Deromanticizing Japan’s Snow Country

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky” is the evocative opening to Kawabata Yasunari’s famous novel, Snow Country. Suggesting the beauty of the snow and the break from industrial Tokyo to a quieter place, the lines speak to how many in Japan likely imagine the northern prefectures that constitute Japan’s “snow country.” However, looking at the distribution of ski resorts, Japan has a lot of snow country: Hokkaido and Nagano dominate with 100s, but 13 prefectures have more than ten resorts within their borders and another 20 can claim at least one. But the dramatic photos that abound of residents winding their way through narrow snowy streets and shoveling snow from roofs shows that the reality for residents of snow country can be much more glum.

The Japanese language has two words that refer to the snowy regions of the country: yukiguni, or snow country, which romanticizes the snowy life of northern Japan, and the more technical gōsetsu chitai, “heavy snow regions” which is used to define places with snowfall sufficient to negatively impact local life and local industry. Notably, somewhere near half of Japan’s total area—ten prefectures and areas within fourteen more—could be designated snowy regions. Kerosene consumption, however, perhaps better reflects the true regionality, as well as home economics of winter in these regions rather than ski resorts: A clear high consumption trend-line that moves from Hokkaido and Aomori in the north, through the Tohoku prefectures to the south, and includes Nagano in central Japan.

Aomori prefecture’s Hirosaki, a city of somewhere around 170,000 residents spread over approximately 520 square kilometers, provides an illustrative example of how much effort goes into planning for life with snow. Its municipal website includes a “Snow Policy” page with no less than 17 links to the specific facets of winter life. There is a page exhorting residents to cooperate with the city snow policies as well as following good manners in how they deal with neighborhood snow. There is a page delineating the city’s comprehensive plan, with another detailing snow policy expenses and another cataloging complaints. There is a page summarizing subsidy and aid programs to civic associations involved in snow management and a page offering city loans for residents to invest in a residential snow melting system, up to one million yen payable over 60 months. And there is a page recognizing local companies in their efforts in clearing city streets and one recognizing neighborhood associations that distinguish themselves in their snow response efforts.

While most Japanese associate Snow Country with ski resorts and peaceful landscapes, the reality of life in the region includes snow removal and high energy bills

Of course, as with any policy, the devil is in the details. The comprehensive plan is a 60-page document that includes results of an annual resident survey, the city’s near, mid and long-term snow management plan, the various criteria for snow clearing, such as the conditions for the snowplows to begin their rounds, the spatial dimensions that must be maintained for city roads and streets, and citizen obligations in the matter of clearing snow from one’s driveway, but also admonishing them to keep in mind that children need to walk to and from school and aged neighbors may not be able to take care of their area. Indeed, snow shoveling is linked to heart attacks, prompting academic research on the physiological reality of the high-oxygen demand task on the one hand, with some areas thus promoting snow clearing as a means of working out on the other. The survey results reflect the amount of each year’s snowfall; but anywhere from 40 to 55 percent in any given year indicate they are not satisfied with the “safety and comfort of winter life.”

As the amount of snow varies each year, so too does the snow management budget, from a low of 390 cm accumulated snow in 2015, which created a 658 million yen budget, to 770 cm of snow demanding a 1.97 billion yen budget in 2012. Averages over the past decade come out to be 550 cm of snow claiming 1.4 billion in budget allocation, which works out to 7,687 yen per resident in snow removal costs. The national government subsidy for Hirosaki alone averaged 195 million yen over the period, and 359 million during the 2012 peak season. But, as seen in an eight billion yen budget shortfall for snow removal in Fukui in 2021, the problematic nature of the year-to-year variation in snow removal budgets has even prompted academic research on the matter, in an attempt to establish a model on which the policy dilemma of preparing for the possibility of unexpected snowfall in fixed budget planning can be resolved.

Addressing high snowfall is complicated – and expensive – work for both residents and governments

Of course, even with such massive sums of money and all-night plowing, not everyone is always happy with the way the snow is managed. The number of complaints over the past decade has averaged 2,183 per four-month season, with 5,165 complaints lodged in 2012: the largest number of calls are specific requests for snow removal, followed by complaints about the “quality” of the snow removal and complaints about some specific aspect of snow removal, such as when the snowplow leaves large chunks of very hard snow and ice for a resident equipped only with a home center-purchased plastic shovel to deal with. Residents also call in about under-cleared side roads, notoriously bad intersections, the inevitable snow mounds limiting visibility for drivers, and, of course, personal property damage. And they have a point since the quality of snowplowing can extremely inconsistent: some areas become icy and rutted obstacles courses, leading to slipping and sliding, while others are shaved right down to the pavement, with the asphalt chunks that are torn out in such close plowing only obvious come spring.

Hidden in the middle of the 17 linked Snow Policy pages is one dedicated to Comprehensive Snow Policy Research. The opening statement notes that despite the massive budget that is dedicated to snow policy, citizen satisfaction remains low. The 2015 snow policy survey concludes with three points: the need for better municipality-resident communication (to what end is not specified), specific snow-related infrastructural upgrades (wider roads? designated snow dumping plots at the neighborhood level?), and improved snow management practices by local enterprises (presumably the private snowplow contractors). 

So, putting aside images of idyllic scenes of earth covered in white and exciting ski resorts, it is clear that life Japan’s snowy regions exact a very real price, breaking both town and household budgets clearing the snow away and keeping one’s house warm. And even though the snowplows run all night (sometimes making a good night sleep difficult in the snow country), the roads are still a jumble of bumper-breaking icy potholes for four months a year. Snow country may be beautiful, but life there is hardly idyllic.

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Anthony S. Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He has a PhD from Monash University (Australia) in social sciences. His research focuses on the social science dynamics of rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalization Journalism (Routledge), Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalization (Brill), and editor of Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press). His wine of choice is an elegant Pinot Noir from Volnay.

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