The Environmental Primacy of Small Islands:
Island development Policies of Japan

Hari Srinivas
Case Study Series E-010. January 2022

The environmental primacy of small islands can be understood by the fact that much of the global environmental effects such as climate change, global warming etc. manifest themselves first on small islands.

The issue of sea level rise directly effects islands and island nations as many are vulnerable to inundation, coastal erosion and sea water intrusion. Climate changes in the form of storms and heavy rainfall on one hand, or droughts on the other can also wreak havoc on an island's ecosystems. Human issues such as tourism, resource exploitation, over or under populations etc. can also have an adverse impact.

In general, the small size of islands, their remoteness and insularity, their proneness to natural disasters, and their environmental fragility have made small islands extremely vulnerable. Dependence on external resources, including finance, demographic and socio-economic factors have exasperated the situation.

Japan is an island country, composed of more than 7,000 islands of different sizes. Of this, about 430 islands are inhabited. Most of these islands (except for the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), are small and remote islands, with small land areas, mountainous, and insular.

The Remote Islands Development Act, enacted in 1953, set about to address some of the problems outlined above, and to facilitate the development of these islands. It undertakes measures to rectify issues such as underdevelopment through project implementation, assessing economic capabilities in an effort to stabilize people's livelihoods, as well as to improve the welfare of the people.

This paper explores the various issues concerned with small islands in Japan, and illustrates the island development policies adopted at the national, regional and local levels. It highlights the environmental primacy of small islands and recommends ways in which this can be mitigated.


he environmental primacy of small islands can be understood by the fact that most of the global environmental effects such as climate change, global warming etc. manifest themselves first on small islands1.

For example, the issue of sea level rise directly effects islands and island nations as many are vulnerable to inundation, coastal erosion and sea water intrusion. Climate changes in the form of storms and heavy rainfall on one hand, or droughts on the other can also wreak havoc on an island's ecosystems. Human issues such as tourism, resource exploitation, over or under populations etc. can also have an adverse impact.

This paper first discusses the environmental primacy and vulnerability of small islands all over the world, and then details the various policy steps taken by Japan with respect to its small islands.

Environmental Primacy of Small Islands

Many issues effect small islands and make them vulnerable to environmental changes. In drawing up effective development plans for small islands, special criteria such as its small size, remoteness and insularity, disaster proneness, environmental fragility, and several other factors need to be kept in mind:

Key Characteristics of Small Islands:

  • Small Size
  • Insularity and remoteness
  • Vulnerability
  • Environmental factors
  • Human and other factors

1. Small size

One of the key factors that affects a small island's socio-economic condition and position is its small land area. As a result, islands face severe constraints in this regard. The natural resources of a small island is limited and requires a high amount of imports for its daily living. The small size of its economy means that import substitution towards self-sustenance has limited possibilities. Small islands also mean small sized domestic markets, its dependence on producing a narrow range of products, and its inability to diversify its products. This entails a greater dependence on foreign exchange for the larger import bill - and as an extension, on the vagarities of international trade. Small islands, particularly in the developing regions, have no influence on the prices of the products they export or import. Smaller markets result in island economies finding it difficult to take advantage of scale economies and diversification - due to indivisibility of production and limited scope for specialization. This in turn gives rise to high per unit costs of production and utilization. Limitations are set on the domestic competition due to the small size of the local economy.

Small land area creates several vulnerabilities - Small size of islands creates difficulties in planning and public administration. The shortcomings in manpower and specialized/experienced professionals are manifested in the smaller pool of qualified persons to draw from. Many professionals can only be trained abroad at high expenses, without a guarantee that their services will be fully and effectively utilized on their return.

2. Insularity and Remoteness

Insularity and remoteness of small islands give rise to similar sets of problems associated with transportation and communication. As illustrated earlier, the higher dependence on frequent imports and the smaller sizes and amounts of export goods mean that per unit cost of transportation of these goods is high. Time delays, unreliability in transport services, and other related supply uncertainties give rise to additional problems and costs. <> Infrequent and irregular transportation also lead to local economies that cannot respond quickly and effectively to changes in the market demands.

3. Vulnerability to Natural Disasters

Many islands experience natural disasters caused by hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, and volcanos. While these also occur in non-island areas, their effects and damages on an island economy is considerable on a per capita basis.

Destructions due to earthquakes - Some of the effects of natural disasters on small economies include devastation of the agricultural sector, the wiping out of entire village settlements, the disruption of a high proportion of communication services and injury or death of a relatively high percentage of inhabitants. In some cases, the very formation of a small island has been due to a geological event such as volcanic eruption.

