initially pushing for liberalization in the expectation that larger retailers would be more open to selling imported goods and then pushing for direct market access for US retail giants. This textbook piece of gaiatsu (foreign pressure) was neatly aligned with the interests of Japan’s own large store operators and also according to some sources with champions of deregulation within the MITI bureaucracy. 

The LSL was defanged from 1990 to 1994 in three stages, resulting in a shortening of application processes, greater flexibility on opening hours, a much reduced consultative role for small shopkeepers, and deregulation in principle of stores with less than 1,000m2 of floor space. The results were predictable: the sales floor area of large-scale stores surged some 80% from 1988 to 2001. 

In 1995-1996, the US, emboldened by success, pushed for the complete abolition of the LSL by 2000, taking Japan to the WTO, where it lost. MITI, however, concerned that the law might still be in violation of Japan’s WTO commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), buckled and the LSL was replaced in 2000 with the (MITI-designed) Large-scale Retail Store Location Law. On the surface, this represented a further defeat for small shopkeepers, as the focus of the law shifted to the physical environment—parking, noise, garbage—surrounding a new store rather than their protection. In practice, there remain unofficial ways for small shopkeepers to act in concert with local governments to at least increase the cost burden of large store openings, if not thwart them entirely. Some 3mn m2 of large-store floor space was being added annually by the middle of the last decade, a slower pace of growth than in the 1990s, but that sluggishness was likely due to growing saturation. 

Three conclusions stand out: first, despite seven decades of protective legislation and regulation of varying ferocity, the slow-burning demise of the mom and pop store over the last three decades has been inexorable. The pace of decline in the number of stores with fewer than four workers slowed in the late 1980s under the accommodating wings of the LSL but also slowed again in the late 1990s, suggesting that the rate of contraction owes less to the actions of lawmakers and mandarins than to the business cycle and to the remorseless forces of suburbanization and motorization. 

Is there space to shed a tear or two for the passing of small storekeepers from all but their last bastions, the big cities and the deep countryside? No doubt there is, although the process of their passing will in many cases have been less gruesome than implied by Professor Ito’s “shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies”, as the sons and daughters of elderly shopkeepers found more comfortable avenues for their lives and politely declined their back-breaking inheritances. Their passing is part of the restless process of creative destruction integral to capitalism, and Japan is in some ways—from its threadbare welfare nets and its Victorian insistence on the dignity of labor to its exceptionally low income taxes, consumption taxes, and tax-to-GDP ratio—an exemplary capitalist state, too exemplary for some. Here’s Schumpeter, writing with great prescience in 1942 on the future of retail, a future that came last to these shores: 

In the case of retail trade the competition that matters arises not from additional shops of the same type, but from the department store, the chain store, the mail-order house and the supermarket which are bound to destroy those pyramids [of traditional retailers] sooner or later. 

The second conclusion is that if the US aimed to establish a beachhead for its big-box retailers through the watering down of regulations, it has failed abjectly. The longest run of success was enjoyed by Toys “R” Us, the first to arrive (in 1991), which faced—and still faces—no organized competition at all, allowing it to build out a network of 167 stores. The listed Japan subsidiary fell deep into the red in the recent recession, however, and was taken private by the US parent in late 2009. Many of the largest US retailers, names such as Home Depot and Best Buy, Target and Walgreen, sensibly never ventured here. Of those that did, Wal-Mart has struggled ever since acquiring sixth-largest general merchandiser Seiyu in 2002 and Costco has just nine outlets. Japan has long been an elephant’s graveyard of overseas retailers, both from the US and elsewhere: Office Depot (1997-2009), Office Max (1997-2001), Carrefour (2000-2005), Sephora (1997-2001), and Boots (1999-2001), to name a few, although that doesn’t deter some from trying: Tesco finally dipped a cautious toe in under its own brand in 2007. The reasons for their collective troubles and failures are many and varied, and we’ll gloss over them here: suffice it to say that foreign retailers account for far fewer than 1% of retail stores and less than 5% of retail sales. The barbarians have been kept at bay. 

The third conclusion—brutal but inescapable—comes courtesy of the dismal science: the process of creative destruction has not gone nearly far enough, in retail as in most sectors of the economy. Japan still has about as many retailers as the US, even though it is only the size of California and only has roughly a third of the population. Debt-ravaged zombie monsters Daiei and Mycal, once the largest and fourth-largest retailers in the land, were indulgently allowed to stagger on for far too long. The specialty supermarket subsector, which accounts for roughly a quarter of all retail sales, remains hugely fragmented, with dozens of listed supermarket operators and scores more unlisted, testimony to the aversion to M&A in general and the hostile takeover in particular, thwarting economies of scale, keeping prices high, retarding innovation, and depressing profits, the lifeblood of the economy. 

The very biggest retailers, Seven & i Holdings and Aeon, are toddlers on the world stage, ranking 14th and 16th by sales, and are hideous agglomerations of firms seemingly acquired in a fit of absence of mind that would make professors of business weep. Aeon, which has barely any brand identity itself, operates supermarkets under six different brands, none its own, and has by its own admission 169 subsidiaries, of which 88 are major ones and 33 listed ones, with all the inefficiencies and expenses listing entails. Subsidiaries include ones in areas unlikely to be core competencies, such as pet stores, cinemas, shoe shops, bento lunchbox vendors, and Laura Ashley Japan. [Tesco, whose sales are twice those of Aeon, has only one brand and owns up to just 22 principal subsidiaries, most of which are for operations in far-flung places such as Turkey, Slovakia, and Thailand.] 

Because of the convoluted capital structure, much of the little profit Aeon makes bleeds away in minority interest to shareholders in the listed subsidiaries, resulting in a razor-thin net profit margin, just 0.6% in the year to February 2010, although that was an improvement from the red ink of the year before. The balance sheet is bloated with poorly performing assets and drowning in debt, so Aeon continually stiffs its shareholders with dilutive share and convertible bond offerings. Shareholders these days are no longer the bowler-hatted pig-faced thugs of a George Grosz caricature; almost every working adult in Japan has a stake in Aeon, however small, via the state pension funds. Aeon is a tile in the mosaic that explains why Japanese household financial assets only rose by 40% in the “two lost decades”, while they tripled in the US. Unanswerable to anyone and with barely any financial interest in their own company, Aeon management can pursue its foolish dreams of empire building and of vaulting into the ranks of the world’s top 10 retailers by sales, as if that mattered a jot. 

By any conventional financial metric going—return on assets, return on equity, or return on capital employed, for example—debt-dogged and barely profitable Aeon is a basket case. Its purpose in existing, other than to buff the egos of its managers, seems to be to generate thousands upon thousands (over 70,000 at the last count) of mainly poor-quality, low-wage jobs. Mr. Market is none too impressed, either, having clipped two-thirds off the share price since a 2006 peak. Aeon is ripe for takeover and dismemberment, especially by foreigners, but this is Japan, where such thoughts are simply untenable. The grievous misallocation of capital, the stunning lack of adventurousness, and the insanely misguided focus on the top-line to the exclusion of the bottom-line epitomized by the likes of Aeon has ensured that Japan never quite got the economy it in many ways deserved—and sad to say, it’s too late now. 


But we’ve strayed a long way from Omuta. I checked into the gardenless Omuta Garden Hotel as the rain kicked up a storm. For reasons that in recollection entirely baffle me, I decided to open the window as soon as I entered the room, to be met with sworls of water muscling through the six inches of aperture the window allowed, only to find that the hinge arm at the bottom of the window had jammed open. Joggling the elbow of the hinge and pulling in on the lever at the same time shut the window at the expense of a forefinger, which got trapped in the closing window and began to ooze blood. Instinctively, I thrust the window open, only for it to jam again. Liberating a towel from the bathroom in which to wrap my hand, I tried again, more gently and with success.

After mopping up, I took a relieved pee seated, Japanese-style, only to be deceived—yet again—by the tiny toilet bowl into urinating all over the floor. The towel was pressed into more service: I had been in the room five minutes and already it was drenched in rainwater and filthy with grime, grease, blood, and piss. No wonder many Japanese hoteliers have their reservations about foreign guests. 

As dusk stole in through the shadows back down at the arcades, something was astir: knots of young people gathered outside long-shuttered stores. A preteen hip-hop duo practiced their moves to an old beatbox and an upturned umbrella. 


Stussied-up hiphopsters acting ’hood they may have been, but they weren’t averse to chucking a bit of air guitar into their shtick.


The knots of girls had coalesced into a marching troupe rehearsing for Daijayama (Big Snake Mountain), Omuta’s showpiece summer festival, in a half-empty car park by Pachinko L’aimant.


The knots of boys, meanwhile, fanned out through the arcades, taiko drums in tow. They too were rehearsing for the festival. Taiko drumming to this observer is the most erotic act the Japanese male performs with his clothes on, perhaps even regardless of his state of dress or undress.


Elsewhere, younger taiko kids received tuition from their elders and queued patiently for their turn at the skins as bystanders gathered to watch and the arcades, so dead in the daytime, came to pulse to the heartbeat of taiko life.



Back by Parlor Lucky, evening classes were in full swing at a baggy hiphop dance studio.


Next door, a boxing gym had opened up for sparring after school or work.


As with so many hardscrabble towns the world over, it seemed as though for the youth of Omuta there were only two ways out: dance your way out or fight your way out. 

So were Professor Ito’s “shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies” ugly? Not to me: by rainswept day their epic melancholy transcended the merely ugly, while by this sweltering summer night, at least, they breathed with the spontaneity of the new and the resilience of tradition. 

The next morning I woke to rain: today’s rain was not the fierce but flighty rain of the previous evening but a pounding and implacable rain, a fuck-you-and-your-plans rain, a rain that said it was here to stay. The skies were the same unrelenting gray in every direction, offering no chink of hope, and the rain on the window made the unlovely rooftop cityscape bleed watery tears. I was trapped, waterlogged, in Omuta. 

After a couple of hours loafing around watching the rain lash down, cabin fever set in and I set out. Embrace the rain, I told myself, befriend it. After all, how could you come all this way to Omuta and miss out on Navel Land? 

