East Asia and its Contemporary Urbanity

An Interview with Yumiko Shimabukuro

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Yumiko Shimabukuro is lecturer in the discipline of international and public affairs and director of the Urban and Social Policy concentration at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. The Journal of International Affairs spoke to Dr. Shimabukuro about equity, prosperity, and democracy in East Asia and its cities.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): In the West, many people think of the urban centers of East Asia as being exemplars of prosperity and (for the most part) relative equality. How far is this from the truth, and in what ways are cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Singapore symbolic of the progress of the last 50 years, and what challenges in terms of urban poverty and inequality remain in these cities?

Prof. Yumiko Shimabukuro (YS): Is the region an exemplar of equality? Many scholars and practitioners have praised the region for its egalitarian economic development outcomes. And the major cities across East Asia have played an important role in propelling the region’s impressive growth. Nonetheless, all of these Asian countries prioritize economic growth over social welfare and equity. The major cities symbolize both economic progress and social deterioration with acute inequality and persistently high relative poverty rates. The biggest policy challenge is that they do not provide a comprehensive safety net for the poor, even when they can afford it. Moreover, a good portion of the investment in human capital is funded by individual households, resulting in unequal educational and skill development outcomes. It’s time to question the egalitarian thesis and put the spotlight on the tale of two cities.

JIA: Thank you, this is illuminating. How far from the truth is this “myth”?

YS: Everybody who visits these big cities in Asia is impressed with the great public infrastructure and services. But visitors don’t typically ask the person who’s serving coffee or processing payment at the museum ticket booth, what life is really like for them. For example, if you flip through newspaper articles you read many stories of children being maltreated in economically struggling households, degrading housing conditions, starvation deaths, and mass suicides of seniors. You really get the sense that there is an “other” truth, one that is unacceptable and needs correction.

JIA: You have been exploring the relationship between Japanese elite democracy and how that contributed to the lack of a completely funded social safety net. Could you expand on this? From what I know about Japanese politics, after the end of World War Two, it’s been dominated by the LDP, the Liberal Democratic Party, barring just a couple years during this seventy-five year period. So, I’m curious to know your explanation for this and how that sort of social contract came to be developed and how that manifested itself in the political economy of the country?

YS: That’s a great question. My book manuscript analyzes the origins of Japan’s safety net, alongside its democratic political transformation and the rise of industrial capitalism before 1945. The prototype of its capitalist, democratic welfare system was actually created by 1945, even before the birth of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). I found that Japan’s democratization was more about politically influential economic elites (including business leaders and small business owners), shaping the dynamics of Japanese political economy at the expense of the poor. In the end, the makers of Japanese democracy strategically engineered its democratic governance system to augment the voice of well-organized economic groups at the expense of the poor. So “building wealth and democracy” can create conditions that are very hostile to the development of the safety net. I wanted to look at this as a story of how interest groups are formed through the rise of industrial capitalism and how those they end up becoming important stakeholders in the political sphere through democratization and influence redistributive outcomes.

JIA: Would it be fair to say the process of constructing Japanese democracy can be traced all the way back to the Meiji era?

YS: Yes, absolutely. Japan’s political and economic development can be traced back to the building of the modern Japanese nation state from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The Meiji and Taisho era leaders imported many institutions from abroad, like political parties and a Parliament, and so too did they learn how to deploy undemocratic electoral safeguards to control the direction of institutional change.

JIA: Japan’s biggest challenge is its rapidly aging population, and its percentage of senior citizens is the largest of the developed economies. Given that Japan has to face this reality, how is it trying to maintain its economic system and its existing social welfare infrastructure while maintaining some semblance of equity and fairness throughout the system, in light of the fact it will need to spend more on welfare for the aged?

YS: One out of three Japanese will be 65 or older by 2050. And when you look at this group, women are disproportionately represented as Japanese women have the highest life expectancy. So the first challenge that I see here is how to deal with elderly women’s poverty in Japan. One study found that within the next decade, 25 percent of elderly women in Japan will be living below the poverty line. And that spikes up to 50 percent for single women. Given the high incidents of old-age poverty especially among women, Japan will need more gender targeted social welfare intervention especially in the realms of affordable housing and non-contributory pension benefits. I don’t think there is a stark trade off between an increase in social welfare spending and economic growth given that the higher disposable income and consumption power of the elderly could boost the economy. Lack of social protection can result in a silver economy bust like in South Korea, which has an extremely high elderly poverty as a result of meager government assistance.

