This article examines the impact of contemporary higher education policy at a rural university in Japan. Hirosaki University, although a national university with an attached medical school, is far from the centre of academia in Japan, with a comparatively low ranking among national universities in Japan, and severe budget constraints. The policies that influence the trajectory of the university simultaneously illustrate two dimensions. On the one hand, they reflect global trends of neoliberal higher educational governance as these unfold in a leading nation-state within Asia. On the other hand, they show how policies originating within central government ministries and dictated by population and budget dynamics yield a highly localised outcome that forces a peripheral university to concentrate its efforts predominantly in its own community.