Ah, Navel Land, Navel Land, Navel Land. No matter how you say it, it doesn’t get any better. And no, it’s not a typo for a theme park with a nautical twist; they really did name it Navel Land. You see, if you gaze at a map of Kyushu and strain every fiber of your imagination, then it comes to look like a fetus, with two little feet kicking out at the bottom, Nagasaki the head, and Omuta, yes, Omuta the navel. Making this up? If only I were. 

In No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (2001), a cross-cultural comparison of attempts to revive Omuta and Flint, Michigan, Theodore J. Gilman claims the name was also inspired by Omuta’s heritage of coal, dug from the belly of the earth, and by Navel Land being a centerpiece “belly-button project” (臍事業) for the town, although this phrase seems to barely exist in Japanese. Hard to credit, but the name could have been worse: one of the consulting firms tapped in the planning stages wanted to christen it GeoBio World’s Weird Gnome Nation. 

Mr. Gilman reports that the idea for Navel Land surfaced in 1988, inspired by the success of Tokyo Disneyland: “The planning office walls in Omuta are sprinkled with Disney maps and posters, and souvenir dwarves sit on the desks.” The initial concept of what was to be called GeoBio World was earnest: the Geo Zone was to have a coal and underground theme, while the Bio Zone was to celebrate the ocean, playing to Omuta’s location on the Ariake Sea, but such high seriousness was toned down by the consultants. Funds poured in from the city, the prefecture, the central government, firms in the Mitsui combine, and the usual Kyushu stalwarts, Bank of Fukuoka, Japan Rail Kyushu, and Kyushu Electric Power. A succession of proposals was rejected by Japan Development Bank, the key backer, however, and with time dragging on and the economic winds growing chillier, Omuta finally took control of the project. Navel Land ultimately opened in July 1995, having cost a cool $100mn or so, with an attendance projection of 600,000 a year. 

Down toward the port on a lightly trafficked stretch of dual carriageway, the Navel Land parking lot had been turned by the endless rain into a shallow lake, dotted with islands.


Even by the wretched underachiever standards of the limply conceived theme parks of these islands, Navel Land was a monumental flop. It attracted some 440,000 visitors in its first year, but all went downhill from there and it closed on Christmas Day, 1998. Its deathspan as a ruin is now three times its lifespan as a park, and rising.


The mock Tudorbethan stylings of the entrance, gift shop, and restaurant complex pay homage to Omuta’s Mitsui Port Club, built in 1907-1908 together with the port as a retreat for Mitsui executives and guesthouse for visiting dignitaries, making it an architectural pastiche of a pastiche.

The clock above the entrance had stopped at 10 past eight. Eerily, other clocks in the park showed the same hour. Was that really the time that fateful Christmas night back in 1998 when the electrocutioner’s switch was flicked, convulsing the body of the park into a corpse? And just what was a theme park doing with clocks anyway—aren’t such places meant to be precious spaces into which noisome time should not intrude? Perhaps the clocks, by reminding revelers of the pressures of the humdrum from which they had hoped to escape, played a part in the park’s downfall. 

Failed and struggling theme parks fall into two categories: those with lamentably weak concepts, such as Huis ten Bosch (which we’ll come to in a later post), inspired by the Dutch Golden Age, and those left by chaotic and conflicted planning with simply no concept at all. Navel Land was in the latter camp. What, for Buddha’s sake, was this beached Fin Whale doing at the entrance, growing a green beard of grass and grinning a plutocrat’s grin?


The boy and girl polkadot dragon “image characters”, sanitized for your protection, trace their roots through the Big Snake Mountain festival, which features fire-spitting dragons, back to local dragon-god cults of the 17th century. 

By the entrance, the silver skeleton of a bicycle lay in silent repose.


Part of the park had been requisitioned by the adjacent Coal History Museum to store disused mining gear; instead of coils of barbed wire and searchlights, there were only sagging ropes to keep the curious out. Why, it was practically an invitation to trespass, especially as Kiddy Land beckoned so invitingly.


With everything removable from the attractions gone, it was hard to tell how enjoyable the Battery Cars, the Swingaround (a teacup ride), Columbus (a rocking pirate ship), and the Dream Carousel might have been. The drowning goggled rafter crying for help in the background of this peeling sign didn’t seem to be having too much fun.


A graffiti of immortal thug Tupac graced the entrance to the aquarium. Kids in Omuta take their old-school rappers seriously, it seems, though thankfully they’re not likely to die in a drive-by at 25 nor to cause as much grief as Shakur did in his short spell.


Sunken chairs at the neighboring restaurant convinced me not to tread the boardwalks any further.

Over at the plant pavilion, trees and shrubs were making an anguished bid for freedom, but there was to be no escape.


Lighting fixtures with cement shoes, perhaps toppled by a typhoon, had created an accidental flowerpot.


I bid the polkadot dragons a sad farewell.



Like any country peered at and prodded and pored over long enough, Japan can be anything the watcher wants it to be. There’s no better—or funnier—illustration of the dizzying kaleidoscope of the conclusions of “experts” than a post that once appeared at the long-defunct Dead Fukuzawa Society discussion group on things Japanese, in the days before the Internet was tarted up and dumbed down. An average US citizen is imagined to be asking a panel of Japan specialists what he or she should know about the country.

Answer: Well, any well-informed person should know that…

It’s a peaceful state.
– Edwin O. Reischauer

It’s a belligerent state!
– Tag O’Conroy

It’s a highly nuanced state.
– Ruth Benedict

It’s a highly simplistic state!
– James Clavell

It’s a headless state.
– Karl van Wolferen

It’s a democratic state!
– George Packard

It’s a mentally repressed state!
– Masao Miyamoto

It’s just a boring state.
– Henry Kissenger

More like a US protectorate, not a state
– Ivan Brezinski

Or should we call it an entrepreneurial state?
– Edward Lincoln

Actually, it’s a capitalist developmental state.
– Chalmers Johnson

More like a bankrupt state lately.
– Gary Saxonhouse

Or a crony capitalist state, to be exact.
– Jake Schlessinger

Let’s just call it the headquarters state.
– Leon Hollerman

A corporate state, really, the beginning of a “Japan Inc.”
– James Abegglen

Which lasted 5 minutes before we had the end of “Japan, Inc.”
– Christopher Wood

Making it, yes, a soured state…
– Richard Katz

Or perhaps just a normal state, after all.
– Hugh Patrick

But a misunderstood state, nonetheless.
– Bill Emmott

 [You can read the full post here.]

No abstract noun vexes and divides the experts more than “change”. “Japan must change its ways if it is to navigate a passage through the turbulent waters of the coming years,” thunder the editorials. “The advent of a new administration proves Japan has changed beyond all recognition since the days of the Iron Triangle,” trumpet the essays on the op-ed pages. “More than anywhere, Japan needs change to come its backward-looking institutions so it can harness the dynamism of its people and rise to the challenges of the new century,” opine the authors of letters to the editor. 

Here’s Professor Jeff Kingston, writing in his just published Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s

Contemporary Japan is remarkably different from the Japan that existed at the outset of the Heisei era in 1989. All societies change, but the pace and scope of change in Japan has been staggering and deeply unsettling in many ways for its citizens. … Many of the profound changes in Japan go largely unnoticed, because this transformation is gradual and incremental, being built brick by brick, law by law, through regulation and deregulation. Each initiative taken on its own seems of little import, but when placed in the larger mosaic of reform, the shape of this sweeping transformation emerges, clarified by the passage of time.

 And here’s the—inevitably but still regrettably anonymous—reviewer in The Economist, writing in response on August 21: 

Mr Kingston believes that Japan can get itself out of trouble and that change is taking place. But the country is remarkable for dodging its biggest concerns. … And, like other scholars of Japan, Mr Kingston fails to solve the mystery of why the country finds reform so difficult. Change is still a four-letter word in Japan. … What will replace [its 20th century system] is unknown. That, though Mr Kingston does not quite say so, is the reason for Japan’s near-paralysis. 

Japan’s sweeping transformation? Japan’s near-paralysis? How can it be possible that these two observers are looking at the same country? Perspective is part of the answer: Professor Kingston is writing from the liberal (in the US sense) halls of academia, with a focus on society, while the Economist reviewer is writing from a liberal (in the UK sense) bastion, with a focus on the economy. The nebulousness of the word “change”, like its cousins “reform” and “transformation”, is another part of the answer: there are as many flavors of change—technological, demographic, economic, societal, and political are perhaps the overarching five—as there are of ice-cream. 

One way to reconcile these polar-opposite conclusions might be to propose a two-speed Japan. As we’ve seen from the shopping arcades of Omuta, down at the bottom of the heap (economic) change is often wrenching. At the top of the heap, firms cosset against this change through celebrated practices such as lifetime employment (終身雇用), seniority based pay (年功序列型賃金), and resistance to mid-career hiring (中途採用). To pervert what has long been my favorite quotation about Japan, from reticent Sicilian nobleman Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel, The Leopard, “Everything must change (for you), so that everything stays the same (for us)”. 

At the commanding heights of the economy, the lineup of the firms themselves is remarkably unchanging: to find out how so, I compiled a list of Japan’s top 100 firms, from Toyota Motor at number one to Chugoku Electric Power at number 100, as measured by market capitalization on September 24, and quickly traced all their genealogies back as far as I could. These are the companies that aspiring graduates of elite universities jostle to join. 

The conclusion: of the 100, 43 have roots in the 19th or earlier centuries, with drugmaker Mitsubishi Tanabe (#84) able to trace its ancestors back to 1678, and another 42 have roots between 1900 and 1950, leaving just 15 founded in the 60 years since 1950. 

