(originally sent to Fukuzawa Fri, 14 Jun 1996)

All the recent talk on Fukuzawa of the underrepresentation and underdevelopment of Okinawa rings as true up here in Japan's Great White North--Hokkaido. What follows is a small excerpt from my novel manuscript, written in 1993, which might provide some information.


It is the end of the summer of love, 1989. Newlyweds Chris (an American) and Fumi (a Japanese) are discussing the next step for getting a him a job in Japan. Three months of leads and promises for employment having petered out, Chris finds himself stranded in Sapporo.

Chris remains optimistic--this being Japan with the bubble economy and the roudou busoku and all that--but Fumi tells him the state of the union--that nobody is going to hire him because they want a pet gaijin. In Sapporo, they haven't the budget for it, for important reasons.


Fumi continued: "Maybe in Tokyo or Osaka, there are companies rich enough for kokusaika, and they can employ you out of the goodness of their heart. But up here in Sapporo it is different. Most big companies in Sapporo have their home offices down south, with only branches up here. No big decisions will be made here. Any company that is native Sapporo or Hokkaido is probably small and poor. I think that if you get any job offer at all, we will be very lucky."

"But Hokkaido is closer to foreign countries than any other part of Japan. Why isn't there more pull for internationalization?"

"There's not enough money up here."

She was right.

I would find out later, through sources such as the Japan External Trade Organization and The Economist, a number of startling facts about Hokkaido, which are worth relating if only to give a clearer picture of what is happening in Japan's backwater:

1) Although the island of Hokkaido makes up roughly 20% of Japan's total land mass, it only comprises about 5% of its total GDP.

2) Even though Japan in general has averaged GNP growth of about 4% a year during the 1980's, Hokkaido has managed only a little more than half that.

3) Hokkaido's annual per capita income, in 1987, was only about JPY 2 million, noticably below the all-Japan average of  JPY 2.3 million, and an incredible 40% less than Tokyo's.

4) Hokkaido is really out of the loop in terms of money capital. Distant from Japan's financial and business centers--the Kanto and Kansai regions--Hokkaido has the fewest number of banking institutions in all of Japan, except for Okinawa (which has been under modern Japanese sovereignty for only two decades, and still has the US Military calling a lot of shots).

Hokkaido has been having a bad time of it. Its economy has been perennially sluggish, unresponsive to investment by the local government, yet more prone to external shocks than the rest of Japan.

Industries in depression worldwide, such as steel or coal mining, have had inflicted deeper injury on the north than on the giant protected conglomerates down south. Whole Hokkaido communities have been destroyed. Believe it or not, there are Japanese ghost towns (houses demolished and remains carted away--with only cement platforms left behind as evidence) in the Sorachi mining district. The first train line ever to be closed down in Japan was Hokkaido's Kami-sunagawa line in 1993. Muroran, once famous for its steelmaking and deep-water port, is facing one of the highest unemployment rates and the highest divorce rate for a city of its size in Japan.

When incomes, growth rates, and access to capital differ to such a degree, the disparities between Hokkaido and the mainland can only widen, as they have over the past few years. As Fumi said, there is no money up here, and likewise Hokkaido suffers in terms of capital flow and job availability.

Hokkaido people scrimp. Fly up here and look at how comparatively cheaply the ugly blue-tin roofed houses are built, and how few of them are built to survive longer than twenty years. The land is cheap up here, some may counter, costing only ten to twenty percent of that of downtown Tokyo, so housing starts should be easier. But then again Hokkaido incomes are markedly less than Tokyo's. Regardless, the property costs far more than the house itself, eating up any money that could be put into building a better home. Hence, Hokkaido homeowners and construction workers cut as many corners as possible on building materials. The local government has to pay out subsidies just to get people to buy proper home insulation!

Hokkaidoites have their purchasing power eroded in other ways. The prices of consumer goods are higher here because few of them are produced locally. Higher value-added goods have to be shipped from the south at exorbitant rates--it costs more to ship from Tokyo to a Hokkaido port than from Singapore to Tokyo! This should be a window of opportunity for importers, but imports are restricted in ways I will get into later.

The point is that there significant price differences; a domestically-assembled Apple Macintosh computer, say a Mac Powerbook laptop, was at one time priced around JPY300,000 in Hokkaido, while simultaneously on sale in Tokyo for a measly JPY170,000. It would pay to fly down to Akihabara and stock up, but then again the Sapporo-Tokyo air corridor is the most expensive in the world--around $300-$500 round trip (fares fixed by the Ministry of Transportation in Tokyo).

