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Shaping the Future of Japan: The Future Cities Initiative & Creative Depopulation

September 15, 2017

As our planet entered the 21st century, humanity had solved a number of problems that plagued our ancestors. However, success came with consequences. We face many new challenges including climate change, rapidly aging societies, and resource constraints. Do we have the capacity to solve these problems? How should leaders even approach such large and complex issues?

One approach has been by the United Nations (UN) and its 193 Member States with the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a set of 17 "Global Goals" with a further with 169 targets, that are being led by the UN in collaboration with governments and global civil society.

For the past few years, Japan in particular has been actively addressing a number of these Global Goals. The country is already facing the types of modern challenges that other countries will or still confront in the future.

  • Decreasing birth rate
  • Rapid aging of its population
  • Urban congestion
  • Environmental challenges
  • Revitalizing economies and societies
  • Climate change
  • Rural depopulation

Japanese cities have started to address these and other SDGs via two distinct approaches. The first is a nationally instituted top-down set of policies and initiatives. These policies seek to establish sustainable social and economic systems with a vibrant and engaged populace. The second approach is a grassroots, bottom-up reframing of rural areas in an effort to stem the flow of young workers to the cities.

Approach #1: Future City Yokohama: Mitigating Modern Urban Challenges

Japan is now seven years into its ‘Future Cities Initiative’ (FCI) which has sought to create cities that enhance their environmental, social, and economic value through innovation. The key aspects of the FCI are:

  • Environment
  • Aging
  • Economic growth
  • International diffusion
  • Local revitalization

Over the past 150 years, Yokohama has battled many challenges on its path to becoming Japan's second largest city, with a population of around 3.7 million (2017) .

Yokohama will continue to face, and overcome, new challenges like a rapidly aging society, balancing lifestyle quality with urban density, and energy concerns (due in part to the Great East Japan Earthquake). The city has launched a variety of Future City Initiatives that will help it develop sustainably by focusing on the strengths of its local characteristics and attractiveness. The following are three key initiatives that they have undertaken.

1.Yokohama Smart City Project (YSCP)

Yokohama City has been collaborating with several private companies to optimize energy supply through numerous projects including greater utilization of solar panels (photovoltaics) and electric vehicles.

2.Sustainable Residential Zone Models

Yokohama City is promoting projects in four model districts with the knowledge and successes to be shared throughout the city. For example, Yokohama City is attempting to alleviate social challenges in residential suburbs by ensuring an ample supply of diverse homes (such as elderly care residences) and supporting energy conservation and carbon reduction.

3. Cooperation Domestically and with Other International Organizations

Yokohama City shares key information on advanced initiatives and town development while advancing cooperation with companies and local governments both domestically and abroad. This is related to the larger efforts by the Japan Civil Society Network's website to facilitate smooth communication between civil society and governmental policymakers.


Yokohama City has concluded a smart city energy management cooperation agreement with Fuji City, in Shizuoka Prefecture. It has also been providing support to the local governments of Aizuwakamatsu City in Fukushima Prefecture and Ishinomaki City and Yamamoto Town in Miyagi Prefecture that have been recovering from the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011).


Yokohama City contributes its advanced knowledge to a number of international development networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Initiative, ICLEI Local governments for sustainability and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It also played an important role in the development of Bangkok's climate change master plan which covered five major areas:

  1. Environmentally Sustainable Transport
  2. Energy Efficiency and Alternative Energy
  3. Efficient Solid Waste Management and Waste Water Treatment
  4. Urban Green Planning
  5. Adaptation Planning

Yokohama City, along with the other nine designated Future Cities of Japan such as Kashima City, Toyama City and City of Kitakyushu, has been making steady progress dealing with environmental, societal, and demographic challenges. On the other side of the equation, several rural municipalities have been taking their own unique approaches to encourage local revitalization and economic growth.

Approach #2: Grassroots rural revival in Kamiyama Town:

Japan's rural towns are also facing a demographic crisis. More and more young Japanese workers move to cities and threaten the sustainability of their small towns. However, in Tokushima Prefecture on the farming island of Shikoku, they have found success with their ‘creative depopulation’ strategy—a term coined by Japanese non-profit Green Valley Inc. This strategy accepts the reality of depopulation in rural areas and pursues strategies to bring their demographic profile back onto a sustainable path by attracting young, creative workers. Through creative depopulation, the heavily wooded town of Kamiyama in Tokushima was able to achieve modest population growth in 2011, while most other rural areas experienced depopulation.

Tokushima Prefecture has also helped create a favorable business environment for domestic companies, where young creative workers can embrace a working style with a greater focus on work-life balance and connection with nature. It did so by installing an optical fiber network throughout the entire prefecture in 2005. This provided all households with access to high-speed internet, and increased its appeal as an alternate location for companies seeking a risk-reduction strategy in the wake of the Great Eastern Earthquake.

Japan is at the forefront of taking a number of different approaches to solve the issues of rural depopulation, explosive urban growth, and the environmental factors that result. Their Future City Initiative will continue to build the capacity of city leaders and others to solve these challenges, while encouraging economic development and creating a more human-friendly environment for everyone. By accumulating knowledge and models of success, Japan's major cities will continue to set precedents for financially and socially autonomous models for sustainability at home and abroad.

References and more info:

Kamiyama Town:

Future City Initiative:

Yokohama – Future City

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