UTSUNOMIYA, Japan—Takaaki Nammoku has spent his entire life in Utsunomiya, save for studies at a university.
"I didn't want to admit I was from Utsunomiya when I went to college," the city-government worker said glumly. "I just knew what the next question would be: 'Where's Utsunomiya?' "
Utsunomiya is neither here nor there, some might say. The city is located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the nation's capital—not close enough to Tokyo to be considered part of its urban sprawl and not far enough away to make it a relaxing weekend getaway. Roughly half a million people live there, amid an endless grid of roads in an area as flat as the American plains.
It also has a lot of concrete shopping centers. And more than a few shops in its covered pedestrian walkway—a staple in regional Japanese cities—are closed. On a recent weekday afternoon, only a few elderly citizens milled about. Like most Japanese towns, 20% of its population is 65 years of age or older.Utsunomiya City Messages from locals about 'fun things' to do are part of an effort to lure residents.
Eiichi Sato, the mayor of Utsunomiya (pronounced Oot-su-no-MEE-ya), facing economic stagnation and a declining population, and aware of the collective inferiority complex among his constituents, decided he had to do something.
"We needed a brand message and we needed new tactics," Mayor Sato said. "I want people to live here and stay. I want people to stay here until they die. We want people outside of Utsunomiya to know it's a great place."
Two years ago, he hired one of the country's leading advertising agencies—at a cost of at least 100 million yen ($1.2 million)— and gave it the daunting task of creating a hip branding campaign for the town.
Hakuhodo Inc., Japan's second-biggest ad agency, built a wide-ranging promotion centered around a simple slogan: "A lovely place to live, Utsunomiya."
Soon, television commercials were aired, one featuring a young boy expertly playing the trumpet. Late last year, a massive group-dating event was held. Participants received a wristband that allowed them to enter various venues and chat with people. A surprising 1,500 people showed up.
A big part of the campaign had to do with its turning local citizens into what the agency called "creative directors." At least 200 people have appeared on posters, holding up their personal messages extolling the city's virtues.
"The mood of the whole town was bleak. We wanted the citizens to build up their own confidence by getting everyone involved," said Fumiko Kinoshita, a producer at Hakuhodo.
One of the poster messages reads: "Utsunomiya gyoza is awesome."
Gyoza, or pan-fried dumplings, is the town's main claim to fame. Utsunomiya has the highest per capita gyoza-consumption rate in Japan and spends the most money on the dumplings. Government data show the average household in Utsunomiya city spent 479 yen on ready-to-eat gyoza purchased at supermarkets in December 2010. Tokyoites spent less than half that. Utsunomiya's unofficial mascot is a mock version of Botticelli's Venus, emerging not from a seashell but from a gyoza wrapper.
Last autumn, the city's annual gyoza festival drew 120,000 people from all over Japan, one of its best turnouts yet.
As a result of the campaign, the city seemed to be rising from its torpid state. Then the March 11 disasters struck Japan. Utsunomiya was left relatively undamaged, but life there changed for many. The city took in 200 evacuees from the area around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant, after they had spent a month in various public gyms and other facilities scattered around the area.
Utsunomiya city officials thought it wasn't right to continue the promotion in the same way. "We voluntarily refrained from launching new campaigns," said Mr. Sato, adding that it wasn't the time to be trying to lure people to settle in Utsunomiya. "So much is still uncertain right now, and people who have been forced to leave invariably want to go back to their home at some point."
City officials waited for several weeks before edging their way back into the campaign. Since May 22, a new slogan promotes life in the city, adding, "Now is the time to be positive" to its original line: "A lovely place to live, Utsunomiya."
"We came to decide to do even more to cheer up the people, given the circumstances the society has been put in," says the city's branding manager Takaaki Nanmoku. In June, officials brought back the city mascot, Miyary—a fairy in a crown of flowers whose name is derived from Utsunomiya and the word "fairy"—and launched an official blog featuring the character at various local events.
Last month, Miyary visited the city of Koriyama in Fukushima to meet with the Koriyama city's mascot. Utsunomiya's unique initiative has caught the eye of other local leaders, as regional towns increasingly compete against one another to attract residents.
Ebina, for example, a small city about an hour away from Tokyo—asked Utsunomiya's agency to come up with a slogan for it ("To your field: Ebina"), though it didn't have the funds for a full-blown campaign.
Even before the March disasters, towns that were once vibrant hubs of commerce and activity had become shells of their former selves, as the country's overall population ages and shrinks, and manufacturing is increasingly outsourced to lower-cost countries in Asia.
Regions severely damaged by the quake reported in the Bank of Japan's quarterly review, unveiled in July, that they have continued to face hard times, even though seven of nation's nine regions have upgraded their economic assessment since April.
Since its campaign began, Utsunomiya has been featured more than 225 times in the Japanese media, resulting in the equivalent of more $3.5 million dollars of coverage, according to Hakuhodo's estimates. The effort may not have added to the population, but it does seem to have boosted civic pride.
"What's not to like about Utsunomiya?" asked Akiko Kondo, a 32-year-old mother, who has spent her entire life in the city.
"Sure, there are good things about Tokyo, like being able to go to a concert after work, but I can get pretty much everything I want here," she said. "My husband is set to be posted to Hokkaido or Mie prefecture soon, but I am staying in Utsunomiya."
For Mr. Nammoku, the government employee: "After this campaign, people can say, I like Utsunomiya; they're not embarrassed to admit it."— Miho Inada contributed to this article.
Write to Mariko Sanchanta at email@example.com