Low incomes, high prices--that is the lot of a person living in Hokkaido. So how do Hokkaido people cope? They become mobile. Despite Japan's population growing by about a tenth during the 1980's, Hokkaido's population growth was practically nil. Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city, is still growing rapidly, while almost all other Hokkaido cities or towns are shrinking.

This is due to a lack of local jobs. Since no major Japanese company (not even Sapporo Beer!) and few major universities are based in Hokkaido, a huge percentage of Hokkaido's workforce has to flee south to the big cities for employment and educational opportunities.

In return, Hokkaido gets the mainland's outcasts and misfits; Japanese companies use an assignment in their Hokkaido branches to threaten their recalcitrant employees--an exile to Japan's Siberia.

Thus, Sapporo, a city of nearly 1.5 million people, is still viewed as a backwater by the big boys down south. It is not only a place where troublemakers are disposed of, but also where people of talent cannot stay.

Most young, promising employees, transferred up here as a test of company loyalty, leave their family down south for a few years and come alone. This arrangement is called an "unaccompanied appointment" (tan shin fu nin âPÆgðÑäC), and it is so common that there is a special Japanese word for them: Satchon, or "Sapporo Bachelor". As a result, Susukino, Sapporo's bar and red-light district, stays pretty lively year-round. The only major booming economy up here, other than sports tourism, has been entertainment. A business outlet, not a business input.

Now here is the kicker: Hokkaido's economic backwardness, I would be told years later, is deliberate. Hokkaido has always been treated as a resource colony by the rest of Japan, where anything locally produced--potatoes, beef, milk, onions, melons, horses, what have you--has to go through Tokyo or Osaka if it goes anywere outside Hokkaido at all.

Why? Precisely because Hokkaido is so close to foreign countries.

Due to the Northern Territories incident (the USSR, poised to invade Hokkaido in the closing days of WWII, took several islands from Japan's grasp and still has not given them back), the advent of the Cold War, and the fact that after 50 years there is still no peace treaty between Japan and present-day Russia, Hokkaido is considered a security risk zone.

Hence, getting friendly with the enemy through trade has been discouraged. The number of ports that are legally permitted to pass goods through Customs is inconveniently small--Tomakomai, Otaru, and Hakodate only; convenient places, like newly-built Ishikari New Port, have the facilities but not the licence. Shipborne trade with Russia is to this day minute, and trade with anybody anywhere is miniscule when compared to other major mainland ports.

Air traffic is also repressed. There is incredible congestion at Japan's other major airports, such as Tokyo Narita and Osaka, yet Hokkaido's airstrips could easily be made into new hubs for major air routes. Hokkaido has the New Chitose International Airport and the unknown Okadama Airport. Unfortunately, Chitose's international terminal is idiotically small (squeezed into a corner by JAL, ANA, and ANK carriers), and it still cannot receive Russian planes or in reality stay open 24 hours. Okadama, despite its central location and convenient access to Sapporo proper, remains little more than an airbase for the Self Defense Forces (SDF, or jieitai). Meanwhile, the old Chitose runways have been usurped by military jets. Come up here and watch them fly about "Top Gun" NAS Miramar style. Thus, getting things in or out of Hokkaido has been kept difficult, and traffic has only gotten worse down south.

The Japanese military has a big say in what happens on this island. Their presence is palpable even in Sapporo: Big drab-green M*A*S*H-style trucks and flocks of helicopters still zoom around and above the city at all hours. The major SDF base in Hokkaido is only one subway stop away from our apartment. Nearly visible from that subway stop, appropriately called Jieitai Mae ("in front of the SDF Base"), are lines of camouflaged guns and tanks, where you can see Japanese soldiers in fatigues doing their morning exercises. In the woods not far from our apartment is a SDF shelling ground, where ordnance is used all summer.

Still, the military conveniently makes itself indispensible to the city--the magnificent snow sculptures in the Snow Festival, Sapporo's most famous tourist draw, are built by those same soldiers.

Hence, thanks to both government restriction and military mandate, Hokkaido has a very unequal relationship with the rest of Japan.

The bottom line is that this situation really hurt my job prospects.


FYI: What eventually happened is that I had to follow a job lead on Honshu, and I spent a year in Nagaoka, Niigata-ken, doing bullshit work at a computer software company, but getting language skills that would open doors later.

Dave Aldwinckle In perennially stagnant Sapporo

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Copyright 1993-2007, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan