Photographer kdynamic writes: “This is the Japan that is disappearing. Everyone in these towns is old. All the young people leave.”

Tell us if this sounds familiar:

National chain department stores have opened on the edge of town. The new stores have cheaper prices than the local merchants downtown, so shoppers flock to the edge of town rather than Main Street. The stores downtown begin to suffer and then they close. Meanwhile, the factories in town face competition from low-cost producers in other countries. Unable to compete, the local manufacturers close. With few opportunities available, young people flee the small town for the larger cities.

So goes a description of rural Japan (not rural America) in the New York Times. While the big cities in Japan are flourishing, writes the Times’ Martin Fackler, in rural parts of the country, “downtowns have emptied and factories have closed, and an exodus to Tokyo of youths seeking jobs has left behind towns that are predominantly for the elderly. There is widespread concern here that these changes are turning Japan into a nation divided into winners and losers, split geographically between prosperous cities and the depressed rural areas.”

The collapse of the rural Japanese economy has had electoral consequences in that country. “Angry rural voters handed the Liberal Democrats a crushing defeat in elections for the upper house of Parliament,” Fackler wrote. “This rural discontent has helped the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which made closing Japan’s regional economic gaps the central plank of its campaign.”

rural japan

Main street in Nanbu Town.
Photo: Mtyto

Elections do have consequences, so in early October, Yasuo Fukudo, Japan’s new prime minister, made a vow to aid rural communities — though he did say the help would come in further economic reforms, not increased government spending. Meanwhile, however, a building slump in Japan is expected to hit rural areas particularly hard.

Fackler reports that American-style liberalization is blamed for the decline of rural communities. Some rural residents believe open markets are the cause of the widening gap in the economies of rural and urban Japan.

The disputes that have arisen in Japan will be familiar to many living in rural America. Town merchants in Noshiro are opposing a Tokyo-based shopping center going up outside of town. “The notion that a company, and particularly one from near Tokyo, can come in and compete with their businesses runs against the grain in rural communities like this one, where a tradition of harmonious coexistence has made the creation of economic winners and losers abhorrent,” Fackler wrote. “”˜This is the first time that I’ve seen people here so up in arms,’ said Munenori Kitagawa, 64, owner of a women’s clothing store he inherited from his father. Mr. Kitagawa opposes the mall. “˜We are fighting for our survival,’ he said.”

The impact of free trade is just now becoming a part of the debate in the U.S. presidential election. Michael Stumo, a Nebraska attorney and free-trade opponent, notes that “the Presidential campaign is featuring trade as never before.” Stumo runs down the Democratic candidates’ positions on trade at a recent debate on National Public Radio in this article for tradereform.org.

It’s not at all clear, however, that economic concerns will move the rural vote in the United States. Although the Washington Post has shown U.S. rural development programs to be in disarray, the issue of what constitutes a sound rural strategy hasn’t progressed in this campaign much beyond support for ethanol, increased broadband and changes in the farm bill.

The issue in Japan is whether a country should tolerate increasing economic inequality between rural and urban. It’s an issue that changed an election in that country.

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