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Prefecture threatens to sue after being ranked one of the “least attractive” places in Japan

Night scene of Kusatsu hot spring in Gunma Prefecture

A night scene at Kusatsu, a hot spring resort area in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Gunma was ranked the 44th least popular prefecture in Japan in 2021. Photograph by Nao Iizuka, from Flickr (image edited slightly from original). Image license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A Japanese prefecture is threatening legal action ″after being named one of Japan's “least attractive” places to visit.

Earlier this October, Gunma prefecture slipped from 40th to 44th place in Japan's annual ranking of Japan's 47 prefectures on the basis of their “attractiveness.” The results are announced each year by the Brand Research Institute, a private company based in Japan that Gunma's governor is considering taking to court.

This year Hokkaido took the top spot, with Kyoto and Okinawa claiming second and third place, respectively.

Although the Brand Research Institute states that rankings are based on 84 different attributes, Gunma governor Yamamoto Ichita stated the prefecture is considering legal action over the low grade it received in 2021.

In a stormy press conference following the release of the 2021 results, Yamamoto said:

「なぜ(前年から)結果が下がったのか理由が判然とせず、根拠不明確なランキングによって県に魅力がないとの誤った認識が広まる」

 It's unclear why Gunma's ranking went down (over the previous year). This imprecise ranking is going to spread the misconception that Gunma prefecture is unattractive.

‘We're just conducting consumer surveys’

An exurb of Tokyo, Gunma prefecture is part of the Kanto region in central Japan. An area of sprawling commuter towns and industrial areas, Gunma is best known for its mountains, alpine regions and ski hills, as well as for Kusatsu, one of Japan's most popular hot spring resorts.

Akagiyama panorama

“Akagiyama panorama,” by Raita Futo. Mount Akagi is located in Gunma prefecture. From Flickr. Image license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The bellicose remarks by the governor of Gunma might have a chilling effect on freedom of speech in Japan, according to the Brand Research Institute. In an interview with BengoshiDotCom (弁護士ドットコム), a news site focusing on legal issues in Japan, a representative of Brand Research Institute expressed puzzlement over Governor Yamamoto's remarks:

そもそも、我々は消費者調査を行い、その結果を発表しているだけであり、調査結果の発表を押さえつけようという発言であれば、それは言論の自由、報道の自由を妨害することでもあり、世の中のすべての調査結果の公表・公開を妨害するということになるのではないでしょうか

In the first place, we're just conducting consumer surveys and releasing the results. If there are attempts to suppress our findings, it would mean interfering with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It could (potentially result in) hindering the release and publication of any sort of research findings.

The 2021 survey was not bad news for everyone, however. Tochigi prefecture, which neighbors Gunma and is famed for the ornate Nikko temple complex, a UNESCO world heritage site, and for its fall colors, sprung back from last place in 2020, moving up six spots to be designated Japan's 41st most-attractive prefecture in 2021.

Tochigi's poor ranking in 2020 had also reportedly enraged the prefectural governor. Seeking re-election, Tochigi governor Fukuda Tomikazu was forced to address the declining “attractiveness” of Tochigi prefecture in the October 2020 local election campaign, shortly after rankings had been released. Once re-elected, besides developing a government website dedicated to rebuilding Tochigi's reputation “from rock bottom,” Fukuda persuaded Brand Research Institute to improve its research methodology.

In response, the Brand Research Institute amended the 2021 survey to include more survey respondents, increasing the sample size from about 600 people to around 1,000.

The annual survey asks respondents all over Japan to rank the attractiveness of the country's prefectures based on attributes including mountains, rivers, cuisine, and tourist attractions. The scores are then combined and converted into points to create the ranking.

Gunma Livin'

“Gunma Livin’,” by David Shackelford. From Flickr. Image license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Other prefectures also suffered setbacks in the 2021. Ibaraki, long ranked Japan's “least attractive” prefecture had advanced 5 spots in the 2020 ranking to 42nd place, but this year reclaimed 47th place as Japan's least appealing prefecture.

Still, for some residents of the suburban prefecture to the northeast of Tokyo, last place may be the best place to be. As one Ibaraki citizen said in 2020: “Ibaraki was famous for ranking last. 42nd place feels incomplete. 47th place is better.”

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