That summer feeling
Is gonna fly
Always try and keep the feeling inside
Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning
And magic eyes to read between the lines
Teenage Fanclub, Sparky’s Dream, 1995
Geologically, Iida is a place where the bedrock of life’s banalities lies much closer to the earthen surface of works and days than it does in the painted face of the big smoke, which makes her a more honest, death-embracing locus, but she was not somewhere I could hold on to for very long. I treat Iida nonetheless as my furusato hometown, though no parents, siblings, or relatives wait for me there, and truth be told I’m a neglectful lover, rarely returning now. It was with a touch of trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation from Old Bill, fellow Withnail & I obsessive, connoisseur like me of quality knobs (this one a Bakelite beauty from Sato Parts),
electronics tinkerer extraordinaire,
self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne (aka 凛, Rin, “dignified”) and Hannah (aka 花, Hana, “flower”) to visit for a sultry September weekend.
We set off on a road tripette in Bill’s lesbian-beloved Subaru Forester, with Lynne, buried in a book, on the back seat. This being rural Japan—and Nagano Prefecture in particular, I can’t help but feel—we were soon in the realm of aerial roadways to heaven
to absolutely nowhere at all.
There’s something of a cheap optical illusion and something crassly Freudian about the tunnel and the bridge. Unoriginally, I want to scrawl under the photos in a “steady, painstaking, artificial script”, “Ceci n’est pas une rue”, and be rewarded for my efforts years later with an explicatory and adulatory essay by some soixante-huitard philosopher replete with talk of unraveled calligrams and negations multiplying themselves. To me, at least, the bridge is violent, the hillside vulnerable; the tunnel, its mirror image, is patient, the river ready to be bridged. As they are near neighbors, separated by only a few dales and folds, the bridge and the tunnel could perhaps get it together on an Internet dating site for large ferroconcrete structures.
To return to the mundane: all three form part of what one day, my son, my daughter, will be the San’en Nanshin Expressway, a 100km link between Iida in the interior and Hamamatsu on the coast. The project was given the green light back in 1983; the aerial interchange and the bridge have been in a state of Viagric erection since 1994; only a dozen or so kilometers have so far been completed; much of the rest is scheduled for completion in 2016 or after; and a few crucial sections have no schedule for construction at all, which means they are unlikely to be completed until the mid-2020s, fully four decades after the project left the drawing board of some faceless committee. As a friend loves to say, in Japan we take the long view. The expressway traverses terrain that is about as hostile to the dreams of road-builders as any on the planet, as hereabouts the Japan Median Tectonic Line meets the Fossa Magna, with the trickiest sections costing around $30mn a kilometer and the bill for the whole expressway set to come in somewhere north of $2bn. The leisurely construction schedule testifies both to the unimportance of the road—denizens of Iida can already access Nagoya in two hours and Tokyo in four—and pinched budgets for megaprojects such as this.
The road’s boosters, which encompass the whole of “official Japan” from the Ministry of Concrete—sorry, I’ll read that again, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport—on down, make claims for it alternately nebulous and suffused with the finicky precision of the bureaucrat: of the Iida portion, completion will mean that 88% of outlying towns and villages will be able to reach the city center by car in the event of rainfall of 100mm or more (which must occur, ooh, half a dozen times a year), up from 71% currently! And for this you want me to pay $2bn? Opposition to the road is inchoate, disorganized, confined to the odd squawk of a taxpayer on obscure bulletin boards. Make no mistake, my son, my daughter: the men from the ministry (no women there) will have their way, the bulldozers and pile-drivers and excavators will prevail, bridge will meet tunnel (and maybe fall in love), the San’en Nanshin Expressway will be built.
Our destination was the hundred-soul hamlet of Shimoguri, fancifully known as “the Tyrol of Japan”, the last stutter of civilization in the Southern Alps before boars and eagles and bears take the place of humans at the apex of the food chain, seen fragmentarily here looking north toward the 3,000m peaks of the Akaishi Mountains.
One blogger, something of an authority on out-of-the-way crannies, calls Shimoguri “the backwoods at the back of beyond” (僻地の中の僻地), and once, before the arrival of the roads—the good roads—in the late 1960s, it might have been. Now it is scarcely an hour from the center of Iida and indeed, courtesy of a 2005 municipal amalgamation, lies within its precincts. So the city stretches its claws out into the country. Nor is it, as he claims, “Japan’s last hidden spot” (日本の最後の秘境), if such a chimera exists: tourists far outnumbered locals when we were there. Still, it’s an otherworldly place, accessible only up and down and around a vertiginous single-track lane 10km long, with fields of cabbage and potato and buckwheat so steep—up to 38 degrees steep—that they have to be tilled from above to stop the soil slipping irrecoverably down the slopes.