Some caveats apply: I played fast and loose with the rules, excluding mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo and IT services firm NTT Data for being spin-outs of the venerable Nippon Telephone and Telegraph but including robot powerhouse Fanuc, also a spin-out, for being qualitatively different from its parent. Naturally, many on the list, such as Nintendo, founded in 1889 as a maker of playing cards, are not in precisely the same line of business as they were at their inception. Of course, many other nations have banks, insurers, and pharmaceutical firms with august lineages. Sure, it takes time to build a vast enterprise from scratch. It is nonetheless noteworthy—disquieting even—that only 15 are younger than pensionable age. Here they are: 

#13 Softbank                    1981

(Mobile phones) Date of foundation

#18 Fanuc                        1972

(Machinery) Date spun-out of Fujitsu (#44)

#26 KDDI                          1984

(Mobile phones) Date of foundation as DDI. Constituent company KDD has roots back to 1953

#30 Yahoo Japan              1996

(Internet) Date of foundation by Yahoo! and Softbank (#13)

#36 Kyocera                     1959

(Electronic parts) Date of foundation

#43 Fast Retailing             1963

(Apparel) Date of foundation

#53 Nidec                          1973

(Electronic components) Date of foundation

#59 Keyence                     1974

(Machinery) Date of foundation

#71 Secom                       1962

(Security) Date of foundation

#80 Rakuten                    1997

(Internet) Date of foundation

#82 SMC                           1959

(Machinery) Date of foundation

#85 Tokyo Electron          1963

(Semiconductor manufacturing equipment) Date of foundation by Tokyo Broadcasting, some roots back to 1951

#91 Orix                                          1964

(Leasing) Date of foundation by what is now Sojitz and the then Sanwa Bank, some roots back to 1950

#95 Oriental Land             1960

(Real estate) Date of foundation

#96 Unicharm                   1961

(Toiletries) Date of foundation

Of the top eight, seven have some form of outsider status. Softbank and Yahoo Japan were both the brainchild of an ethnically Korean entrepreneur, Masayoshi Son, while five have their origins and their headquarters far from the locus of power in Tokyo: Fanuc in the foothills of Mount Fuji, Kyocera and Nidec in Kyoto, Keyence in Osaka, and Fast Retailing in the wilds of Yamaguchi. Worryingly, only three were born the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and two in the 1990s, with the last decade unrepresented. 

All 15 have certain things in common: they are free of the keiretsu corporate ties that bind, they are far from household names overseas (and a handful are far from household names in Japan), and most interestingly, they are all solidly, in some cases wildly, profitable, with the exception of Tokyo Electron, which has the misfortune to be in as cyclical an industry as any that exists. 

They are not all dazzling centerfold models of corporate perfection, by any means—Softbank, for instance, is adrift in debt up to its eyeballs—but at their best they have a feistiness not often found elsewhere. An SMC representative was captured on camera by NHK last week attempting to source cheaper components from South Korea, an act that would be regarded as tantamount to treason at a Toyota or a Toshiba. Fast Retailing is unique in its embrace of foreigner hiring for fast-track career positions. At Keyence’s Osaka headquarters, low stone tables are inlaid with trilobites, a cautionary tale of what happens to companies if they ossify.   

What are the chances that these 15 will be joined by lower-ranked rule-breakers and game-changers? Looking at the next 100 largest firms and applying the same criteria as above, I found that only 12 out of the 100 were founded since 1960. The list comprises the following:

–        A fallen angel unlikely ever to recapture its golden era (component maker Rohm)

–        Two convenience store operators (Lawson and FamilyMart) in a saturated market

–        Two homebuilders (Sekisui House and Daito Trust) operating in a country where housing starts, around the 1.4mn/year level in the mid-1990s, fell to around the 1.1mn level in the mid-2000s and to just 775,000 in 2009, with no recovery expected anytime soon

–       A pachinko machine maker (Sankyo). The number of pachinko parlors in Japan fell 27% in the decade from 1999 to 2009

–       A maker of antivirus software (Trend Micro) that has always struggled to compete with the big boys, Symantec and McAffee

–       Two retailers (Yamada Denki and Nitori) that may be able to squeeze a few more drops of growth from suburbia

–       Two Internet social network and gaming firms (DeNa and Gree) that appear to lack any international ambition and will eventually run out of headroom in Japan

–       And one genuine growth prospect, Sysmex, a maker of reagents and equipment for specimen testing

 Not, all told, an encouraging collection. 

What of the budding entrepreneurs of tomorrow? An April 2010 survey of around 2,000 newly minted corporate freshmen in their early 20s by the Japan Productivity Center provides fodder for despair. 

Asked to choose between the following:

(a)  “I’d like to stay with my present company for the rest of my working life”, and

(b)  “It would be OK to change jobs if the opportunity arose”,

57% of respondents chose (a) and 30% chose (b), a complete reversal from as recently as 2004, when 51% chose (b) and 30% chose (a).

Asked to answer “agree” or “disagree” to the following statement:

“In terms of my future career plan, I’d rather set up my own business and become independent than get on in my present company”,

just 13% agreed and 87% disagreed, with those agreeing having fallen from 32% every single year, good times or bad, since the question was first posed in 2003.

Asked which kind of work they would prefer:

(a)  “Work where you form teams with your seniors and other divisions and can share in success”, or

(b)  “Work where your own individual effort leads directly to success”,

an overwhelming 85% chose (a), up from 73% in 2000.

Asked how salaries should be determined, either:

(a)  “In a system where individual performance and ability have a major impact”, or

(b)  “In a system where the emphasis is more on age and experience than performance or ability”,

only 56% chose (a), down from 73% in 2000.

Asked to answer “agree” or “disagree” to the following statement:

“If a company was offering good employment conditions, it would be smart to move to it promptly”,

just 22% agreed, down from 38% in 2000.

Asked to choose from three responses what they thought about changing jobs in the course of their working life:

(a)  “It would be better not to”,

(b)  “Changing jobs once or twice might be unavoidable if there was a good enough reason”, or

(c)  I wouldn’t mind changing jobs however often if there was a good enough reason”,

34% chose (a), up from 19% in 2000, and a mere 12% chose (c), down from 26% in 2000. Notice how negatively the question is couched to begin with.

Asked whether they would prefer to be specialists or generalists (the bane of Japanese companies), a minority (44%) replied that they would rather be specialists, down from 52% in 2000.

A June 2010 Japan Productivity Center survey targeting the same category of corporate freshmen presented respondents with the following scenario:

“If you were told to work overtime one evening when you had a date lined up, what would you do?”

(a)  “Give up on the date and do the work”, or

(b)  “Say no to the overtime and go on the date”,

85% chose (a) and just 14% chose (b), respectively the highest and lowest percentages since the survey began asking the question back in 1973 and a very different breakdown from the 60/40 split that briefly prevailed in the carefree early 1990s.

Finally, a June 2010 survey on awareness of globalization (by the admittedly less than illustrious Sanno Institute of Management with an admittedly small sample size of 400 businesspeople) asked simply:

“Would you like to work abroad in the future?”

63% of respondents in their twenties said no, exactly the same percentage of respondents in their forties who were disinclined. (Those in their thirties and fifties were still more unenthusiastic about the idea.)

Taken together, these surveys present a sobering picture of twentysomething salarymen drones increasingly terrified of risk, individuation, and difference. This is change indeed, but change in favor of the stupor of the status quo, not at all the change that our professors and reviewers—of whatever ideological stripe—have in mind. 

If there is scant hope to be had from the upstart corporate thrusters and none at all from the generation now setting out as adults, then for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, we have to fall back on the ageing colossi, the Sonys (1946) and the Sharps (1935), the Mitsuis (1876) and the Mitsubishis (1873), which is dispiriting, because these are acts they may encourage but rarely reward. The casebook example of this is surely Shuji Nakamura, the inventor in 1993 of the blue LED, who was awarded a princely bonus of around $200 for his toil by his employer, Nichia, who he then pursued through the courts, eventually settling for around $7mn in 2005. 

Once so adept at pumping out gadgets the world snapped up, the electronics titans have locked up the market for only one of all the many gizmos, from laptops to LCD TVs, that have swept the globe since 1990: digital cameras, a market they were predestined to dominate anyway because of their near-extinguishment of competition in film. The drugmakers’ pipelines are by and large bone dry. The banks and insurers are hardly renowned for their ingenuity, although they still burned their fingers meddling with the ingenuity of others in the conflagration of the financial crisis. The trading houses and power generators, the railways and retailers, the leasers and steelmakers all mind their own business and stick to their knitting. Which leaves us with the auto leviathans and their suppliers as just about the last redoubts of resourcefulness, although with rivals catching up with their only real killer app, reliability, profound motive power change coming, and their vehicles chronically uninspiring, the car in front may not be a Toyota much longer. 

Here for one last time is Schumpeter, this time on a state of satiety in which the “methods of production have reached a state of perfection which does not admit of further improvement” (and how could a Lexus plant be improved?) 

A more or less stationary state would ensue. Capitalism, being essentially an evolutionary process, would become atrophic. There would be nothing left for entrepreneurs to do. They would find themselves in much the same situation as generals would in a society perfectly sure of permanent peace. Profits and along with profits the rate of interest would converge toward zero. … The management of industry and trade would become a matter of current administration, and the personnel would unavoidably acquire the characteristics of a bureaucracy.

 Japan in 2010 is no state of satiety, although the after-dinner torpidity intermittently revealed in the complacent statements of the elites sometimes make one think it thinks it is, but it has come to resemble in its upper echelons at least the stationary state of Schumpeter’s description, one in which not satiety but the state has deemed the entrepreneur and even the entrepreneurial function obsolete, save at the margins. 


My focus has been on microeconomic change, because the arcades of a thousand bankruptcies stirred microeconomic thoughts, but I’m conscious too of change—and lack of it—in other realms as well. Here, then, is a cut-out-and-keep laundry list of markers on the highway to real change in every sphere, markers that this mostly mild-mannered liberal (in the UK sense), would like to see overtaken. I’ve deliberately set the thresholds unambitiously low. Tick them off as they occur! 

