Mapping Japanese City Spaces: Hokkaido Coal Country
As I’ve mentioned, Sapporo and Fukuoka, Japan’s #5 and #6 urban areas on opposite ends of the archipelago, have something interesting in common. Their vast rank-hopping growth after 1960 coincides with the decline of nearby coal mining cities to their inland east. In Sapporo’s case, the area is a vast north-south belt of mountain country known as Sorachi. During the early Meiji period, the entire region was populated by less than a hundred people total, with small towns emerging at the end of the 19th century as Hokkaido was settled. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, these small towns expanded into coal mining towns feeding Japanese industry. The sense of flux brought on by bursts of population growth can be seen in the way many towns changed their names or split up into new towns as they grew. Since the postwar recovery, though, the region has not fared so well. Among Japanese urban areas losing rank, there are those that get “left behind” by faster growing areas, those that stagnate and begin to backslide…and those that just vanish off the map.
You can click on any map to enlarge it.
Sorachi Region, 1960-2010 Time Elapse
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 1960-2010 Time Elapse
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 1960-2010 Time Elapse
Yubari County Detail, 1960-2010 Time Elapse
Note: a lot of sources translate the regional subdivision of land 郡 (pronounced gun) as “district”, but I use “county” as I think it better reflects the English-language equivalent in terms of relative size and historical ties to a feudal era.
Sorachi Region, 1960
1960 was the peak year for Sorachi’s urban population, at least as far as recorded data goes.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 1960
The majority of coal towns were in the north of the region, home to the newest mining boomtowns. Akabira, split off from Utashinai in the 1920s, only took off in population in the late 1930s. Kamisunagawa (part of Sunagawa until the 1940s) and Ashibetsu only boomed in the late 1940s.
Sunagawa, Takikawa, and Fukakawa down in the river valley were relatively older (turn of the 20th century) towns in the region.
Akabira Micro Area 46,012 94th
Ashibetsu Micro Area 28,715
Sunagawa Micro Area 21,646
Takikawa Micro Area 20,144
Kamisunagawa Micro Area 16,205
Fukagawa Micro Area 10,712
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 1960
Iwamizawa had been the first major town to emerge in Sorachi at the end of 19th century, being on arable flat land relatively close upriver from Sapporo.
Mikasa (called Mikasayama until the 1940s) and Bibai (called Numakai until the 1920s) were early 20th century mining towns that generally expanded consistently up until the 1950s.
Mikasa Micro Area 43,694 103rd
Iwamizawa Micro Area 29,542
Bibai Micro Area 25,342
Yubari County Detail, 1960
In the far south of Sorachi, isolated from the rest of the region, was Yubari. Known as Noborikawa until the late 1910s when it surged in population, Yubari was Hokkaido’s oldest and most populous major mining city, a significant metropolitan area in the middle of the mountains.
Kuriyama, called Kakuta until 1950, was a small and relatively stable agricultural town on flat land.
Yubari Metro Area 72,352 71st
Sorachi Region, 1970
As Japanese industry switched from coal to petroleum, the decline of mining towns began. With demand disappearing, mines slowing down and beginning to close, the metropolis of Sapporo beckoned to the west. There was a general urban population shift from the younger mountainous mining towns of the east to the older agrarian towns west in the river valley on the way to Sapporo. Population density dropped visibly, as even some areas in population decline continued to sprawl outwards.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 1970
Northern Sorachi fell the hardest first. The eastern boomtowns lost a good deal of population, especially Ashibetsu and Akabira which plummeted off the Top 100. Oddly Utashinai, though losing population overall, surged in urbanized population as it sprawled through its valley. In a period of nationwide sprawl, even declining urban areas sometimes expanded in area, if not in people.
At the same time, the flatland agricultural towns of Takikawa and Fukagawa grew rapidly. Takikawa in particular leapt ahead to become the center of northern Sorachi, a regional hub and way station for those moving out of the area.
Takikawa Micro Area 37,074 + 84.0%
Akabira Micro Area 24,656 – 46.4% – 89 ranks
Sunagawa Micro Area 18,951 – 12.5%
Utashinai Micro Area 17,107 + 192.8%
Ashibetsu Micro Area 15,277 – 46.8%
Fukagawa Micro Area 15,176 + 41.7%
Kamisunagawa Micro Area 14,452 – 10.8%
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 1970
Much like the north, in southern Sorachi the older, more agricultural flatland city of Iwamizawa expanded in urban population as the mountainous mining towns declined.
Iwamizawa Micro Area 44,548 + 50.8%
Mikasa Micro Area 33,358 – 23.7% – 39 ranks
Bibai Micro Area 15,559 – 38.6%
Yubari County Detail, 1970
Even as Yubari declined, it continued to hold on to some measure of significance, remaining populous enough to stay on the Top 100. New urban developments emerged around the city even as the core areas lost population.
Yubari Metro Area 54,417 98th – 24.8% – 27 ranks
Kuriyama 7,781 + 30.5%
Sorachi Region, 1980
Small DIDs began to disappear in the 1970s, with other urban spaces shrinking in area and decreasing in density at the same time.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 1980
Northern Sorachi’s decline continued in the 1980s, with several towns becoming too small to qualify for urban areas and Takikawa’s brief growth spurt beginning to stall.
