Oman Daily Observer - - LIFE - ELAINE LIES

Kat­suya Ko­dama’s wife died two years ago, and the 77-year-old keeps her ashes on a Bud­dhist al­tar in their sub­ur­ban Tokyo home. “I talk to her morn­ing and night, tell her ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I sit on the chair she used in the bath while ill. Sit­ting where she sat makes me feel close to her.” That sense of loss cuts through Sakura, in­clud­ing the Sen­nari dis­trict where Ko­dama moved 30 years ago.

Back then, it was filled with young fam­i­lies; now, nearly half of Sen­nari’s res­i­dents are over 65 and the pop­u­la­tion of Sakura, a city of 175,000, is fall­ing by about 400 a year.

The next town over is the more youth­ful In­zai, where life is much dif­fer­ent. Only about 21 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion of 100,600 is older than 65 — 12 per cent be­low Sakura as a whole and al­most 7 per cent be­low the na­tional av­er­age — and it is buzzing with new de­vel­op­ment.

Like Sakura, In­zai lies within com­mut­ing dis­tance of Tokyo, roughly an hour west by train and Narita air­port, about 40 min­utes east. Both cities sprawl across a mix of de­vel­oped and open land, prime for growth.

But the de­mo­graph­ics of the two cities un­der­line their di­ver­gent for­tunes.

In­zai will still be grow­ing in 2040, gov­ern­ment fore­casts say, while Sakura is set to shrink by up to 20 per cent. Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion is pre­dicted to de­cline by 16 per cent in the same pe­riod.

The key dif­fer­ence: In­zai was re­de­vel­oped start­ing in the mid-1980s with young fam­i­lies in mind. Its mayor en­thu­si­as­ti­cally lob­bied na­tional and re­gional gov­ern­ments to bring in a ma­jor hous­ing pro­ject called Chiba New­town. As it grew, In­zai dan­gled en­ter­tain­ment com­plexes and parks to lure res­i­dents, with tax breaks for em­ploy­ers.

Sakura has by con­trast grown in the more piece­meal fash­ion typ­i­cal of other Ja­panese cities, with lit­tle thought given to bring­ing in new blood. Res­i­dents say its gov­ern­ment, con­trolled by one po­lit­i­cal party since 1955, al­lowed lo­cal stores to fold and did not at­tract new busi­nesses.

As Ja­pan ages and its pop­u­la­tion shrinks, Sakura and In­zai il­lus­trate what its cities must do to sur­vive and deal with the ris­ing costs of car­ing for el­derly res­i­dents.

Hideki Kobayashi, a pro­fes­sor of city plan­ning at Chiba Univer­sity, said it was cru­cial to at­tract young peo­ple with ameni­ties and con­ve­nience — like In­zai — or of­fer sweet­en­ers like tax breaks and guar­an­teed day­care.

“The pop­u­la­tion of young peo­ple is fall­ing all over Ja­pan, so it be­comes a fight for them,” he said. “There will be win­ners and losers, forc­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments into com­pe­ti­tion. The places that make ef­forts to win will see growth.”

CON­VE­NIENT AND NEW For Shota and Kanako Hagi­wara, In­zai rep­re­sented a new and con­ve­nient place to raise their two ac­tive boys.

“It’s re­ally spread out and easy to live in,” said Shota, 36, who works for an air­line at Narita air­port. “It’s new, and looks as if it’ll flour­ish for some time.” Chiba New­town sprawls into In­zai and two other sub­urbs.

Though parts of In­zai re­main ru­ral, the Hi­gashino­hara area where the Hagi­waras live is filled with houses and grow­ing.

With its broad, straight streets lined with palm trees, their neigh­bour­hood barely seems Ja­panese. City plan­ning ex­perts say that is part of its ap­peal.

“There are al­ways peo­ple to talk to, and lots of kids,” said Kanako Hagi­wara, 36, who makes jew­ellery at home.

The area’s big­gest prob­lem is crowded schools and a short­age of day­cares. Two hun­dred chil­dren in In­zai are wait­ing for spots even as more cen­tres are built.

The Ur­ban Re­nais­sance Agency (UR), a quasi-gov­ern­men­tal group re­spon­si­ble for large-scale de­vel­op­ment in Ja­pan, pro­vided 1,379 hectares (3,400 acres) of land for In­zai af­ter the re­gional gov­ern­ment bought it from pri­vate owners.

“Chiba New­town aimed to pro­vide res­i­den­tial land for fam­i­lies raising chil­dren,” said Soichi Hi­rakawa of UR’S sales and plan­ning depart­ment. As a re­sult, most res­i­dents are in their 30s, and some work at the com­pa­nies at­tracted by In­zai’s cor­po­rate tax re­bates, which can be as high as $62 mil­lion stretched over sev­eral years.

The more es­tab­lished Sakura was never part of UR’S de­vel­op­ment plans.

DIF­FER­ENT TIMES Ko­dama was lured by the dream of buy­ing a new home, un­af­ford­able in Tokyo, in Sakura’s Sunny New­town de­vel­op­ment, carved out of moun­tains and rice fields.

Now many of the houses are dated or even fall­ing down, the area dot­ted with va­cant lots. Un­like In­zai, Sakura has failed to bring in large com­pa­nies, and res­i­dents say the lo­cal gov­ern­ment hasn’t lis­tened to what they need.

“When I walk around, there’s a bunch of aban­doned houses,” said 77-year-old Kenzo Ito, who has lived in Sen­nari for 50 years. “It’d be nice if some­body lived in them, or if young peo­ple built houses here.” The school, now 43 years old, has lost 75 per cent of stu­dents from its 1978 peak. New su­per­mar­kets in neigh­bour­ing ar­eas have driven many lo­cal shops out of busi­ness, and shop­pers com­plain Sakura did noth­ing to pro­vide al­ter­na­tives or easy trans­port.

Taeko Suzuki, 81, a widow, shoul­ders a day­pack to walk more than a kilo­me­tre for shop­ping.

“I’ve been to In­zai once; they have lots of stores and it’s nice,” she said. “But say­ing I’m en­vi­ous doesn’t get me any­where.” Al­though Sakura’s older pop­u­la­tion re­quires more ser­vices, its taxes per per­son are about half those of In­zai. Sakura of­fi­cial Taka­nari Ya­jima ac­knowl­edged the city was strug­gling to pro­vide for all.

“There are bedrid­den peo­ple who need nurs­ing care, while oth­ers are still en­er­getic,” he said. “There’s just too many dif­fer­ent things.”

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