1)    One of the top 200 Japanese firms is taken over lock, stock, and barrel by a foreign one when not in financial distress

2)    More than 10% of new cars sold are made by foreign automakers (the ratio is around 5% currently)

3)    A government comes up with a credible plan to eliminate the fiscal deficit and stop the debt mountain piling up

4)    The Bank of Japan acknowledges that deflation is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”, that “sufficient injections of money will ultimately always reverse a deflation”, and takes action accordingly

5)    The banking and life insurance operations of Japan Post are surgically removed and closed down, while its post office operations remain nationalized

6)    Japan rises into the top half of the table in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (it ranked 98th out of 130 states in the 2008 report, sandwiched between Mexico and Brunei)

7)    The Imperial Household Law of 1947 is amended to allow succession by legitimate female descendents of the imperial family and ends patrilineal primogeniture

8)    The Civil Code is amended to allow women the official use of their maiden names after marriage

9)    More than 5% of Japanese babies are born out of wedlock (the ratio is below 2% currently)

10) More than 5% of senior executives are female (the ratio was 1.2% in 2009)

11) A truly pronatal government succeeds through a variety of steps in raising the birthrate above 1.5 (it was 1.37 in 2009)

12) More than 5% of men eligible for childcare leave take it (the ratio was 1.2% in 2008)

13) The percentage of single parents living in poverty falls to the OECD average of around 20% (the ratio is currently around 50%)

14) Legislation is passed to establish an institutional framework for same-sex marriages or civil partnerships

15) High school students are allowed to specialize to a degree in subjects in which they are interested

16) University entrance examinations routinely require applicants to write essays in liberal arts subjects rather than answer multiple-choice questions

17) Universities offer tenure to foreign academics as a matter of course

18) Nurse and long-term caregiver wages are raised to a level sufficient to tempt back discouraged workers or the accreditation of nurses and caregivers from Indonesia and the Philippines is accepted and they are permitted to freely work in Japan after a year of intensive language immersion

19) The foreign-born population of Japan rises to 5% of the total population (it is currently around 2%)

20) The video-taping of suspects in police station interviews is made mandatory

21) The criminal justice system conviction rate falls below 95% (it is currently about 99%)

22) The death penalty is abolished or falls into desuetude

23) Two main ideology-driven political parties, one leftish and one rightish, emerge and alternate in government, either in coalition with smaller parties or ruling alone

24) Measures are taken to revitalize the moribund regions through a general devolution of power and the provision of incentives to companies to set up operations in severely depopulated areas

25) Subsidies for the Institute of Cetacean Research are ended 

Some of these are tantalizingly close, some may happen in the not too distant future on an extrapolation of present trends, and some seem nigh on impossible. Many would cost next to nothing, some would save money, and many could be achieved with a stroke of the pen. It would be best though, if you’re planning on collecting all 25, to have an extra lifetime or two lying around.

Ikeshima: Goodbye to old King Coal

About to enter the scruffy ferry ticket office in the Nagasaki port of Seto one leaden noon to book my passage to Ikeshima, I was attacked by a severely depilated Dachshund, its coat a canine topiary. The reception inside was no more welcoming. Three knocks at long intervals on the frosted slit of a waist-high window finally elicited a pair of gnarled, disembodied hands. Money and tickets were shoved in one direction and the other. “Come back in half an hour”, rasped a gnarled, disembodied voice. “And don’t forget your vehicle roadworthiness certificate.” Quite why a vehicle’s roadworthiness has to be proven for a seaborne voyage has always baffled me, but such is the custom of the land.

Lunch came from the Seto Shopping Center, a huge barn of immense decrepitude, where the stench of fish well on the way to its sell-by date saturated everything, even the women’s clothing section, and a bento lunchbox cost just Y198 ($2.30), half a central Tokyo price.

The ferry was sailed in but sturdy enough. I had half-expected to be the only person aboard, but four other vehicles clustered in the hold, three small trucks and a Black Cat parcel delivery van. Still, the ferry crew outnumbered the passengers. They took great interest in my Tokyo plates.

“What are you going to do on Ikeshima,” one asked with a trace of incredulity. “Research?”

“You could call it that.”

“You’d better catch the five o’clock ferry back. That’ll give you plenty of time. Don’t wait for the last sailing. The weather’s bad and we might cancel. You don’t want to be stuck on the island.”

“Is there nowhere left to stay?” I knew there had been as late as 2006.

“No, there’s nowhere now.”

The truck drivers chose to sit out the half-hour voyage in the comfort of their cabs, which meant I had the sixty-odd high-backed industrial-green vinyl chairs and ancient cathode-ray TV of the ferry lounge to myself.

I gasped in marvel at the ferry schedule posted in the lounge: there are fewer than 300 folk left on Ikeshima but 14 ferries a day tramp in and out of the island’s port, nine from Seto and five from Kamiura, further south along the coast. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that every man, woman, and child on the island could ship out and ship in twice a day and the ferries would still not be full. Whether the ferry operator, which does not even have a website, receives subsidies I know not, but either way, this is a fine example of inertia—or indulgence—at work, and not the last.

We chugged out to sea, skirting Matsushima, an old coal and whaling island, which although it lies only a kilometer or so from land, has never been bestowed with a bridge, perhaps in perverse punishment for the loss of its main mine, as long ago as 1934, after a rockfall left 54 miners dead. The island gave its name to a company called Mitsui Matsushima, now the very last mining firm listed in the mining sector on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

After rounding Matsushima, Ikeshima soon loomed into view.


As we neared port, row after row of sandy gray apartment blocks, starkly Soviet in their utilitarian boxiness, revealed themselves against the drab green backdrop.


The story of Ikeshima is simply told. Once upon a time, before the war, it was a blameless little island on which some 300 folk scratched a living from the seas and the hills. No one had noticed that it sat atop a bed of coal. Then after the war came the engineers and geologists and technicians from Mitsui Matsushima, and the company began buying up the island; to this day it still owns more than half of it. Commercial mining began in 1959, with Ikeshima turning out to be the last coal mine to open its shafts in Japan. It opened in the teeth of mine closures across the rest of the nation, as the central government’s energy policy mandated a shift from coal to oil, but against the odds it prospered for a while. At its 1970 zenith the island, 4km in circumference, was home to some 8,000 miners, their families, and the tradespeople that fed off them in symbiosis, making it about as densely populated as any place on earth.

As Ikeshima was the last conventional pit-coal mine in Japan to open, so it was the last to close (one sea-bed mine remains in operation in Kushiro, Hokkaido). The final shift left the mine on November 28, 2001, bringing down the sooty curtain on two centuries of pit-coal extraction in Japan. At the end of coal, the island counted 2,719 residents; just a year later, all but 720 had fled. In western welfare states, people might have stayed on, subsisting on handouts; in Japan, where the dole is meager and ideas about the dignity of work are hard-wired into the national consciousness (best not to ask by whom), almost everyone packed their bags at once.

A technology transfer program that ran from 2002 to 2007 brought trainees from Southeast Asia; what they made of their sojourns on the island is far beyond my ken, although there is a stilted archive of the games and ceremonies and parties they were put through here. Ikeshima must be the only place in Japan where the “Do not trespass” signs—and there are many of them—are also in Bahasa Indonesia.


The bow mouth of the ferry opened up and disgorged us at the port, where stray cats lolled on abandoned cars, catching precious if watery rays of rainy season sun between the showers.


Kittens teetered in the frail way that only feral ones do. The doors of the spartan ferry ticket office bore signs admonishing that they be kept closed at all times, on account of the cats.

From the port, I headed along the shore to the district of Goto (郷東), the only sizeable area of housing for non-mining civilians on the island, which had once been an entertainment district of restaurants, bars, and snacks for miners heading down the hillside on their way home to their sandy boxes. No dog barked, no bird cried, not a soul stirred—but then there were no souls to stir, only ghosts.



Retracing my steps to the port, I stopped off at the desalination plant to indulge in a spot of kojo moe (工場萌え, factory infatuation).


Ikeshima, as its name—Pond Island—suggests, used to have ample fresh water, but the pond was dredged and became the harbor. Thirsty miners needed water, and so this desalination plant, Japan’s first, was built in 1966.

Around the back of the plant, ivy devoured a van.


The sandy apartment boxes are home to many of Ikeshima’s last stayers-on, though only a fifth at most are still occupied. The stayers-on bustled around to keep up appearances, taking down election posters, burning rubbish in deserted parking lots, and chatting outside an electrical store that had somehow survived.



A mini-roundabout near the port had been decorated with ghoulish pumpkin faces, aliens, frogs, and cats in silent chorus.


A middle-aged woman appeared by my side. “Do you like them?” It was a reasonable enough question to ask. “My husband made them.”

“Why, they’re delightful,” I lied.

She turned out to be the proprietor of the last restaurant on the island, Minato-tei.


Born in Sasebo, she had been on the island 30 years. Across the road, astonishingly, construction work was in progress, on the Ikeshima Development Center.


“Is that a new building they’re putting up?”

“No, it’s just being renovated.”

“What’s the redevelopment plan?”

“Coal tourism,” she exclaimed animatedly. “Do you know how much they’re raking in down at Battleship Island?”

I confessed ignorance.

“Y600mn (about $7mn) a year.”

“Well, in a couple of decades, you’ll be in the same state of dereliction as Battleship Island,” I blurted out, and immediately began to worry that I’d said the wrong thing. No one wants to bring ruination on themselves, after all, do they?

“Yes, that’s what we’re hoping! After all, nothing’s been pulled down yet, except for a couple of apartment buildings by the shore. The problem is Mitsui Matsushima. They still own all the good bits. We’ve been trying to get the prefectural government to persuade them to cooperate, but we never get a clear answer, just keep getting rebuffed.” She sighed.

“And the restaurant, well, I’m lucky if I do five or six bentos for the construction workers. It’s barely enough for the electricity, to be honest.” Her voice trailed off.

“Come next door, my husband runs a little business.” Over the lintel, a sign offered power-assisted bicycle rentals.

“We got the bikes from the prefecture. But we only rent out one or two a month.”


Clearly, Ikeshima’s bid to become the next Battleship Island is in its nascent stages and faces formidable challenges. Time may be on its side, though, if it’s prepared to play the long game, as Battleship Island’s ancient structures are destined to tumble into rubble, robbing the island of its intensity.

Around the docks where the coal was once stored and shipped, a lone man with a blowtorch was doing his best to dismantle the island’s legacy, one oil drum at a time, as drizzle turned to downpour. 


Atop the island’s central plateau, hydrangeas were in full bloom by a vast network of apartment complexes laced with ditch-lined lanes so narrow I was in constant fear of the sickening grind of metal undercarriage on tarmac.


On first sight, I took it as given that the island’s combined elementary and junior high school, which looks like every other school in Japan, would have been closed, but no. While 57 students graduated junior high in March 2002, just three did so the following year. Now just five junior high students and seven elementary schoolers rattle around the corridors and classrooms of a school built for at least 1,500 kids.


