Shinkansen boost to small towns

SAKU, Japan - Before the Shinkansen was chosen to stop here, Fumihiro Yanagisawa, 52, felt stuck in a town that was going nowhere.

Its main industry - agriculture - is on a slow decline. With Tokyo 173km away and Saku far from other cities, many like him felt dwarfed by city folk.

"City people used to look at us like we were rural people.

"I felt trapped here and I thought this was my destiny," he said.

His fate was to change when the Japanese Government decided that the Shinkansen Hokuriku line was to stop in his town in 1997, just in time for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Before it was built, Saku folk had to take a three-and-a-half-hour train and switch in two towns if they wanted to get to Tokyo.

Today, the journey on the Shinkansen takes just 73 minutes to Tokyo.

Yanagisawa, now a director with the city's planning department, said the bullet train also had an indirect economic effect on Saku.

Property tax collections rose from ¥4.35mil (RM126,802) in 1996 to ¥519mil (RM15.12mil) this year.

The population went up by 4,830 in Saku's main town area from 1996 until now, while the number of elementary school students went up from 881 students to 1,038, which is significant considering Japan's population declining by 0.2 per cent each year.

Even the countryside has been transformed, with the Shinkansen station area surrounded by hotels, restaurants and a shopping mall where rice fields once were.

Saku City mayor Seiji Yanagida said the Shinkansen brought huge economic success for his people.

"Now we want to turn Saku into a gateway for the Nagano prefecture."

Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) statistics showed in 2004 that the Kagoshima Prefecture had tax revenue collections of US$166mil (RM578.48mil).

It was also the year the first phase of the Kyushu Shinkansen opened on the south-western island.

In 2011, after the second phase opened, Kagoshima Prefecture saw a tax revenue collection of US$464 million (S$613 million).

MLIT (railway bureau) Office of Project Coordination director Tomohiro Kobayashi said the Shinkansen had ripple effects on the local economies.

"It affected neighbouring areas (where stations were) and invited more companies to go there, allowing more people to travel," he said.

The reduced travel time meant that Saku was now a Tokyo suburb, he said.

There is a downside for other nearby cities, however.

For example, Komoro lost its commercial value after the Shinkansen station opened in Saku, just 13km away.

Saku's Aeon shopping store manager Masaki Fukatsu, 48, said that numerous stores opened as the bullet train passed through, pulling away from Komoro.

"There were two department stores in Komoro (in the 1990s) but they both had to be closed down because Komoro's regional economy was deteriorating," he said.

Statistics from Komoro's city website showed that its tax revenue dropped from ¥5.38mil (RM156,826) in 2001 to ¥4.99 million (S$55,113) in 2012.

It suffered a population drop, with 45,711 in 1995 to 43,997 in 2010.

Shinkansen expert Christopher Hood said cities without bullet trains were bound to decline once others got them.

"With declining populations and economic activity, it seems some cities reach a tipping point where decline becomes irreversible," he said.

University of Tokyo's Hitoshi Ieda said the Shinkansen station did not automatically mean good business for a city.

He cited the Gifu-Hashima station near Nagoya which saw only "marginal" development in the area.