4. Environmental factors

Environmental problems that effect an island may manifest themselves due to internal or external factors. Internal factors originate from economic development pressures on an island, further magnified due to the issues mentioned earlier.

Demand for housing and industrial facilities has led to a decrease in agricultural land. Costal and marine areas are increasingly utilized for tourism and recreational purposes. These activities also generate a relatively larger amount of waste that is difficult to dispose safely.

The ecosystems of small islands are unique and very fragile, and are associated with their geographical and natural characteristics. This creates an ideal environment for biodiversity - both land and water-based. But, it also makes it vulnerable to changes in the environment.

As mentioned in the introduction, several global environmental problems have a direct and devastating effect on small islands:

  • sea level rise effects small islands in terms of inundation, land loss, and costal erosion
  • increased exploitation of fresh water leads to sea water intrusion
  • climate changes in the form of storms and heavy rainfall on one hand, or droughts on the other can also wreak havoc on an island's ecosystems

5. Human and other factors

Other factors that influence the development patterns of small islands include its demography. Problems associated with low population numbers and growth (low levels of skilled and professional citizens, low tax revenues, smaller domestic markets and production bases etc) are exasperated by out-migration and cross-migration to other islands with urban centres and jobs/education facilities. Economic activities such as tourism compound the situation by increasing resource exploitation, imports of basic and daily needs etc.

All these factors taken together-small size, insularity and remoteness, vulnerability to natural disasters, environmental factors, human and other factors-make small islands extremely sensitive socio-economic and ecological systems. Small islands, in their pursuit of bettering living conditions, economic growth and sustainable development, face barriers and shortcomings that are unique, and not faced by non-island regions. Its close relation to marine environments and the 'early-warning' system that it provides to global environmental change makes small islands a priority for informed and responsible development in a sustainable manner.

Island Development Policies of Japan

The Japanese archipelago is made up of more than 7,000 small and large islands. Of this, only about 430 islands are legally designated as inhabited.

Figure 1: Islands in Japan

Most of the Japanese islands (except for the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), are small and remote islands-small land areas, mountainous, and insular. They are scattered from the subfrigid zones in the north to the subtropical zones in the south, between 45 degN and 25 degN. The total area of Japan is 377,800 (145,869 square miles), about the area of Germany. Due to mountainous regions and scattered islands, only 125,500 is habitable.

With constant northwest winds blowing in the the drifting masses of ice in the North Sea off the coast of Hokkaido, recurrent attacks of typhoons on the Southwest Islands and Ogasawara Islands during the typhoon season, and dense fog of the Inland Sea in the spring, the hydrographic conditions and atmospheric phenomena surrounding these small islands are critical to the overall development of the country.

Many of these small islands were not included in the government's special development programmes before World War II. Instead, some of them were used as military bases and tactically became subject to "non development" policies. Besides, islands of the Izu, Ogasawara, Tokara, Amami Okinawa regions were separated from the Japanese government administratively after World War II and were subjected to different administrations for several years.

Figure 2: Remote Islands Development Act

Enactment of the Remote Island Development Act in 1953 made it possible for the Government of Japan for the first time to undertake national level development measures for the benefit of islands located at its peripheral areas. Japan is, in fact, one of the very few nations to have a unique and separate legislative Act covering small islands.

To understand the significance and the history behind the Remote Island Development Act (RIDA) it may be necessary to give a background note on related development processes. At the national level, the National Land Comprehensive Development Law was enacted in 1950. In accordance with this law, a Comprehensive National Development Programme was devised. Along with the First Economic Plan of 1955, Japan experienced rapid and high rates economic growth, resulting in an imbalance of population density and income distribution. With the objective of controlling and guiding development a plan to "double national income" was devised in 1960. In this plan, recognition was given to rectify the population density/income disparity. Regional Policies were tied to the National Economic Plan.

Figure 3: Key Features of RIDA

This developmental process was further decentralized by a series of enactments and actions at the regional and local levels. The enactment of RIDA was a result of this process, primarily targeted at the numerous islands, and to bring them under a single developmental umbrella.

