December 8, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Bridging Asia's urban-rural divide

Japan's reverse 'youth drain' points the way for the region

YUKAKO ONO

If you ask for a bottle of beer at a swanky restaurant or chic bar in central Bangkok, you will most likely be served a Singha, the iconic Thai beer brand known for its mythical lion logo and its sponsorship of multiple English Premier League football clubs.

But if you go to a local restaurant off the main streets or travel upcountry, the staple brew will most likely be the cheaper Leo, which is actually Thailand's most popular beer by far, with a 53% share of the country's lucrative beer market.

Until recently, I had assumed that Singha was the country's leading beer. Its market share in fact stands at a mere 5%. "What a surprise," a Thai friend, a Bangkok-based banker in his 30s, said when I told him these figures. Similar reactions came from other middle-class Thais. Many of my fellow Japanese expats didn't even know about Leo, or assumed, like one friend, that it was a Singaporean brand.

The perspective gap between Singha and Leo is a telling reflection of the deep divide that exists in Thai society between middle-class urban dwellers and the rural population, mainly consisting of poor farmers. They are the vocal minority and the silent majority, respectively.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra exploited this gap by "listening" to the unheard voices of rural people and making them feel empowered for the first time. Populist policies such as cash distribution to villages and near-zero medical fees turned the farmers into a huge support base. Thaksin, ousted by a military coup in 2006, now lives in self-imposed exile. But his political parties have won every Thai election since 2001 -- demonstrating the innate power of the "invisible majority."

Thailand is not alone. Political shock waves from Britain's June 23 Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 have highlighted the international dimensions of the urban-rural divide. While working in London, I witnessed that historic and uneasy moment when the city's bankers and elites were forced to admit they were the country's minority. Every Londoner I met before the Brexit referendum had confidently assured me that the "remain" camp would win. It turned out they had no idea about popular sentiment outside the capital. Supposedly, those who voted to leave either didn't care much about or simply didn't believe the warnings from city elites about economic risks and uncertainties.

Bridging this divide should be simple enough: Listen to the voices and act. Thaksin came close to achieving this, but he failed. His populist policies were criticized as vote-buying tactics and ultimately provoked a backlash from the military-backed Bangkok elites, thus deepening the country's divide.

My home country, Japan, might offer some insights. With a large agrarian base, we also have a yawning urban-rural divide. But as larger cities become more crowded and competitive, a trend of "going rural" is emerging among the younger generation. They are turning to rural areas in pursuit of new lifestyles and fresh business chances.

According to a June 2014 survey by Japan's agriculture ministry, roughly 31% of urban dwellers said they wanted to live in rural areas, up from 20% in 2005. Interestingly, the ratio was close to 50% among male respondents in their 20s. Meanwhile, the number of people seeking advice at the government's migration consultancy center nearly quadrupled over the five years through 2013.

I can see these shifts taking hold on Facebook. Increasingly, among the photos of babies and pets that flood my timeline are images of idyllic rural scenes and rustic farms. A 36-year-old friend, for example, quit his consultancy job in Tokyo a few years ago to move to a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, north of Tokyo, that was hit by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant crisis. He is developing a tablet-based network service to keep the town's 20,000 residents, all still living in temporary housing, connected.

Another friend moved to his grandparents' classic, Japanese-style house and renovated it into a guesthouse. Others have returned to their hometowns to take care of family businesses such as hotels and farms.

Youth drain from the rural areas is a typical narrative of the urban-rural divide. But just like young people in the countryside yearn for a glamorous city life, some young city dwellers are opting for a low-key, rural life with less time on the computer and cheaper living costs. But there's always time, of course, to post scenic pictures on Instagram and perhaps enjoy a cold bottle of Leo beer.

Yukako Ono is a Bangkok-based staff writer with the Nikkei Asian Review.

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