Takikawa Micro Area 39,495 + 6.5%
Sunagawa Micro Area 16,129 – 14.9%
Akabira Micro Area 16,014 – 35.1%
Fukagawa Micro Area 14,727 – 3.0%
Kamisunagawa 9,006 – 37.7%
Utashinai 8,856 – 48.2%
Ashibetsu 8,708 – 43.0%
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 1980
Iwamizawa continued to grow in status, becoming the new most populous urban area in all Sorachi as it “annexed” the declining Mikasa into its employment area.
Iwamizawa Micro Area 63,566 94th + 42.7% + 23 ranks
Bibai Micro Area 13,398 – 13.9%
Yubari County Detail, 1980
Yubari’s population decline accelerated in the 1970s, its DIDs beginning to “dissolve” off the map. The formerly most populous city of Sorachi was fast turning into an isolated mountain town.
The small rural town of Kuriyama, though, continued to fare pretty well.
Yubari Micro Area 27,438 – 49.6% – 77 ranks
Kuriyama 8,097 + 4.1%
Sorachi Region, 1990
Urban areas in mining towns began to disappear off the map at a higher rate in the 1980s.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 1990
With decline continuing, entire urban populations began vanishing off the map, like Kamisunagawa and Utashinai. Urban Ashibetsu actually experienced a brief reprieve and expanded, though. Although Takikawa City proper was now slowly declining in urban population, its influence over the region continued to grow, taking Sunagawa into its orbit.
Takikawa-Sunagawa Micro Area 51,149 + 29.5%
Fukagawa Micro Area 12,693 – 13.8%
Ashibetsu Micro Area 11,101 + 27.5%
Akabira Micro Area 10,829 – 32.4%
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 1990
The city of Iwamizawa continued to grow, but its satellite Mikasa was quickly losing its urban population, bringing the Iwamizawa urban area down on the whole. Like northern Ashibetsu, Bibai also enjoyed a brief pause in decline during the 1980s.
Iwamizawa Metro Area 59,839 – 5.9% – 15 ranks
Bibai Micro Area 13,481 + 0.6%
Yubari County Detail, 1990
Throughout the 1980s, urban Yubari almost emptied completely, with only a shrunken, low-density remnant of the once major city center left. Kuriyama lost urban population too, though this was less of a trend of decline than the sort of population fluctuation common in very small rural towns.
Kuriyama 7,164 – 11.5%
Yubari 5,526 – 79.9%
Sorachi Region, 2000
Population decline slowed a little in the 1990s, but the eastern inlands were by now almost free of notable urban settlement. Yubari, formerly the most significant city of the region, was completely gone as an urban entity.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 2000
Urban population loss continued through the 1990s, still affecting Akabira the most, quickly shrinking in area as well as population.
Takikawa Micro Area 45,410 – 11.2%
Fukagawa Micro Area 12,720 + 0.2%
Ashibetsu Micro Area 10,129 – 8.8%
Akabira 8,206 – 24.2%
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 2000
In the south, decline actually stalled and abated overall in the 1990s.
Iwamizawa Metro Area 63,104 + 5.5%
Bibai Micro Area 13,614 + 1.0%
Yubari County Detail, 2000
By 1995, urban Yubari had completely disappeared, leaving Kuriyama as the only densely populated place in all of the county.
Kuriyama 7,651 + 6.8%
Sorachi Region, 2010
By now, Akabira and Mikasa, formerly the second and third most populous urban mining towns, have followed Yubari and disappeared from the map. From the mining boomtowns of the mid-20th century, the population centers have shifted back to the older agrarian towns in the Ishikari river valley, though these too are now faring little better.
Northern Sorachi County Detail, 2010
Steady decline continues in northern Sorachi, with urban Akabira now gone and Ashibetsu seemingly soon to follow.
Takikawa Micro Area 41,031 – 9.6%
Fukagawa Micro Area 11,217 – 11.8%
Ashibetsu 8,090 – 20.1%
Southern Sorachi County Detail, 2010
Southern Sorachi’s reprieve from decline has ended, and urban Mikasa no longer exists.
Iwamizawa Metro Area 55,775 – 11.6%
Bibai Micro Area 11,846 – 13.0%
Yubari County Detail, 2010
Kuriyama is in decline now too, though again it remains to be seen whether this is a new trend or just small-town fluctuation.
Kuriyama 7,037 – 8.0%
The formerly prosperous mining towns leave behind ghostly traces of their former size. If you know where to look, you can spot outlines of city blocks where thousands of people used to live and work, being swallowed by scrubby grasses and forests in the plateaus and valleys of Sorachi.
Remains of city streets on the north side of formerly downtown Yubari.
Decrepit and largely uninhabited block apartments, surrounded by abandoned blocks returning to scrubby grassland, and disused roads fading into the forest. Raijo, southern Ashibetsu.
The vast, disused open pit mines of Utashinai.
Sparsely populated old block apartments, abandoned infrastructure, and disused roads in eastern Mikasa.
If there’s any city or region of Japan you’d like to see, just ask me in the comments! Really, I do requests!
National land numerical information (densely inhabited district data)
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
Processed and edited in ArcGIS Explorer
Microsoft Bing Maps used as basemap