This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.
If there is anywhere in Japan that appears to be in decline today, it is the countryside. Rural areas have been depopulating since the 1950s, when young men, sometimes with their families in tow, migrated to the cities to find work in the urban factories that propelled Japan’s postwar industrialization.
The blows to rural communities kept coming. The relaxation of timber imports in the 1960s hurt towns dependent on forestry. The decision to shift to oil-fired power plants in the early 1970s pummeled coal mining regions. Globalization, the centralization of universities and economic activity in urban centers, particularly Tokyo, and the rise of overseas tourism drew more jobs (and people) out of the countryside.
The depopulation of Japanese rural areas came despite a thick pipeline of money and public works projects from the central government. Revitalization of the countryside was a policy goal during the five decades of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule to 2009; the LDP, most memorably politicians like Kakuei Tanaka, promised much to win the rural vote. In 1989, the administration of Noboru Takeshita even went so far as to launch the Furusato Sosei Undo, or the Hometown Revitalization Movement, doling out 100 million yen grants to villages.
Areas that met a national definition of depopulation have been able to tap into additional funding through depopulation bonds. These bonds—which are still being issued today—have been a mixed blessing for rural towns and villages: they are both a crucial lifeline and a disincentive to try to attract new residents, lest the municipality lose its designation as a depopulated zone.
Many who have remained in the countryside are older people. As a result, the greying of Japan resembles a wave, rolling from remote rural regions into the cities. As of 2010, according to government data, the oldest prefecture in Japan was Akita, where 30 percent of the population was elderly, followed by Shimane, Yamagata, Iwate, and Yamaguchi. (The youngest prefecture, by comparison, is Okinawa, where only 16.9 percent of the population was over 65 as of 2010; Tokyo was the second-youngest prefecture at 19.9 percent elderly.) There are believed to be some 8,000 communities where half the population is elderly, a phenomenon known as genkai shuraku. In these areas, abandoned schools, empty houses, and brazen wildlife attest to the decline.
The shrinking and aging of the population in rural areas at a time when central government finances are also coming under increasing pressure raises several questions. Should these communities try to reverse their own aging and depopulation, competing with other shrinking areas to lure younger residents from the city? Or should they instead try to accept their fate and focus on improving the quality of life for the residents who remain? How do you offer more public services with a dwindling tax base?
If these questions were not hard enough, local government officials in these regions face other unusual issues. Many of the most rapidly aging areas are located in mountainous terrain; older residents are scattered in remote districts not always accessible by public bus. Health care is another challenge: Often, aging rural towns have few or even no doctors, and frail, sick elderly residents have to travel to another municipality for treatment. After the death of a spouse, elderly live alone, often in houses built for three generations that require constant upkeep. Pension fraud and depression are among the other social issues aging rural towns must confront.
From an administrative perspective, moving elderly into homes or public housing would make it much easier to provide services to them. But unlike China, Japan cannot simply force people to move elsewhere. Japanese have a strong connection to their home, to the land, and to their community. Plus, for those who can still farm, the land is their source of food.
The shrinking and aging of rural Japan sounds like a sad story of irreversible decline. And indeed some communities will disappear. But their fate is fueling a new kind of activism among younger local residents who see the villages’ clean water and air, natural environment, and empty school places as selling points.
Residents of Nanmoku, in Gunma prefecture, for instance, pressed the government to advertise some of the town’s empty houses online. In another town in Tottori prefecture, residents and officials have created a "kindergarten in the forest" for children and a "forest therapy" program for adults.
For city residents fed up with cramped housing and rush hour subways, these homespun programs—rather than the big public works of yore—may be the nudge they need to consider a move to the countryside. The challenge ahead for these declining towns, and indeed for all of Japan, is to create an environment where young people feel they can afford to have children.
Rural Japan might be just the right place to raise the next generation of Japanese children.
Alexandra Harney is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. Her research focuses on Japan’s economy and demographics, and she is affiliated with the Research Institute of Economy, Trade, and Industry in Tokyo.