We traipsed out through a sad stand of plantation pines, shot through with the slenderest bolts of amber and rapacity, dead to birdsong and itself, for the money shot—our rapacity—of Shimoguri in the glaresquint sunlight.
Architecturally no gem, largely rebuilt after the tarmac was laid, Shimoguri looks best from afar, though it does have some top sheds, the plank-knots a Braille from tree to forester.
Humanity has been fossicking around these valleys for millennia, the archaeological record shows, the earliest modern trace an inscription on a temple bell from 1460. But Shimoguri, school-less since 1980, is locked in a bloody bout with custom and its trainer, time, a bout it is all but bound to lose this coming century.
On the way back, we detoured to the feted baby village of Shimojo. I’d told Shinako we would.
“I hear the birthrate’s really high there.”
“Yeah, but there aren’t any jobs, so everyone has to commute into Iida.”
Guess I wasn’t the only hard-boiled straight-talker in town.
Overheated hacks prone to hyperbole have showered garlands on Shimojo, calling it “the miracle village” (奇跡の村), “a model municipality” (モデル自治体), and “the village where Japan’s future can be seen” (日本の未来が見える村). It’s attracted praise from across the ideological spectrum, from the Japan Communist Party to the right-leaning Nikkei BP, and even won a hat-tip from The Economist in its latest special feature on Japan in November 2010. What’s all the fuss about? Simply this: as the nation’s birthrate cratered to an all-time low of 1.26 in 2005, Shimojo’s was rising, to 2.04 on average between 2003 and 2006, tantalizingly close to the replacement rate and as high as anywhere on mainland Japan. (And yes, the corollary is that not a single municipality on the mainland then had a birthrate above the replacement rate).
Shimojo’s path to celebrity status begins back in 1992, with the election as mayor of one Kihei Ito, a gas station owner, who professed himself appalled by the sloth and inefficiency he uncovered in the village administration. To instill in the flaccid pen-pushers the rigors of the private-sector ethos, so the party line goes, he packed them off to wait on customers at a home improvement center in Iida, humiliating them with their dismal sales performance in comparison with regular employees. To cut spending, the bureaucracy was allowed to wither on the vine through natural attrition, ultimately reducing the number of officials per 1,000 head of population to half the national average and the bill for their salaries by a third from the peak. To free the village from the vicious debt cycle of subsidies (補助) paid for through the issuance of muni bonds (地方債) paid for in turn by tax grants from the state (交付税), Shimojo forewent 1990s luxuries such as the installation of a full underground sewage system, opting instead for much cheaper septic tanks. In a bid to further prune expenditures, one that carries the firm smack of Soviet collectivism, Mayor Ito had his villagers do their own road repairs and build their own roads, especially the farmer’s tracks that lattice the paddies, with the council providing only the cost of materials.
All this thrift was to transform the village’s finances. Bear with me on a brief geeky foray into the intricacies: in 2009, there were 1,749 municipalities across the nation, and lacking a lucrative tax base of the sort provided by, say, the headquarters of a major corporation, Shimojo remains dependent on tax grants from the state, ranking a lowly 1,489 nationally in its fiscal strength index (財政力指数), a measure of a local authority’s own revenue raising ability. But by recurring expense ratio (経常収支比率, very roughly fiscal resources allocated to recurring expenses divided by recurring fiscal resources), a metric of a local authority’s fiscal flexibility, Shimojo ranked seventh nationwide, and by bond expense ratio (実質公債費比率, very roughly muni bond servicing costs divided by general fiscal resources), Shimojo ranked an astounding fourth, behind only three central Tokyo wards.
With the money saved, Mayor Ito set about on phase two of his grand scheme, the audacious “village population doubling plan” (村民倍増計画), which to any Japanese of a certain age would carry overtones of the 1960 “income doubling plan” (所得倍増計画) of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, achieved in a mere seven years. Step one was to build cumbersomely named “housing to promote the permanent residence of young people” (若者定住促進住宅). The first three-storey, twelve-unit block went up in 1997, but by Mayor Ito’s account, he slipped up in accepting a state subsidy of half the cost of construction, a subsidy that came with all sorts of inconvenient notions of justice and fairness attached: the right to live in the apartments was decided by lottery and a number of them had to be set aside for low-income families. Well, that was sure to bring in all sorts of undesirables! The good mayor was careful to build the next nine blocks with the village’s money alone, so he could attract only “quality young people” (質のいい若者), ones willing to participate in extra-curricular activities such as the volunteer fire-brigade and village events in that deliciously voluntary-compulsory way I long ago pinpointed as a defining national characteristic.