In many countries of the West, the school buildings would have long been pulverized into tiny particles and mixed with fishmeal to make chickenfeed and the children shipped off to the mainland with a pat on the back and a warning not to talk to strangers. The two schools welcomed one new student apiece at their April 2010 entrance ceremonies, and this was true of seven other schools in Nagasaki Prefecture alone, one of which was reopened especially for the admission of the sole student. Indulgence and inertia, wonderful in their way, rule the roost.

Behind the school stand the earliest apartment blocks to be built on the island and the first to be vacated, eight-storey liftless behemoths with a sublime brooding magnificence.

I was swiftly and deeply smitten with their android fire hydrants.

A brand-new black and yellow minibus, no doubt a gift of the prefecture, buzzed to a halt at a bus stop. But there was no one to pick up, and no one to set down; there was no one about at all. And so the bus shuttled off on its way around the island, in luckless search of the pollen of a passenger.

Down at the shops, a bench crumpled in on itself as if it had been shot.

Above a tiny ex-grocer’s, whose signboard advertises an only-in-Nagasaki soy sauce, someone was staying on.

The three-digit number, Ikeshima 151, inspired in this phone-phobe a reverent awe for a world long gone. The whole island is beyond the reach of mobile signals.

Saturday nights would never be the same again when the ten-pin bowling alley hit town; to guess from its lettering and architecture (if you can call it that), it came as late as the mid-1980s. 

Around the back of the shops, rust once again stopped me in amazement at the tricks it can pull.

Although the police station, with no drunk payday brawls left to club to quiet, has gone, much of the rest of the institutional infrastructure of the state remains, including the post office, the locked-up community hall, and the part-timers’ fire station.

Finally I made it to the source of all of Ikeshima’s strife and glory.

Although there was never a major fatal accident at the mine in its 42 years of life, there was plenty of pneumoconiosis. In March 2002, 77 former miners and their families sued Mitsui Matsushima for negligence, and amazingly, given how slowly Japan’s courts grind, they won just four years later, with compensation payouts ranging from some $30,000 to $300,000. Not much for years of suffering but more than most plaintiffs manage to squeeze from the stone of Japan’s judiciary.

The ferry steamed out of port and looking back, I saw Ikeshima capped with a crown of cloud all its own, a white pillow of cloud for a sleeping island, hanging lower than the dirt grey skies that spawned it.

“Goodbye King Coal, you venal tyrant,” I thought to myself, “and good riddance. It’s good you’re gone, gone at last from these lands at least, gone with your lives cut short by dust blast and black lung, gone with your weeping widows, gone with your fatherless children. And goodbye to you, too, Ikeshima: may your dreams of ruin come true, may you rust in peace.”

Yubari: From the culture of coal to the cult of caramel (with some movies and melons thrown in)


Yuubari, kuubari, saka bakari,
Dokan to kureba, shinu bakari

Yubari’s a town of woe, there’s nothing but hills,
When the shafts blow, there’s nothing but death

An old Yubari rhyme

Oh, Yubari: the big one. Almost a decade ago, a friend asked me where in Japan I most wanted to visit. Yubari, I answered, without hesitation. Why had it taken nearly a decade to get there? Deaths, distractions, little vacation time, much of which had to be spent in the UK, and a preternatural laziness, I suppose.

Why had I wanted to go so much? It’s always been about the unparalleled enormity of what Yubari has been through in the last half-century, as it lost almost all its coal mines in a single generation, from 1965 to 1990, and a staggering 90% of its population in two generations, 1960 to the present. The poster children for the industrial decline of the US, places like Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, even the baddest of them all, Detroit—none come close to the experience of Yubari, which has gone from being a vibrant if still gritty metropolis of around 120,000 people in 1960, replete with cinemas, dancehalls, and even a five-storey department store, to a mere shell of a city, a city in name only, its 11,500 people strung out across the hills and mountains in what now amount to no more than a straggle of villages.

Stripped to its barest of bones, the story of Yubari is sublimely simple: it had coal—Japan was the world’s third largest coalmining nation in the 1930s—then it had none, or at least none that was deemed commercially exploitable. It had people, then it had very, very many fewer. The story was repeated across the coalmining districts of the Sorachi subprefecture. Here are some population datapoints and projections for the five cities and one town that were at the heart of Hokkaido coalmining.

City/town      Peak (1948-1960)           1980       Now (% decline vs peak)
Yubari                    c120,000                    41,715                   11,534  (-90.4%)
Bibai                         c91,000                    38,552                  26,837  (-70.7%)
Ashibetsu                c75,000                   32,946                   17,552  (-76.7%)
Akabira                    c59,500                   25,467                   13,161  (-77.9%)
Mikasa                     c63,500                    23,319                  10,925  (-82.8%)
Utashinai                c46,000                   10,178                     4,717   (-89.8%)
Kami Sunagawa   c32,000                   10,790                    4,102   (-87.2%)
Total peak:            c375,000                 183,047                 88,828  (c77%)

Yubari’s mines were largely owned by just two companies, the mighty Mitsubishi combine and its subsidiaries and Hokkaido Colliery & Steamship, more familiarly known as Hokutan, and the government showed no interest at any point in nationalization, even to prolong the working lives of marginally viable mines. The industry’s fortunes were dealt a further blow by a shift in state energy policy in the 1950s and 1960s away from coal and in favor of oil to fuel the nation’s power stations, which with hindsight looks ill-advised in light of the oil crises of the 1970s. For much of the era when the mines were closing, the social security net was threadbare, and as the mines went, so of necessity did the people.

As Japan was gearing up for its last glorious spurt of growth in the 1980s, terrible things were happening in Yubari, which had already lost two-thirds of its people in just two decades. In October 1981, a methane gas explosion at the Hokutan New Mine, opened only in 1975, took the lives of 93 miners, in Yubari’s deadliest mining disaster since the 1930s. The Hokutan subsidiary that ran the mine went bankrupt just two months later (Hokutan itself finally went under in 1995) and the mine closed within a year. In 1985 another methane gas explosion, this time at the Mitsubishi Minami Oyubari Mine, claimed a further 62 lives. This was the mortal blow to mining in Yubari, as the mine had only begun extracting coal in 1970 and was seen as Yubari’s last hope. Instead it closed in 1990, bringing down the final frayed and grubby curtain on a century of coalmining in the city.

Battered and bruised beyond measure, Yubari tried to ride the—largely illusory—leisure boom of the 1980s, borrowing beyond its means to fund resort facilities where the mines had once stood, but in the chiller economic climes of the 1990s, the tourists stayed away and its fortunes ebbed further, culminating in bankruptcy in 2006, about which I have written extensively if indirectly here and here . I have also translated the prologue of a book about Yubari, which conveys in great—perhaps overwhelming—detail how life became still more straitened under the asperities of the reconstruction program imposed following the bankruptcy.

I stopped on the border of Yuni and Yubari to snap the city limits sign. Melon iconography is going to play a prominent part in this tale. The lower sign, warning of a curve ahead, has been sheared off and left unrepaired. There’s no money left in the kitty for signage.

[Note: Pictures now open in a separate window if you click on them.]

A little further on, a rusting welcome sign outside the first of the gift concessions that dot Rte 274, which runs west to east across the south of the city. The melon industry has spawned a host of melon-flavored snack and candy derivatives such as melon steamed buns, melon jellies, melon ice-cream, and melon biscuit sticks, to name but a few. There is something undeniably comical about a city that has been through so much finding some kind of salvation in melons. “Ah, both of Yubari’s children are welcoming me”, I thought cynically as I gazed up at the sign.

The boy, I was later to learn, is known as Yu-chan and is one of the city’s mascots, although he has fallen out of favor recently. The girl’s name I never caught. Japan of course has a massive talent for cuteification: if you can cuteify coalmining, you can cuteify anything.

On the right side of the road was the Takinoue hydroelectric power station, built in 1925 by Hokutan for its own power needs. Groundbreaking in its day, it is still going strong and it made a comforting sight to these brick-starved eyes.

The power station abutted the Takinoue Nature Park, with several viewing platforms out over the Yubari river, its countless waterfalls, and tortured strata.

The crumbling mushroom and its cracked smile were evidence enough that the park had been starved of funds for many years.

Many of the melon farmers, who are confined to the southern plains of Yubari, were clearly doing just fine. Everyone else? Not so well.

I stopped by for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Maple Town in Shin Yubari. Yubari is also celebrated for the beauty of its autumn foliage, and its maples in particular, at least among its residents. On the door was this poster.

“Great fool is the copywriter”, I thought at first. “Meditate on this, I will”, I promised myself, and later it struck me as a stroke of genius on the part of the copywriter to hint that Yubari’s melons are adored even by Yoda, the greatest Jedi knight of all time, genius that sadly would have passed unnoticed by the patrons of Maple Town.

The restaurant was deserted (well, it was 1.30pm). I took a seat and was approached by the only visible human presence, a slender, shambling twentysomething with blackened stumps for teeth; absolutely the worst display of dentistry and dental hygiene I have ever seen on a person in their 20s in the developed world—and I’m from Britain.

He started trying to tell me in halting English of excruciating slowness what was on the laminated menu on the table. I no longer take kindly to these English interventions by the empathetically impaired. I cut him off. “I – can – read – Japanese” I interjected—in English—with equal slowness. Our dialogue was like a 45” rpm record suddenly slowed to 33”. Chastened, he stepped away.

With some misgivings, I ordered the lamb chops—lamb is supposedly a specialty of Hokkaido, though by the end of the trip I couldn’t fathom why. Lamb is not a regular part of the Japanese diet—my local supermarket intermittently sells lamb chops of about the size of a thumb and forefinger put together in packs of three for about $8, but then my supermarket is in an upscale district of central Tokyo full of cheese eaters and other freaks of nature, and the lamb comes from the Antipodes. I saw nary a single sheep in my Hokkaido fortnight and came to realize that much of what is described as lamb is actually mutton dressed as, shipped in frozen from Australia and New Zealand and as unappetizing as another provincial Japanese specialty, raw horsemeat, much of which these days comes from horses only a notch above a glue factory destiny on refrigerator ships from Argentina.

