Takeshi Natsuno, professor at the Keio University school of media and governance, speaking at the ULI Japan Spring Meeting.

Takeshi Natsuno, professor at the Keio University school of media and governance, speaking at the ULI Japan Spring Meeting.

Mitigating the population issues facing Japan, and further developing its cities to meet the demands of the future, were discussed by panelists at the recent ULI Japan Spring Conference in Tokyo.

As part of a debate on technology and the future of Japanese cities, Takeshi Natsuno, professor at the Keio University school of media and governance, bluntly said that the Japanese government could be wasting its time and money restoring the Tohoku region, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The region has been suffering a sharp decline in population since 2000 and Natsuno said it is not worth restoring lost homes; rather, people ought to be compensated to move to more viable areas.

He also said the government should cease spending on failing areas. “If the population falls below a certain density, the government should suspend public services,” he said. He argued that the government is wasting money on new and existing infrastructure in areas of declining population and that the money ought to be spent on urban areas that are growing or maintaining their population. He also suggested moving low-income households to where they could be accommodated more cheaply.

Natsuno’s cure might seem harsh, but Japan’s current population of 126 million is set to fall to 97 million by 2050. Over the same period, the percentage of over-65s in the population will increase to 39 percent from 27 percent.

In agreement, Takeshi Nakawame, executive vice president of planning and design consultancy Nikken Sekkai, said Japan had to “embrace innovation or fail” and to “accelerate centralization.” He lambasted the nation’s record on innovation in comparison with that of the United States, which took “a more proactive approach to technology.”

Nakawame was also sharply critical of Osaka’s city planning. “Osaka doesn’t have a future,” he declared. “I sold my house there two years ago.” He argued that the city had failed to develop a unique character by trying to mimic and compete with Tokyo.

Hirofumi Tatematsu, senior managing director and deputy division manager at the consulting division of the Nomura Institute, is more optimistic, saying that big data, the “internet of things,” and the rise of real estate technology would bring change to the real estate market.

Real estate technology funding is rising, and Tatematsu claimed this would lead to the unbundling of the real estate industry. Big data means more transparency and better decision making while the sharing economy was leading to a “decoupling of ownership and use.”

In order to promote innovation, Japan needs better cities, the panel agreed. Suburban areas need to be revitalized and to host innovation businesses as young creative types cannot afford to live centrally and do not want to commute. “Cities must attract creative and entrepreneurial people,” said Tatematsu.

One example of innovation is the introduction of taxi-hailing app Uber to Japan. Masami Takahashi, president of Uber Japan, talked about how it could meet specific challenges for the country. He noted that accidents involving elderly drivers were increasing, even as overall road safety improved, due to the nation’s aging population. In order to assist, Uber is pioneering a project in Kyotango City, Kyoto Prefecture, where the Uber app will be open to a nonprofit volunteer service that drives the elderly around.

Takahashi said that Uber could have a major role to play in the Tokyo Olympics, when the number of tourist journeys each day will rise from 60,000 today to 920,000. “Most tourist problems in Japan relate to transport,” he said. “Uber can help solve this.”