Notwithstanding the onerous free-time obligations, the mayor’s offer was for many too good to refuse—spanking new 63 square meter (680 square feet) two-bedroom apartments with two parking spaces for Y35,000 ($450) a month, half what one would cost in neighboring Iida, and the applications flooded in. There was more pro-natalist largesse on the way, too: a 20% cut in kindergarten fees, a children’s library with some 7,000 volumes, and free healthcare at any hospital in Japan up to the last year of junior high school. “It’s great,” one young mother of two told the reporter from Akahata (“Red Flag”), the Japan Communist Party rag, in 2005, “We can take the kids to hospital even if they’ve just got the sniffles”, a comment sure to strike unintended fear into the hearts of the opponents of unmetered medicine everywhere. The population of the village, which had peaked in 1950 at around 6,500 and fallen to a low of 3,859 in 1990, began to inch higher, reaching 4,241 in 2006. Mayor Ito had done it! Earnest delegations poured in from every corner of the land—250 alone in the three years to 2009—to study the “miracle village”. It’s impossible to know precisely what lessons they took away, but the national birthrate began to crawl like a toddler higher off the 2005 low, and Shimojo in its own infant way may be fractionally responsible.
We parked up outside one of the breeder blocks, a nondescript dun-colored slab with no trace of the rustic that could have fallen off the drawing-board of any architectural practice in Japan after an hour of slipshod draughtsmanship. While there were no real live children around—perhaps they were at hospital with the sniffles—there were at least traces of them, in the shape of plastic toys in bright made-in-China primary colors stacked under stairwells. A lightly modded Chevy Astro van spoke of the presence of members of the Yankee subcult, renowned for their proclivity to procreate early and frequently (and often in the van), in contradistinction to most of the rest of the nation, which procreates, if at all, little and late. In retrospect, knowing what I do now of the Shimojo story, the block had the stench of the factory farm about it, the odor of the illiberal conceits that lie behind all such crudely gerrymandered attempts to manipulate populations up or down, and, in Mayor Ito’s welcome mat laid out only at the squeaky clean feet of “quality young people”, just the faintest trace of eugenics.
Of late though, some of the sheen seems to have come off the mayor’s great experiment. The population is on the slide again, down to 4,105 as of November 1, and the village website lets on that a few of its apartments are vacant and available to “married men” (妻帯者, itself a superbly gendered expression, combining characters for “wife”, “bind”, and “person”). Sexual minorities, of course, need not apply, though they would no doubt return the insult, had they the grotesque misfortune to be born in Shimojo, by fleeing at the earliest opportunity. It’s not hard to discern what lies behind the flagging of the baby revolution: the village has in essence been filching the youth of Iida, which itself finds it has fewer and fewer of them, due to a demographic profile that’s been described as “waistless” (寸胴型)—missing the middle—and only so many of them will accept the trade-off between cheap accommodation and soporific, stultifying, and claustrophobic village life under Mayor Ito’s paternalist eye.
What worlds can we see in Shimojo’s grain of sand? Three, I think. The first is that the village was lucky to have the autonomy to do what it did. The great Heisei merger boom slashed the number of villages nationwide from 568 in 1999 to 184 today, of which a staggering fifth (35) are in Nagano, even though it accounts for less than 2% of the population, testimony maybe to a stubbornly independent local streak. The second is that there exists across swathes of primarily rural but also urban Japan both a dyed-in-the-bone conservatism, here to be seen in the disrespect paid to the bureaucratic clerisy, and—ignoring the contradictions for a moment—an almost Tea Partyesque resistance to state (federal, in a US context) “interference”. The third is that however valiantly Mayor Ito and his village have fought against population decline, its forces are destined to overwhelm them, not merely because they are 4,000 pitted against 128 million, but because all the fevered construction of an environment purportedly friendly to childrearing misses the larger point, which is that until hiring is more equal in every regard, workplace regimens are redesigned from the ground up around the needs of working mothers, and women’s careers are not deep-sixed by childbirth, there will be no baby-strike solution in sight. Not something an old duffer oyaji like Mayor Ito could be expected to comprehend.
En route home, we passed Iida City Hospital.
“That’s where I’m going to die.” From others’ mouths this would have come with the tonally different melancholies of the honorable exile, the ambiguous émigré, the despicable expatriate.
“No, no,” I strove to reassure him. “I’m sure a clean swift stroke will get you in your bed.”
