The Future of Local Communities in Japan - Risks and Opportunities in the Face of Multiple Challenges
Japan’s rural and semi-urban peripheries confront numerous challenges. Demographic shifts and depopulation, structural change due to globalization and technical development, and not least the task of climate protection including the increased use of renewable energy sources all have particularly grave implications in the non-metropolitan regions. In response, the socio-economic challenges are receiving a high political priority under the current Abe administration, as evidenced by the various economic and political initiatives bundled under the slogan “regional revitalization” (chihō sōsei, 地方創生).
The projects undertaken under this major research theme analyze how local actors at the municipal level (shichōson, 市町村) outside the metropolitan regions cope with the risks and opportunities arising from the multiple challenges mentioned above, and what results they are achieving. Moreover, through grounded, comparative research across several communities, the projects take into account local differences in initial conditions and problem constellations.
Individual projects apply the leading research question to different topical areas (see below) combining three interrelated levels of analysis.
Institutions: A complex institutional framework governs the relations between the central and the local level of administration as well as between local actors. Over the past twenty years, a number of macro-institutional shifts occurred that partly intensified the structural problems in regional Japan, while also opening up new spaces for local agency. How, by whom and to what extent these opportunities are being seized is conditioned by specific local structures, norms and social practices. To this end, institutional-level analysis provides key insight into the dynamics that shape the risks and opportunities in local communities.
Actors: Specific local conditions, interest constellations and actor configurations evoke different strategies and approaches in addressing the challenges mentioned above. Accordingly, the level and the effectiveness of local political and economic initiatives as well as the role and the influence of various interest groups and civic engagement can be expected to vary across localities. As a result, comparative analysis of the different kinds of actors and their contexts can highlight the similarities and differences across various communities.
Discourses: Idealized and stereotypical notions of rurality, community and social life shape the self-conception of local actors and serve as references in the legitimization of political action and the mobilization of special interests. They are constructed, handed down and modified through narratives. The implied interpretative frames vary across localities and social groups and are constantly competing for universal acceptance. Discourse-level analysis thus offers insights into the dynamic processes of social, political, and ideological narrative constructions of Japan’s local communities.
Besides a review of academic literature and analyses of media discourses, socio-economic indicators, legal frameworks and political processes, the individual projects all include qualitative case studies based on detailed, on-the-ground field research.
Moreover, with its focus on the local level, the major research theme aims for a more fine-grained understanding of the socio-economic and political transformation processes occurring in Japan’s regions. This approach offers several advantages:
- Case studies at the local level allow for a more detailed analysis of the relevant local stakeholders, their micro-strategies, and interactions.
- This helps us to better account for the complexity resulting from the simultaneity and interdependence of the various challenges.
- Initial conditions, severity of issues, sought-for solutions and future prospects all vary considerably across local communities. Such variety is often overlooked when analyzing Japan’s challenges at the aggregate national level.
- The variety of local conditions allows for comparative and multivariate analyses. Both are essential for enhancing our understanding of the importance played by the specifics of local conditions and for finding out to what extent outcomes can be generalized.