Low Subsidies, Aging Plague Rural Japan

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007; 2:04 PM

YUBARI, Japan -- When the last coal mine in Yubari closed down in 1990, city elders thought pumping tax money into an amusement park, hall of fossils, ski resort and robot museum would keep this remote snowbound town of 13,000 people afloat and on the map.

More than a decade and a half later, Yubari is still in the headlines _ but for all the wrong reasons.

Instead of drawing the coveted tourists, the investments bankrupt the city and drew nationwide ridicule. They also forced an already downtrodden backwater to embrace a severe cost-cutting scheme to lay off half the city's employees, slash public salaries, shut down schools and even padlock public toilets.

Mayor Kenji Goto is quick to concede city fathers went overboard with some of the ideas that left Yubari buried in a half-billion dollars of debt. Yet Yubari, and countless towns like it, are also hapless victims, he insists.

Japan's aging population and new efforts to stanch a long-unquestioned flood of public subsidies are turning swaths of the country's hinterlands into destitute ghost towns. The result is an increasingly sensitive rift between the booming big cities that have ridden Japan's economic revival, centered on gains in high tech industries and manufacturers that can compete globally, and the rural areas left behind.

"If it continues like this, the gap will keep getting bigger," Goto says. "We can't say it's a recovery for the whole country if only the cities are prospering. We don't feel the economy is improving at all."

One look at Yubari proves Goto's point.

Chest-high snow barricades the doors of the shuttered shops lining a deserted downtown wedged between two mountains. Forlorn billboards for movie classics like "East of Eden" advertise the town's now-defunct film festival.

Just up the valley lurk the roller coaster, Ferris wheel, robot museum and other tourist traps that were envisioned as saving the city. Long abandoned because of lack of funds, the projects now lie under blankets of winter powder.

Troubles began for Yubari, in Japan's isolated far north, when its mining industry gasped its last in the early 1990s.

Then-Mayor Tetsuji Nakata, tried to reinvent the town under the slogan "From Coal Mines to Tourism." In came countless taxpayer-funded projects, including two hotels, a coal museum, golf course and museum of steam locomotives. Not to mention the so-called "Melon Castle" that makes muskmelon liqueur.

There was even an international film festival, which later won tribute in Quentin Tarantino's hit movie "Kill Bill" in the form of its Japanese schoolgirl assassin, Gogo Yubari.

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