A little later, I gestured sweepingly at a clatter of drive-ins, superstores, and car dealers on the main suburban drag.
“You know, I don’t remember this in the slightest.”
“Perhaps there really is a God after all.”
We headed back to Bill’s own Iida satellite village, Toyo’oka (population 6,797), whose much-mocked (by me) motto is “early to bed, early to rise, breakfast”. Perhaps it sounds better in Japanese: hayane, hayaoki, asagohan. Ah, no. There are few distractions to ruffle the determinedly diurnal lifestyle to which the motto exhorts the populace: a beer or two and banter to warm up the evening at a snakku bar, some late-night slapstick on TV, or perhaps a midnight loiter on the aluminum bench by the ashtray at one of the two 24/7 convenience stores.
I delved into the statistics of disruption: there were 16 traffic accidents reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, one roughly every three weeks, most of which will have been no more than fender-benders. There were 23 crimes reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, some of which at least will have been of the order of radishes pilfered from a field, 33.73 incidents per 10,000 people, ranking the village 1,534th out of 1,749 municipalities (lower is safer) in a fierce contest for uncriminality in which several municipalities went entirely crime-free.
Nevertheless, Toyo’oka has a permanently staffed police substation (豊丘村警察官駐在所), to which I believe three constables are assigned, giving each one roughly one crime every six weeks to investigate. The average annual pay of a Japanese police officer was Y7.7mn (almost exactly US$100,000 at the current rate) in 2007, so with overheads it is fair to assume that it costs very roughly $500,000 a year to investigate the two crimes a month that plague Toyo’oka.
There are a quarter of a million stalwart women and (mostly) men in the thin blue line keeping us from anarchy across the nation, one for every 500 people, so the vipers’ nest of vice and sin that is Iida (population 104,668) has perhaps 200 officers (and an annual wage bill of around US$20mn). As far as I can tell, ten crimes were logged in the Iida police blotter in November this year: five thefts of bags, purses, or cash from cars, two burglaries in which cash was stolen, a theft of a moped, a theft of a pair of gloves from an office, and a theft of a grating from a “facility”. Small wonder, then, that out in the provinces more than 10 hopefuls vie for every police officer post.
The terrible tranquility engendered by the lust for order makes the Ina valley a wonderfully untroubling and untroubled place to raise The Mikan Sisters.
But as with everything, there is a quid pro quo. A wag once described the then faded-to-scruffy English seaside resort of Brighton as a place that “always looks as if it is about to help police with their enquiries”. Well, behind the privet hedge, Iida is the hand twitching the net curtains at the window with the neighborhood watch sticker, ready to turn in the hoodlum likes of Brighton to the authorities at the first hint of trouble.
Bill does his best to puncture the boredom of smugness with tacks of wit. He took a dubious phrase from a previous post of mine, “chapatsu slappers” (women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair), shortened and Japanesed it to “chappa surappa”, and taught it to his daughters, who now with glee will point to some hapless stiletto-heeled, bustiered, and chestnut-locked lass and shout in unison in their perfectly modulated Japanese, “Are wa chappa surappa?” Is that a tart? No one understands, though, and the tranquility seeps back to stifle once more.
You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
With its mizuhiki cord craftwork and its puppet festival, Iida is not short of cuckoo clocks of its own. While the relationship between crime (presence or absence thereof) and culture (presence or absence thereof) is no doubt not as easily mappable as the words Orson Welles put into the mouth of Harry Lime in The Third Man imply, it’s fair to say that the cafés of Iida do not hum to the sound of aspiring scriptwriters crafting screenplays on their laptops, that the bars of Iida do not throng with bien-pensant wannabes deep in debate over polymorphous perversity (“No, no! Gender is a performative construct!”), the role of crocodiles in the Mesozoic ecosystem, or the proof of the Poincaré conjecture, fair to say that the air of Iida is not febrile with intellectual ferment.
We girded ourselves with barrel-bottom sake for “a brief nocturnal sample of the delights of Iida’s nearly extinct nightlife.” I was keen to renew my acquaintance with Cock,
a subterranean izakaya pub offering “multinational home cooking”, whose matchbox I treasure, much frequented by the in-crowd long ago, but we found its space had been usurped in 2006 by a hip-hop emporium, Club Rulez, so there was to be no Cock for us in Iida that night.
We dined on butter and batter with an old mutual friend in an almost chic restaurant whose other patrons, without exception, were Japanese men with Filipina consorts. The talk was of shrinking pay packets and shrinking enrolments, old bangers bought on the never-never, and diminished expectations—harsher winds blowing in the heartland.
(to be continued)