The lamb chops arrived and I had to do something very contemporarily Japanese, for the first and possibly last time—whip out the camera and take a surreptitious photo of the meal.

So much was extraordinary, starting with the fat slices of barely cooked onion atop the “lamb”. Then there was the industrial Thousand Island dressing slavered on the poor defenseless lettuce. Who invented Thousand Island dressing, and why? Are they rotting in hell for their misdeed? Off to the right, in the mustard-colored cup, was a putrid brew of a soup that tasted like diluted Bovril mixed with paraffin. The culinary clock really had stopped in 1975.

Although the mutton was as appetizing as cardboard, the onions were not as repulsive and pungent as they threatened, and the rice was, well, rice.

I took the fateful turn left off Rte 276 into Yubari proper.

My first port of call was a favorite of the chroniclers of Yubari, the Shimizusawa power plant, part coal-fired, part hydro, completed in 1926 and decommissioned in 1992. For many years it was the largest thermal power plant in Japan north of Tokyo.

It’s steadily being dismantled, so this was a last chance to see.

I headed up to the top end of the main valley in search of one of the two resort hotels. I enquired at the counter of Hotel Mount Racey, the ski hotel, how much a night might set me back.

Y19,000! ($210, GBP125). You have to be kidding! In Yubari, in high summer? They kindly phoned up to the other resort hotel, Hotel Shuparo, who were prepared to put me up for a more modest Y8,000.

Accommodation assured, I meandered back down the valley, following the tracks and the stations of the 16km Yubari line, one of only three true branch lines left on Hokkaido. It must be at perennial risk of the axe and has in all likelihood only been spared as a favor to beleaguered Yubari. The terminus at Yubari, for example, averaged just 62 boarding passengers a day in FY3/99, and that number must be much lower a decade on.

JR Hokkaido was considered too fragile to sell off during the 1980s privatization of the old Japan National Railways, and a glance at the income statement for FY3/09 explains why—the railroad operations made an operating loss of Y29bn on revenues of just Y82bn.

The first station down from Yubari was Shikanotani.

I gasped in awe at the bridge, which once covered a vast network of sidings—old photos show at least eight tracks running parallel under it.

At the next station down, Shimizusawa, the sole surviving track runs far from the original station building on the left, so a pontoon has been built to link the platform and the station.

At the following station, Minami Shimizusawa, the old ticket office had been turned into a homely if cramped caretaker’s cottage, complete with kettle whistling on the ring, although there was noone around. The caretaker was presumably also responsible for this dog-eared but affecting lending library.

At the last station, Numanosawa, came a reminder of the glory days of double-header coal runs and a truly moving floral display, almost tear-inducing in its finesse. Yubari may be on the ropes, but it’s not yet out for the count.

Boxing was the theme of this yellowing poster in the window of the forlorn restaurant adjoining Numanosawa station. It’s for the 2006/2007 release Rocky Balboa, renamed Rocky the Final for Japan. The exclamation at the top reads “Go for it Yubari!” Yubari as the ageing punch-drunk fighter aiming to stage one last comeback—how completely appropriate. As Rocky says in the movie, “It ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit”.

I made my way back up the valley to the Hotel Shuparo, where I came across this poster, an example of Yubari’s latest PR drive.

The slogan at the top reads “Their love will save Yubari! Proclamation of a town of happily married couples”. The melon-headed characters wear patched up tracksuits, indicative of their troubled finances. The two words at the bottom, in an archaic font reminiscent of the interwar years, say simply “Yubari married couples”. Extra decoding is required: the campaign is one big pun on the Japanese homonym “fusai”, which means both “married couple” and “debt”, and makes dual reference to the debts in which Yubari is drowning and its divorce rate, which is allegedly the lowest in Japan. This struck me as inspired indeed, and it was no surprise to learn that the Tokyo-based company behind it, Beacon Communication, won the Grand Prix in the Promo category at Cannes International Advertising Festival 2009 for its Yubari campaign.

After checking in, I wandered the streets of Honcho (the center of town, from which the English word “honcho” is derived), marveling in the immeasurable poignancy generated by the retro movie posters from the heyday of film, with their heady promise of action and adventure and romance, and their tumbledown or simply humdrum surroundings. The posters alone were worth the whole cost of the trip.

Charade (1963), starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, on the side of the Hotel Shuparo.

The Longest Day (1962)

Rashomon (1950)

Cleopatra (1963)

Yojinbo (1961)

Violent City (1970)

River of no Return (1954)

Giant (1956)

From left to right: Purple Noon (1960), Tales of Japanese Chivalry: the Naniwa edition (1965), starring Ken Takakura, Japan’s answer to Clint Eastwood and Alain Delon, The Man from Abashiri Jail: Shootout at Cape Ronin (1969), also starring Ken Takakura, and finally a generic poster for one of the early episodes in the 48-movie series of It’s Tough Being a Man, which star Kiyoshi Atsumi as Tora-san, a traveling salesman perennially unlucky in love. This is my single favorite photograph of the many hundreds I took on the road.

My Fair Lady (1964) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Carmen Comes Home (1951) by the Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Blue Hawaii (1961)

East of Eden (1955)

Waterloo Bridge (1940)

And finally, Die Hard (1988) and South Pacific (1958). Die Hard seems a little out of place in this company.

The Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, one of the city’s more successful attempts to reinvent itself, has this tiger-director mascot. He’s even made it on to the manhole covers.

I returned to the Hotel Shuparo, built on the spot where Yubari’s department store, Marubune Okamura, had stood from 1957 until closure in 1980.

I knew from maps, leaflets, and my experience so far that there would be a dearth of places to eat of an evening, but I was in luck—a new izakaya pub, Matsuri, had opened up right next to the hotel. To embark on a business venture like that in a town like Yubari must have taken buckets of courage and a busload of faith. Initially I was the only customer (well, it was Thursday night) and I was offered the owner’s iPod to choose the music. He was big on the ‘70s—Earth, Wind, and Fire, Reo Speedwagon, Stevie Wonder, Journey. I chose Steely Dan’s Gaucho, for the utter disconnect of its silkily polished groove. “Drive west on Sunset to the sea…”

I was joined sometime later by a man in late middle age and his companion, a woman considerably younger, whose relationship was not that of one of Yubari’s happily married couples. Our conversation, in which the izakaya staff joined, kicked off with golf and took in the beauty of Yubari’s maples and where the most beautiful sunsets in Japan were to be found, before ending up, not for the last time on this trip, with the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, of all things.

It came as a shock to the man in particular that “Igirisu”, the Japanese word for the UK, was not synonymous with a constitutionally uniform entity called England, and that there exist places with names such Wales and Scotland with their own parliaments and independence movements. I sensed the conversation was about to take a perilous turn but was powerless to stop the juggernaut.

“I think Japan has the most stable constitutional arrangements of any nation”, said the man.

“But Japan’s current constitution has only been around for about sixty years. That hardly compares with even a young nation like the US”.

“And Japan is a monoethnic society”, he continued obliviously, using a contentious phrase that has landed so many Japanese prime ministers and senior politicians in trouble down the years.

“That”, I said, plonking down what I owed on the counter, “is just a right-wing myth”, and stormed off into the night.


The next morning I recalled a question the woman had asked me the night before: of the two ingredients of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence, did I prefer wabi, the rusticity, simplicity, and irregularity of things in their created state, or sabi, the patina of age, the wear and tear that comes with constant use, the intimations of transience.

I’m in the sabi camp: sabi as a concept is in all probability etymologically related to the verb sabiru, to rust, and for us lusters after rust, Yubari is sacred ground.

Everything in Yubari rusts: this is the side of a long forsaken house next to the Hotel Shuparo.

A rusting Mitsubishi logo adorns the listing gate of what was once a filling station.

A bridge on the former Mitsubishi Oyubari line; the upper reaches of the line, where this bridge is to be found, were closed in 1973, the lower reaches lingered on until 1987.

A couple of imposing edifices, which might have been mine company dormitories and might have been hostels for peripatetic workers, in Upper Yubari.

Galvanized steel has robbed us fans of rust of the delights of rotting vehicles across much of Japan—not so in Yubari.

The rusting side of a still inhabited house in Asahimachi, one of Yubari’s bleaker neighborhoods, which had in the not too distant past been conducting a “heart-clean campaign”.

The first two of the injunctions on this Asahimachi sign enjoin the residents to create a neighborhood that is bright and pleasant to live in, healthy and fun.

Even the infrastructure still in use is bleeding with rust: the Yubari line and a minor road cross the Shihorokabetsu river in the Wakana neighborhood.

Occasionally I was privileged with rust on an epic scale: although all of the mines themselves are long gone, some plants and warehouses have managed to escape the wrecking ball. This is a former Hokutan metal-bashing facility, also in the Wakana neighborhood.

Despite everything, Yubari is currently home to two massive civil engineering projects. The first, in the south of the city, is the extension of the Doto expressway from Yubari, where it currently ends, to the biggest city in eastern Hokkaido, Obihiro.

When it is opened, the extension will almost certainly wreak commercial disaster on the bypassed melon emporia on the national highway.

I drove back up to Shimizusawa, where I became perhaps the first and last person in history to develop an obsession with the barbers and hairdressers of Yubari. While entire city has no more than a handful of convenience stores and a couple of coop supermarkets left, I counted a couple of dozen hair salons and may have missed a dozen more. Across much of forgotten Japan, hairdressers are often the last small businesses left standing. Join me on a brief photographic odyssey around the barbers of Yubari.

This was my first (and singularly forlorn) example, in the tattered remains of the row of shops that ran alongside Shimizusawa station.

Some barely identify themselves as businesses: the only giveaway here was the discreet sign, which says “perm”. This was also in Shimizusawa.

Yet more Shimizusawa hair salons—I tallied eight in this neighborhood alone. The first inspired affection because it’s called Tom & Jerry, the second because I’m a Capricorn myself, while the last was most spruced of all I came across.

Heading out of Shimizusawa up along the Yubari river on Rte 452, where the recent population loss has been among the most dramatic, the salons grow humbler.

A fading but still rotating barber’s pole lures with unattainable elegance.

