Object 67

Rechartered Cities

2043, Hakodate, Japan

The Quick Decline scarred Japan. After a period of more-or-less graceful stagnation around the turn of the century, a series of shocks left the country reeling: a massive run on the Yen precipitated by mounting debt, two devastating earthquakes in the Kanto and Kansai regions in 2034 and 2038, and the inexorable consequences of an ageing and shrinking population. In half a century, the world's second-largest economy had become a mere satellite of China and America.

The dysfunctional coalition governments that ran Japan were singularly ill-equipped to manage this decline. It wasn’t until 2043 that the public, frustrated with the national government in general, elected the newly formed NSDP-PDP coalition with a supermajority. The coalition was blessed with a single mandate: to change the Local Autonomy Law and devolve power towards the prefectural and municipal levels.

Many cities and prefectures made only superficial changes; even with broad new powers over taxes and spending, they were reluctant to be blamed for economic, demographic, and environmental factors that they (correctly) believed were largely out of their control. Instead, they played it safe by continuing to dole out perks to the half of the population aged over 50. But whether out of desperation or inspiration, a few hard-hit cities decided to make more drastic changes, turning themselves into 'Rechartered Cities'.

Like much of the country, the first two Rechartered Cities — Hakodate, on the southern tip of Hokkaido, and Amagasaki, in southeast Hyogo Prefecture — had a considerable stock of expensive, well-maintained, and over-built infrastructure. Compared to the rest of the world, they also had reliable courts, low crime rates, and a striking lack of people. This combination made them ripe candidates for transformation by medium-term immigrants. Dr. Takami of Hokkaido University explains:

"The concept of Rechartered Cities dates back to the controversial experiments with 'Charter Cities' in the late teens and 20s. According to their proponents, developing countries would establish special 'reform zones' in which brand-new charter cities would be built, and these cities would be administered with the help of foreign countries and businesses. The host country would gain from a massive influx of capital and 'good governance', and the foreign countries and businesses would benefit from cheap labour, favourable laws, and increased trade.

"Charter cities were met with fierce opposition in almost every potential host country, as they were seen as a breach of sovereignty, and even worse, a symbol of neocolonialism. By the 30s, two cities were eventually established in Madagascar and Haiti, but the sheer amount of strife involved scared off all other candidates, especially with the Shanghai bombing still fresh in people’s minds.

"Rechartered cities, on the other hand, were much more modest and local in scope. Under the Hakodate model, which was approved by referendum in 2044, the municipal government invited trusted foreign co-ops, missions, and nonprofits to establish long-term presences in the city. In exchange for more streamlined and lenient laws concerning use of air, land, spectrum, and drones, the organisations were expected to undertake worthwhile projects for the benefit of the city. These were frequently very lively projects; rewilding, environmental remediation, carbon capture, transportation upgrades, massive art installations, testbeds for experimental technologies and algorithms, and the like.

"For the most part, I think the rechartered cities worked, but of course it's easy to find people who disagree. Amagasaki passed their referendum 64 to 36; a good margin, but it still meant that over a third resented the newcomers. Becoming a rechartered city could feel like having a 20-year festival in your town, with all the concomitant excitement and construction and tourists and visitors and disruption and confusion and noise. I enjoyed visiting both cities during their Rechartered status, but I have to confess that I'm not so sure I'd like it to happen on my doorstep here in Sapporo."

Protests and violence were not uncommon during the first few years. Even after the massive overseas aid that poured in following the superquake of 2049, even with the widespread use of Dragon and Babylon, a cultural chasm still loomed large. It was difficult to break habits a millennia old.

Yet not everyone was quite as reticent in welcoming the newcomers. Noriko Imai, a psychiatrist in Hakodate, was 52 when they adopted Rechartered status:

"I wasn't so sure about the vote, you know. I was going to vote ‘no’. But the day before, I was out walking with my husband around the old Goryokaku fort when I remembered what was missing: young people. And children! So I tapped in ‘yes’ and I held my breath. I think it was a good choice. Hakodate was a beautiful city but it was also an old city, and young people need new things or else they’ll leave. All the newcomers and missions changed our home, and they made it beautiful in a different way. They helped keep this city alive, so I'm glad that a lot of them ended up staying."

What began in Hakodate and Amagasaki soon spread to other rich countries and municipalities with declining populations: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Greece. Rechartered cities also became influential within two burgeoning cultural movements: they were a bulwark against the mass retreat into virtuality, and a prominent example of the Jumble, where people from all ages, origins, and backgrounds began living among each other, finding common cause in new lives.