JIA: I’m curious to know how the overall inequality debate in Japan and revitalizing the workforce with younger blood is panning out, and with that comes the question of immigration to Japan. Like elsewhere in the developed world, how contentious a topic is immigration to Japan, and how is the government seeking to balance the need to bring in working age people from other Asian countries to fill shortfalls in the existing workforce, with cultural conservatism?

YS: Immigration remains a hot-button topic in Japan. Its immigration laws remain stricter than other countries, even Asian countries, but they do allow some short-term visas for people to work in certain sectors of the economy that have significant labor shortages. But I think what’s most interesting about Japan is that they recognize that there is a labor shortage, and as such they are doubling down on robotics that can replace humans in some sectors. You see robotics playing a role in elder care facilities and automation everywhere in commercial services. I would also add that urban centers like Tokyo are still attracting people. So the real issue is: what do you do with the rural areas and small and medium sized cities that are experiencing depopulation and lagging in technology? Here, we are likely to witness the acceleration of hundreds and hundreds of cities, small towns, and villages going extinct. That may well be the price of maintaining immigration conservatism.

JIA: Which countries in the region do you feel have the most innovative and comprehensive strategies to address urban poverty and inequality? Can these strategies be replicated in the United States?

YS: Whether you can do some sort of a policy emulation across the Pacific when it comes to urban poverty alleviation is a tough question. One key difference is that between the two, national governments determine funding and eligibility rules for East Asian social welfare programs. The United States is more decentralized and state and local governments have often taken the lead in experimenting with new programs. So I would turn this question around and ask what Asian government officials could learn from decentralization and innovative urban social policies in the United States. For example, experimentation with universal basic income to combat urban poverty in cities like Stockton, California, and Jackson, Mississippi could provide fodder for discussion at the national and local levels in East Asia.

JIA: It is interesting to hear you say that we cannot import welfare systems from one country to another because the political and demographic realities between any two countries, especially those on different continents, are indeed very different.

YS: Yes, take the example of Singapore. It has been praised as a model for affordable housing development that is inclusionary, green, and innovative. Through housing policy, Singapore has sought to achieve assimilation of different ethnic groups for decades. In recent years, it has built Kampung Admiralty, a government-initiated comprehensive retirement village in the heart of the city. Its massive scale and integration of public facilities and various services under one roof is impressive. Not surprisingly, it has won the World Building of the Year award. But it would be extremely difficult to export such an extensive affordable housing scheme to other countries given that the economic, political, historical, and socio-cultural elements markedly differ from those in the West.

JIA: Moving on to the existential challenge of climate change. How are East Asian countries building equity into their climate mitigation strategies? Are there any exemplars in the region?

YS: Climate change has disproportionately affected lower socio economic income groups and has certainly compounded their risks. The poor have fewer resources to protect themselves against these ecological and environmental risks. One example that I can think of from China involved decarbonizing the energy supply and reducing poverty at the same time for residential areas. There are a number of anti-poverty initiatives within China, in both small and medium sized cities, where they harvest solar power and reduce their energy use by selling their surplus energy back to the grid. Another is South Korea’s new climate change initiative, the Green New Deal. It could boost green skills investments and potentially support an environment-friendly and inclusive recovery.

JIA: How has civil society responded to the challenge of urban poverty and inequality in East Asia and how have governments responded or not responded well to their demands to solve the problem?

YS: Asian countries have relied on non-governmental actors, such as families, neighbors, communities and non-profit organizations, to ameliorate urban poverty. So, if the government doesn’t want to address a problem, civil society groups have picked up the slack. These groups are doing more work, such as providing food and clothes for poor children and creating social activities to combat social isolation especially among seniors in urban centers. National governments have embraced these substitutive efforts by civil society groups and many of them have become partners to receive more sustainable funding, legitimacy, and guidance from the state.

JIA: Are there examples of serious economic backsliding in East Asia over the last decade?

YS: Yes, there are notable examples of social backsliding. COVID has halted social progress in that suicide rates have increased, especially amongst women and minors. This phenomenon was somewhat under control in the pre-COVID era, but the pandemic has reversed it. The explosion in suicide rates has largely exposed the systemic weaknesses that already existed before the pandemic struck.