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Japan looks to Portland as urban model

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mitsu Yamazaki, PDC's international business development officer, leads a delegation of leaders from Japan during the FutureCity tour. Japan is looking to Portland for development inspiration. 


Portland has a secret admirer across the Pacific Ocean.

It’s the nation of Japan, which has lately seen a wave of Portland-inspired interest in food, drink, culture and design.

Now they want to learn from Portland’s urban planning efforts, too.

A delegation of 50 Japanese leaders were in town last week to tour the city and check out what projects and policies might be adaptable for their own towns, many of which are suffering from population decline.

“Japan is obsessed with all the leading cities in the world — Brooklyn, New York City, Boston,” says Mitsu Yamazaki, international business development officer at the Portland Development Commission, who’s been working with Japan’s government for the past three and a half years. “But recently, because of the lifestyle shift, Portland has been at the top of their minds.”

The jaunt is part of the FutureCity Initiative, a five-year effort by the Japanese government to inject economic growth into their smaller towns. While the conference has been held in Japan and Malaysia each year, this is its first time meeting outside of Asia.

The stakes are high.

After two decades of economic stagnation in Japan — including the bursting of a real estate bubble, the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and other challenges — Tokyo now is preparing to host the 2020 Olympics.

But it won’t be a silver bullet, Yamazaki says: “It’s going to be a short-term injection of econonomic activity, but long-term, they will keep losing population. If it goes as predicted, the smaller towns that exist today — about 1,000 towns — will die or go bankrupt. There’s a very serious effort around the nation.”

The mayors of those Japanese towns came to Portland along with high-ranking leaders in the Japanese government, seeking inspiration from the urban development and citizen engagement efforts here.

While Portland hosts international leaders all the time, Amy Nagy, PDC’s business development coordinator for the clean-tech industry, calls this particular type of tour “unprecedented.”

The Japanese delegates met here Feb. 8-10 along with 150 industry leaders (architects, engineers and attorneys) from the United States and Canada.

On Monday, they toured Portland’s proudest developments, including downtown and the Pearl District as well as the Lloyd District, central eastside, Tilikum Crossing and the South Waterfront, plus free time for their own exploration.

On Tuesday, they listened to speakers from Portland and Japan talk about sustainable urban development and community cooperation.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Metro President Tom Hughes spoke, as well as Japanese leader Naotaka Kawakami, acting director general of the Office for Promotion of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan, part of a Cabinet office.

Shuzo Murakami, president of the Institute for Building Environment and Energy Conservation in Japan, gave the keynote lecture on moving toward a sustainable society.

A handful of Japanese mayors also presented case studies of their towns, whose residents have been rushing to the big cities because of the economic development there. “But now they realize they need to revitalize the smaller towns,” Yamazaki says. “Here we are, small town Portland, gaining people every day.”

Yamazaki says Japan’s government leaders also have recognized that change needs to be implemented at the local level, rather than top-down.

“Portland’s message all along is you should try to be more independent, let citizens decide what they want and how they want it,” he says. “Whatever placemaking, economic development (happens), it’s really the town’s own way of doing things. I think that was conveyed yesterday.”

Portland’s presence in Japan

Thanks to social media and business development efforts by the PDC, there already is a steady exchange between Japan and Portland.

A number of Portland establishments have opened in Japan in the past few years, including Blue Star Donuts, Slappy Cakes, Stumptown Coffee, Navarre restaurant and PDX Taproom, a bar with 10 Portland beers on tap in the heart of Tokyo.

Tokyo opened its first food cart pod thanks to inspiration from Portland, according to “True Portland: The Unofficial Guide for Creative People,” a guidebook written in Japanese.

A Japanese department store held its own Portland Fair last week, celebrating everything from Portland-made artisan chocolate, honey, tea and salt to craft beer, coffee, drinking vinegar and kombucha.

In Portland, a local nonprofit called From Portland With Love held its second charity concert last Thursday to support Oregon’s sister city of Minamisoma, Fukushima, with their tsunami and earthquake recovery efforts.

And in May, a contingent from Japan will be in Portland for the third annual Pop Up Portland event, featuring 10 local makers and designers.

Much of the exchange comes thanks to Yamazaki’s efforts working with Japanese leaders for three and a half years on urban development partnerships.

He’s wooed big Japanese names like Marukin ramen to locate here (at the new Pine Street Market food hall), and launched a Pop Up Portland event in Tokyo to feature everything from outdoor gear to footwear, bicycles to stationary.

He’s helped bring Japanese outdoor gear companies Montbell and Snowpeak to Portland, with help from state and county tax incentives.

And he helped negotiate the sale of land in Old Town for Japan’s largest hotel chain, Toyoko Inn.

Yamazaki says the Future City delegation came to town with a lot of questions, like how the city’s compactness helps in policy making, and why there are a lot of organic grocery stores and urban farms.

“People don’t put the two together, but that’s a result of the urban growth boundary,” Yamazaki says. “There are many areas we have to dig down and explain.”

@jenmomanderson