In Nanbu, the last surviving settlement up the Yubari river valley, two salons sit side by side.

Back in the main valley, the salons are generally smarter and more solid affairs; not a few have been built or rebuilt in recent years. What accounts for the profusion of cutters and permers? I ascribe it to an unbowed pride in personal appearance even in the most testing of times.

Nestling in a Shimizusawa valley is the largest Yubari estate of what is known as “improved housing”, thrown up—I believe by Hokutan as late as the mid-1970s—as an improvement over the old miners’ cottages.

Some of it has been torn down already, as is apparent from the lupinned patch in the last photo, some has been boarded up, and some remains inhabited. My first thought on encountering the estate was to thank the heavens that there are scarcely any hard drugs in Japan, although on later reflection there are so few teenagers, and the ones I encountered, trudging mostly alone home from school, were so downcast, that the presence or absence of drugs may not be an issue.

The estates were built without garages, which were erected around their fringes when motorization finally reached Yubari. I found them eerily, somberly beautiful.

Almost all the old wooden row housing that used to dominate the landscape has been bulldozed, but this patch, with a few old-timers still hanging on, remained on the border of Shimizusawa and Nanbu.

These in their turn were an improvement on the miners’ housing of the early days. The tiny row houses of yore were divided only by partitions that did not reach the roof and children slept in the wardrobe where the bedding was kept.

Further into Nanbu, the sign bids farewell to Konan Elementary, which closed on March 31, 2008. The school buildings are visible behind the slide and the toy digger. Yubari had 22 elementary schools, with over 20,000 students, nine junior high schools, and six high schools in 1960. By the end of 2010, it will have just one of each.

Chiyoda Junior High, still open when I took this shot, was one of the last to go; the sign announces the November 14, 2009, closing ceremony.

Most of the schools have been razed; one exception is the long derelict Shikanotani Elementary.

Yubari is dotted with memorial stones to commemorate fallen schools. In the hills above upper Yubari, this marker memorializes Higashiyama Elementary and Junior High. By some quirk of fate, the school’s outhouse remains standing.

At the long disused Minami Oyubari station, a snow-plough and carriage ensemble have been preserved. The face of the snow-plough is one of the most fearsome mechanical renditions I’ve ever encountered.

A poster in a carriage revealed that a train buff’s book on the Oyubari line was for sale at a store called Takahashi Shoten in the village. I decided to stop by to pick one up.

Takahashi Shoten was run by the long-widowed and lonely Takahashi san, 81 but with a mind still as bright as a bell. Eager to talk, she kindly invited me to the back of the shop for a cup of tea and a chat, but mournfully the reek of incontinence was overwhelming and I declined as politely as I could. She addressed me in the politest Japanese conceivable, which usually grates, but in her case charmed.

She showed me the aerial photos of the old Nanbu, visible above, and explained how the white-collar workers lived at the higher elevations along the main road and the miners at lower ones closer to the Yubari river. The photos show vast tracts of wooden row housing in serried ranks several hundred strong. All ploughed into the earth now, she said. If I was staying a little longer, she volunteered, there were still people in Nanbu who could take me into the mountains, where roads no longer led, to look at the real ruins, the mines of Yubari’s earliest days. It was a tempting offer indeed but as ever I was pressed for time. I promised her I would return someday to take her up.

She invited me to sign her guestbook, saying that a party of foreign cyclists had been through a month or so back. Indeed they had—a multinational group from countries as diverse as Argentina, France, and Switzerland. Just as you think you’re pioneering uncharted territory, I thought to myself, the rug is subtly swept from under you. I wonder what the cyclists made of Yubari.

“Where are you off to next”, she asked.
“I’m thinking of heading to Kashima”.
“Oh, Kashima’s been erased from the map”, she said off-handedly, which brought an inward chill.

She was wrong in the literal sense—Kashima was still etched onto my just purchased roadmap—but was later to be proven right in the metaphorical sense.

Takahashi san, who posed for the shot above only with the greatest of reluctance, came to symbolize for me the endurance and dignity of Yubari. How many people in the developed world in the modern era have been witness to such devastation of their community, with Nanbu’s population having fallen from 7,124 in 1985, when Yubari’s last mine, the Minami Oyubari, was still in operation, to 749 in September 2008.

I drove down to the riverside to see where the miners of Nanbu had once lived. The shops and cheap restaurants at the head of the tracts of housing were still mostly standing. A few had imploded from the weight of the snow, their rafters a collapsed wooden ribcage. A dog howled from not far off. In this valley of ghosts, someone was clinging on.

Yubari’s other massive civil engineering project is the construction of the Shuparo dam, which is just 150m downstream of the existing dam and which will raise the height of the reservoir behind it by a dozen meters.

On completion in 2013-2014, many things will be lost as the waters rise.

The Sangenkyo is a three-truss bridge built in 1958 for one of Yubari’s forestry railroads, which was partially submerged by the first dam. It saw only five years of active service, the line closing in 1963 as Japan’s forestry industry waned in the face of imported lumber. The bridge has become a local symbol for the elegance and distinctiveness of its design and for its closeness to the water, but the money is not there to save it and it will be partly dismantled before the completion of the new dam.

I searched along the road north of the reservoir for any vestiges of Kashima, home to some 20,000 people in 1960. Kashima lost much of its farmland when the first dam was completed in 1962 and the Mitsubishi Oyubari mine, the last and greatest reason for the town’s existence, closed in 1973. By the late 1980s it was a ghost town of a handful of hangers-on. Earth-moving trucks were thundering down the road in both directions at a pace of one a minute, making it difficult to park on the hard shoulder and head into the undergrowth. Most trails off both sides of the road were barred with no-entry chains. Recent photos by other visitors anyway suggest that the last rubble was carted away some years ago. Takahashi san was right—Kashima had been wiped from the map.

Aside from the slagheaps, this was the sole roadside clue to Kashima’s onetime existence, a forbidding intersection sign that proclaims “Model town: With everyone’s effort, we can drive away bad behavior”.

The land where Kashima stood, and the road from which this photo was taken, will soon sink beneath the ripples of the reservoir in summer and its snow-capped ice in winter. Official Japan makes much of the rights of former residents of the disputed Russian-occupied Northern Territories to return to the islands to visit the graves of their ancestors. Where were the graves of the ancestors of Kashima’s former residents, I wondered, and if they too are to be swallowed up as the water rises, will anyone in authority raise a finger of protest?

From the top of the Yubari river valley, I headed back over to the top of the main valley, where Yubari’s infamous tourist facilities are located.

Teimi was once the northernmost settlement in the main valley, with more than 3,000 people in 1960; it had been entirely depopulated by 1980, one of the first places to disappear, and replaced by a park. Yubari can no longer afford to keep the park open and the entranceways were roped off.

Elegant melon railings near the park caught my attention.

Melon Castle was built in 1985 to produce melon brandy, melon liqueurs, and other drink and is generally if bafflingly classified as a tourist facility.

This is virtually all there is to see, the labelling and capping room. The production line was silent when I was there, although the women in the adjacent souvenir shop told me that it had been running in the morning. The un-narrated video loop, which shows from a fixed angle the line in action, was playing on and on. Paired with the photo propped against the glass, which shows the same thing, it lent the scene a surreal and sinister air. There was nobody else about.

A poster for a sweet potato shochu proclaims Yubari’s confidence that “our town will revive full of smile in near future”.

Just below Melon Castle was a year-round melon cultivation center, where I suppose tourists were once able to get a hands-on feel for the melon-raising experience. The melonhouses were overrun with weeds.

The jewel in Yubari’s crown of tourist attractions was intended to have been the Coal History Village, which sprawls over the Upper Yubari valley where mines and marshalling yards once stood, the hillsides covered with mining communities. Construction started in 1978 and it was fully open by 1983, although attractions were added later. At it apogee, it was an eclectic, indeed incoherent, mishmash of nods to the past and the serious—the Coal Mine Museum and a giant Steam Locomotive Hall, for example—and the contemporary, entertaining and futuristic—a rollercoaster, water slides, go-karts, and a Robot Science Museum.

I wandered in through the boarded-up back entrance.

This is how it once looked—there’s Yu-chan again, hiding in the shadows. The rollercoaster has been dismantled and the Robot Science Museum was pulled down in 2008.

A steel and glass elevator inside the snake of the collapsing aquaslide, inexplicably named Kilimajaro, once ferried tourists to the top.

It was hard to grasp how the water features had entertained.

The weight of Yubari snow in winter was palpable at the go-kart ticket booth; at the top of the hairpin, was the hulk of a workshop that the planners had neglected to clear, just visible through the summer boughs.

Steam Locomotive Hall was everything I had hoped for: monstrous, kitsch, and melancholy. The village once had its own miniature railway—one of the railcars nestles in the shadows of the hall.

What on earth was the logic behind the tree ogre?

A lone girl clambered over the pink whale in the neglected play area. I was gradually losing light and vowed to return the next day.

The main parking lot was almost wholly devoid of vehicles. All told, the village may have capacity for some 2,500 cars and buses, implying peak attendance of around 10,000 people.

If anyone tries to sell me the Nihonjinron (“theory of the Japanese”) line again, tries to tell me that Japanese people can mystically read each other’s minds through “haragei” stomach arts and “ishin denshin” telepathy, I plan to proffer this picture as evidence to the contrary.

At this end of the parking lot, furthest from the Coal History Village, there was a bustle of activity. A caramel factory, run by a Hokkaido company called Hanabatake Bokujo (“Flower-field Ranch”), had recently opened up.

Was this the future for Yubari? Once inside, I was swiftly picking the gravel off my jaw.

My first thought, on recollecting my senses, was: “And if you treat them well, they lay two eggs a day”.

Oh Yubari, has it really come to this?

Looking at these photos now, it’s hard to believe that these were real people: the scenes look for all the world like a mural or a waxworks exhibition. Stripped of animation by the medium of photography, the scenes are also reminiscent of a nineteenth century tableaux vivant, with actors frozen in their poses.

Hanabatake Bokujo proclaims at the top of its homepage that it is a company that brings happiness to everyone: happiness to the people who eat its wares, happiness to the people who make its confections, and happiness to the communities where it sets up shop. I have my doubts.

