Bloomberg News

Hula Girls Revive Quake-Hit Fukushima Town at Hawaii Theme Park

February 09, 2012

Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- A Hawaiian theme park that propped up the economy of a rural Japanese town in Fukushima prefecture for 45 years was forced to close after the March 11 earthquake. Almost a year later, the hula girls have returned.

The Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki will open its indoor pools and host wedding parties and Hawaiian luaus in a new hotel from Feb. 8. Structural damage from the magnitude-9 temblor and concerns about radiation leaking from the Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the north closed the resort, a semi-roofed complex six times the size of Tokyo Dome and surrounded by rice fields and hot springs.

The spa, featured in the award-winning 2006 film “Hula Girls,” offers a rare example of a community bouncing back from a catastrophe that left almost 20,000 dead or missing in the Tohoku region of northeast Japan, and forced about 160,000 to evacuate areas within 30 kilometers of the plant. The disaster accelerated a trend toward shrinking and aging populations in the countryside even as big cities grow.

“The spa’s return to business is a symbol of recovery in a sense that it can cheer up the local community and provide huge economic support,” said Hiroyasu Ishikawa, chief researcher at Mizuho Research Institute Ltd. “If folks from around Japan visit the Hawaiians, it might spur a Tohoku region recovery.”

The resort contributed 1.7 trillion yen ($22 billion) to the region’s economy in the first 40 years after it opened, according to Ishikawa. While not economically significant to the nation as a whole, Spa Hawaiians is a symbol of resilience in a pocket of the country that has been in decline for decades.

Town Transformation

Iwaki was a coal-mining town until a shift to oil-fueled power generation led to mining closures in the 1960s, threatening its existence. With few other options, the town council voted to transform Iwaki into a tourism destination by using natural hot springs to supply a spa, which was initially called the Joban Hawaiian Center in 1966. The vacation spot, managed by Joban Kosan Co., now employees about 700 people.

The town could be a model for other rural communities facing possible extinction. While Tokyo’s annual gross domestic product grew 2.2 percent to 89.7 trillion yen over the 11-year period ended in December 2008, Fukushima’s shrank by 7.2 percent in the same period to 7.7 trillion yen, according to Cabinet Office data.

Fukushima, Japan’s fourth-largest rice-growing region in 2010, accounts for less than 2 percent of the national economy.

‘Shrinking Population’

“A shrinking population means we need to attract lots of people from outside or sell local goods outside for growth,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Research Institute in Tokyo. “All of rural Japan faces this problem. With a lower birth rate and aging population, we have to rely on tourism or agriculture. Fukushima would be a good model and will be watched closely.”

Almost 2,800 villages may be in danger of disappearing, according to a report released last March by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications about migration and the aging population. In the same report, 16 percent of the villages said more than half their populations were aged 65 or older.

The number of people in Fukushima prefecture fell to 1.9 million as of Jan. 1 from 2.1 million in 1990.

A report released in July by the same ministry showed that the number of towns and villages threatened with depopulation was 44.9 percent in 2010, up from 32.3 percent in 1972. In 1960, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka accounted for 15 percent of Japan’s population. As of 2010, more than half of the nation lived in those three cities, and the number of people in Tokyo rose to a record 13.2 million as of Jan. 1, according to census data.

Troupe of Dancers

The troupe of dancers, many of them from Iwaki, went on a five-month nationwide tour after the March 11 quake to reassure the public that the city and resort are safe from radiation. In the four months since the leisure complex opened partially in October, visitor numbers are down 60 percent from levels a year ago. Visitor numbers will return the pre-disaster level of 1.45 million a year by 2014, said Eisuke Suzuki, a spokesman for the resort.

“It’s vital to bring people back into Iwaki city and Fukushima prefecture as soon as possible,” Kazuhiko Saito, president of Joban Kosan, said in an e-mail on Feb. 2. “I have absolute faith that the grand opening of Spa Hawaiians will revitalize tourism in the surrounding areas and help the industry regain its role as a driver of the broader economy.”

In anticipation of a rebound in business, the resort is recruiting wedding planners, cleaning staff and beauty stylists, who can earn as much as 4,000 yen per hour, according to an ad posted on Livedoor’s website.

Feb. 25 Wedding

The first wedding since the closure is scheduled for Feb. 25, according to the spa’s web site.

“I feel like we’re finally able to take our first step toward reconstruction,” said Rie Omori, a hula dancer, who declined to give her age in line with company policy. “Though the full recovery may be still far away, I’d like to walk hand in hand with others toward our future.”

--With assistance from Eleanor Warnock and Theresa Barraclough and Taku Kato in Tokyo. Editors: Brian Fowler, Teo Chian Wei

To contact the reporters on this story: Monami Yui in Tokyo at myui1@bloomberg.net; Mariko Ishikawa in Tokyo at mishikawa9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Fowler at bfowler4@bloomberg.net


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