The Remote Island Development Act essentially covers the following:

  • As an objective, measures are to be established to correct underdevelopment of the remote islands through project implementation, assessing economic capabilities in an effort to stabilize people's livelihoods, as well as improve the welfare of the people, thus contributing to the growth of the national economy.
  • In order to achieve this aim, a Remote Island Development Plan and along with Project Plans are to be developed each year aslaid out in the RIDA law.
  • The National Government will appropriate a financial resources under the budget for the implementation of these projects. The proportion of required funds to be supported by the local authority is decided, keeping the special conditions of small islands in mind.
  • In order to survey and examine key development items of the remote islands, a Remote Island Development Council is to be established. In pursuant to the provisions of the Law, a total of ten regions were designated as Remote Island Development Regions from 1953 to 1967 and development plans were developed accordingly.
Inhabited small islands in Japan are governed by a total of 221 municipalities in 27 urban and rural prefectures. RIDA, and the development plans and projects implemented under RIDA, has enabled basic undertakings such as introduction of electricity, installation of water supply equipment, construction of harbors, fishing ports and roads, improvement of farmlands and preservation of seashore and beaches. In spite of the limited financial means of the local governments, the progress of this development has been enabled by a very high rate of government subsidies for various undertakings, including, among other things, complete government subsidies for basic undertakings such as construction of airports and refurbishment of harbors and fishing ports (outer facilities).

Implementation of these facilities was first carried out by the respective and proximate local municipalities. Since the 1960s, however, all developmental activities are centrally carried out by the National Land Agency. This is done through a special "Remote Island Development Section" established within the Agency.

Specific operationalization of RIDA is done through 'Remote Island Development Plans' which serve as the basis for island development, and is revised every five to ten years. These plans are devised by the respective local authorities, which are then presented to the National Land Agency. After legislative approval is received from the National Diet, it is implemented.

The First Plan was developed in 1957. In the Second Plan in 1967, emphasis was placed on the improvement of basic socio economic conditions to help rectify the disparities between remote islands and the mainland (in terms of population densities and income). The Third Plan focused on improving facilities for the living environment and production activities, while the Fourth Plan was concerned with improving social infrastructures to enhance the living environment. Under the Fifth Plan, which was enacted in 1993 and will continue through to 2002, both 'hardware' and 'software' approaches have been adopted so that a more comprehensive approach to development may be taken. Thus, the basic aims and objectives of the Plans have changed over time in response to specific needs of the island population.

Figure 4: Development Flows

In spite of (or due to) the high economic growth of the past-war era, many small islands in Japan faced a drastic decline in their primary sectors (agriculture and fishing) along with a declining population (decreasing population growth rates and out-migration). Many islands saw their population decrease by more than half, in spite of national trends of increased longitivity. The predominant age-group in the islands has tended towards the elderly, with most of the younger population leaving for the main islands and urban centers.

Recognizing the challenges that small islands in Japan were facing, the RIDA was amended in 1993. The amendment reflected on three fundamental issues of small islands:

  1. Small islands are a means to promote territorial integrity
  2. Small islands are a means to utilize maritime resources.
  3. Small islands can be a focus for preserving the natural environment.

As an extension of these changes, the National Land Agency has identified several issues that need to be integrated into future policies and plans of small islands: "In the past, a domestic, inward oriented perspective was taken in relation to the development and planning of small islands. Future actions need to incorporate a more open and global approach to enhance the integration of these islands to international trade. A better integration and co-existence of human and natural habitats will have to be achieved. In order to reverse the disparity of age-groups, which is rapidly aging in small islands, stronger exchanges and ties between island communities and the larger/main islands need to be implemented. Besides critical economic ties, cultural and sports exchanges are also to be explored. The development of an information-based society should be considered from a small islands point of view, and the effects it would have on its economies. The trend towards shifting of industrial production bases abroad should also be taken into account. Key to all these challenges is a process of decentralization and review, where the national and local governments play their respective roles at the scale in which they operate."

At the local level, small islands have strived to develop facilities and infrastructure that attract and retain visitors and residents to the islands. Several termss are in use to conceptualize these trends: one is 'U turn' to try to get young people to come back to the remote island town where they were born. Another is 'J turn' to encourage people who were not born in the islands to live in these areas. The 'Silver Arcadia' concept is to invite middle and aged people to settle in the remote islands. These islands represent a 'paradise' for aged people to live, retire and enjoy life. Several islands have implemented plans to create a high standard of health care services to cater to this trend.

More fundamental and economically critical incentives have also been implemented by island administrations: providing ten-year lease of land free of charge, offering agricultural goods and implements for farmers, extensive subsides for development projects, transportation facilities such as ferries and bridges etc.

In promoting the development of remote islands, Japanese policy has stressed the value of small islands in terms of national policy. They have focussed on reducing the discrepancies in living standards between small islands and the mainland, striving for a harmonious development and integration between remote islands and the mainland. Taking a pragmatic approach, national policies have been developed so that they supplement shortcomings of a complete or full reliance on market mechanisms in improving small islands. The characteristic of Japanese policies in this regard, in contrast to those of other countries, is to try to encompass the island policies as part and parcel of national policies.

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