Back in Upper Yubari proper, I was snapping away at some movie posters when I was hailed in impeccable West Coast English by Nao the melon-seller.

Nao had come back to Yubari after a decade in Hollywood, “another movie city”. We talked first about melons. He revealed that Japan Agriculture, the quasi-collectivist co-operative leviathan that dominates Japanese farming, controls every aspect of melon production in Yubari, down to determining which farmer’s melons go into the celebrated auction for the first melons of the season, in which Sapporo department stores vie to pay thousands of dollars a melon for the honor of hosting them. Why was I not surprised?

The brown boxes around the side of the store, he explained, were for shipment of humbler melons within the prefecture, the white ones for “export” to the rest of Japan.

We moved on to Hanabatake Bokujo. “Yes, it’s kind of a weird place, huh? Some people say it’s like a cult.” I murmured my agreement. “And the prices they charge! Did you see how much they want for a box of caramels?”

This was a bit rich, I felt, coming from someone who would later fleece me for Y6,000 ($67.50, GBP40) for a pair of his mid-range melons, but I let it ride.

I had to vacate the Hotel Shuparo that evening, as it was full, but the Mount Racey generously agreed to put me up for the Shuparo price. The hotels were bustling with families from the Sinosphere, where a Hokkaido boom is apparently underway—what did they make of Yubari—and teenagers on school trips. After checking in at the Racey (whose idea was that?), I sallied out onto the utterly deserted main drag in search of food. I had seen a lit red lantern, which in Japan signals a small eatery, earlier that evening.

On entry, the charmingly named Sake Doraku (“boozy debauch”) was packed, and moreover packed with youngish people, although it emptied out around nine (well, it was Friday night).

I took a set at the counter, staffed by the husband-and-wife owners and a chatty waitress. Next to me sat two men in their early thirties. One was bemoaning to the other about how he’d recently found an out-of-town girlfriend, but couldn’t see the relationship going anywhere, as there was no way she would come and live in Yubari.

Poor guy, poor Yubari, I muttered inwardly. Is the stigma of history really that great? So it would seem.

The men were loudly invited to talk to me but declined. Instead, the owners, the waitress and I engaged in long rambling conversation about the city, coal, and industrial policy in Japan and the UK. I suggested, perhaps naively, that bankruptcy had not had much of an affect on people’s lives. They demurred but struggled to pin down what had changed. There was much reminiscing about how Upper Yubari was once covered with tanju, the miners’ row houses, and vanished districts such as Fukuzumi, home to 6,000 in 1960 but noone now, and about how the rivers ran black and everything, but everything, was encased with a fine layer of soot.

We moved on to melons. The waitress took me aback by declaring that a state of civil war existed between the melon people and the coal people. When I expressed my surprise, she backed down, saying that it was more that the melon people keep themselves to themselves and don’t concern themselves with the problems of the coal people and, by extension, the city.

By and by the young men left and one of their seats taken by a man in his fifties, evidently something of a fixture, introduced to me as Yamamoto san.

In his youth, Yamamoto san had been a miner at the Mitsubishi Minami Oyubari colliery. On May 17, 1985, his shift had ended just half an hour before the methane gas explosion killed 62 of his fellow miners. Understandably, he decided that he was finished with mining and Yubari, and moved to Kyushu, at the other end of the country, where he spent the bulk of his working life in the hotels of the spa resort of Beppu. Never married, he had finally returned to Yubari to work as the maitre d’ at the Mount Racey. “It’s a sad and lonely old town”, he said of Yubari, and he too exuded the sadness and loneliness of his birthplace.


The next morning, I drifted briefly around Honcho again.

Yubari City Hall was built in the early 1970s, when Yubari still had as many as 70,000 people, and was the setting for much of the drama surrounding its bankruptcy. The most prominent civic relic of a different time, it is far too large for the city’s needs these days, but staying on must be the cheaper alternative.

Hard by city hall was the job center, like all job centers in Japan called “Hello Work”, followed by the name of the place. Surely it should have been punctuated differently: Hello??? Work?!? Yubari?!?!?

Hello Work was closed but helpfully the jobs on offer—or at least a selection—were posted outside the entrance.

There were 30 jobs at Hanabatake Bokujo, selling caramel at a shop next to the plant due to open imminently, offering Y850/hr ($9.50, GBP5.80). The contracts lasted just a few months, until the autumnal end of the tourist season, and it was uncertain if they would be renewed.

There were two jobs cutting up ingredients and dishwashing in Wakana, paying Y680/hr ($7.60, GBP4.60).

There were two jobs in civil engineering requiring experience in Nanba paying Y8,000/day ($90, GBP55).

There was one job in construction machinery sales in Minami Shimizusawa paying Y200,000/month ($2,250, GBP1,400).

The cost of living in Yubari is low, but even so, these are not the sort of wages on which you can do much more than eat and pay your utility bills, let alone have a vacation, say, or raise a family.

An exhibit at the Coal Mine Museum records the monthly salary of a miner in 1977 as Y150,000—and Japan has by no means been free of inflation since—and by the 1980s, Suzanne Culter, in Managing Decline: Japan’s Coal Industry Restructuring and Community Response, a sociological study largely set in Yubari, reports that some of the last surviving miners were earning close to Y500,000 a month.

I returned to the Coal History Village, this time from the orthodox approach instead of sneaking in from the rear, and paid my Y1,900 admission charge, to be greeted by Yu-chan.

There were only three facilities left open: the Coal History Museum, the Coal Culture Hall, and the Yubari Hall of Fossils.

Restaurant Bokyo was one of the first of the village’s operations to start up. I was fast developing a very soft spot for the Hokkaido architectural vernacular of the late 1970s. Such a shame that, despite the pincushions of neatly upstacked chairs waiting expectantly, noone will ever dine there again.

Finally I reached the faux mine of the Coal Mine Museum.

Steeped in the past of Yubari as I was rapidly becoming, the museum was fascinating; the largely un-unionized and pacific fights in the 1980s by the miners to save the Hokutan New Mine and then the Minami Oyubari Mine after their explosions made their owners want to wash their coal-dusted hands of them, as recounted by photos and newspaper articles, were gut-wrenching.

Yubari forced me ask myself repeatedly why I was so interested in Japan’s coal-mining past when I had had no particular interest and took no particular side as a teenager in the epic Coal Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985 in the UK.

I think the answers are twofold: first, this is a “what if?” question, and not entirely helpful. What if I had been 40 in 1984 and not a teen? What if, instead of having spent most of my adult life in Japan (gulp), I had spent it in the UK? I might have developed a fascination with the pit communities of Yorkshire or the Rhondda, it’s not completely improbable.

Second, it’s the sheer violence and fleetingness of what Yubari went through that intrigues me—it flourished its first half-century and then collapsed into almost nothing in its second. The same cannot really be said for coalmining towns in the UK or elsewhere in the developed world.

Adjacent to the museum was the very outcrop of coal whose discovery in 1888 led to the start of mining in Yubari four years later.

I surveyed the verdant valley hillsides with renewed astonishment that they were once spirited pit communities and made my way up to one hillside district, Shako, in search of vestiges of the past, in the course of which I stumbled across the creepiest of all Yubari’s one-time tourist attractions.

The shrine, if once it had a name, was now anonymous; there was no obvious means of unearthing any background. All I could tell was that some of the lanterns dated to the early 1990s. Then much later I read this passage in Suzanne Culter’s book and it all clicked.

The mayor and his city administration turned out one new plan after another. If a project failed, they tore it down and began again. When tourists would not climb the steep staircase to pay their respects to the giant Kannon (goddess of mercy) statue perched at the top of the Honcho mountain, an elevator car was installed. When the added technology did nothing to improve attendance, the statue was sold and hauled away, and new plans were begun for the vacant land.

The spookiness of the site was amplified by its surroundings, with long relinquished houses reverting to woodland.

I ambled down the main valley again, exploring the byways. Many mine managers made their homes in Shikanotani; even today that legacy is apparent, as there are more newish detached houses than anywhere else in Yubari. Its village green and church gave it an almost English feel.

The district was also home to the Shikanotani Club, built by Hokutan in 1913 for mine executives and visiting dignitaries, including the Emperor, who stayed in 1954. It closed in 1982 and was sold to the city, ultimately reopening as a memorial hall, Rokumeikan, in 1994 but closing following bankruptcy in 2008.

It was impossible to get any closer but there is an exhaustive slideshow of the remarkable interior here.

Shikanotani was not entirely bereft of ruins: this is the former Hokutan Coal Analysis Office.

I wended my way back up to the hotel. Not wanting to dine at the same place twice, I was rapidly running out of restaurant options. I found Fukukaisen, a sushi and robatayaki (tableside grill) joint in Honcho, but things got off on the wrong foot with the proprietors when I blundered in without taking off my shoes, a sophomore slip.

I was, and remained, the only customer (well, it was Saturday night).


I had one last stop the next morning before leaving Yubari: The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness Memorial Plaza.

The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness is a gem of a 1977 Ken Takakura road movie based on a short story by US journalist Pete Hamill, the story also regrettably being the inspiration for the 1973 #1 hit by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. Directed by Yoji Yamada, veteran of the Tora-san movie franchise we encountered earlier and regarded by some critics as the pinnacle of his career, the film was garlanded with eight prizes at Japan’s first ever Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best actor, and has recently been remade in the US starring William Hurt.

The plot is straightforward: a young couple who have just met the fall in with a man, Ken Takakura, just out of jail for a street brawl that led to the death of a minor yakuza thug, on his way back to Yubari to see if his young wife is still single and waiting for him. If you know the song, you know how the movie ends; the magic comes from Ken Takakura’s inner battles between swagger and frailty.

This is the set for the climax of the movie, a row of miners’ cottages, preserved in aspic. Inside one of the two Mazdas used in the film is surrounded by countless thousands of yellow Post-it notes covering every available surface like a swarm butterflies, on which the hopes and dreams of visitors have been biro scrawled, in a modern-day variant of the ema votive tablets found at conventional shrines.

Turning east on Rte 274, I paused to pick up some melon-laced morsels for my office colleagues and then again, one last time, at the city limits.

Let’s meet again in Yubari, the sign suggests. Oh yes, Yubari, let’s.