Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.
On a recent afternoon in the rural Japanese town of Kanna-machi, all seemed well. Children splashed in the town’s namesake river; their parents relaxed nearby at a bankside summer beer garden. A gaggle of laughing teenagers in muddy uniforms strolled home along the town’s main road after an afternoon baseball practice. Set against lush mountain views, life here seems idyllic.
But Kanna-machi, deep in Japan’s central Gunma Prefecture, is living on borrowed time. It’s set to be among the first municipal victims of Japan’s demographic trajectory.
The phenomenon is called shoushikoureika—the combined effects of an aging population, anemic birthrate, and surging demand for social services. Japan’s population is set to lose up to one-third of its population, down to 88 million people, by 2065. In 2017, fewer than 1 million babies were born in Japan, the smallest number ever recorded—until 2018, when the country handily beat the previous year’s low. In 2016, the nation’s population declined 330,786, the seventh straight year of decrease, and the largest year-over-year drop since such record-keeping began in 1968—until 2018, when a population decline of 449,000 was recorded. Census figures show a population contraction of almost 1 million people since 2010.
Within Japan, other demographic shifts are transforming society. Young residents are leaving the countryside in droves and concentrating in larger cities. Political science professor Hisakazu Kato of Meiji University refers to this as a “pole society,” with major urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka drawing in younger people as rural areas empty out. Overall population decline is then exacerbated by the precipitously low birthrates in these metropolises. Tokyo residents have the fewest babies the country, for instance, despite their relative affluence and job opportunities, thanks in part to a lack of child-care spaces and social services, as well as the grueling schedules many urban Japanese workers pursue.
With fewer young people and a glut of elderly residents—among the longest-lived in the world—many rural towns appear to be locked into a demographic death spiral. If current trends continue, by 2040, 869 municipalities—nearly half of Japan’s total—will be at risk of vanishing, according to the Japan Policy Council. As many as 80 percent of municipalities in some prefectures may disappear over the next 40 years, their populations having shrunk beyond the point of viability.
The impacts of this demographic polarization are already evident, in the hundreds of towns and hamlets known as genkai shūraku—“marginal villages”—where most residents are elderly. In rural prefectures, millions of homes and properties have been abandoned; some homes sit empty even in the Tokyo suburbs.
But many towns and cities facing debilitating long-term depopulation are resisting their fate. They’re deploying a series of aggressive, homegrown approaches to roll back this seemingly inexorable trend in a bid to survive—and perhaps even grow.
To fight population decline: tourists, mascots, and beer gardens
Located 70 miles northwest of Tokyo in the central Kanto Region, Kanna-machi is on the forefront on this demographic reckoning, and for years it’s been a poster child for towns threatened with disappearance. As of March of this year, the town has just 1,840 residents, 59 percent of whom are over age 65. It’s Japan’s second-oldest town, demographically speaking. Nearby Nanmoku is the oldest.
Accessible via a single—if immaculately maintained and scenic—road, Kanna is bordered by lush mountains and is built along the banks of its namesake river. As in many small communities in Japan, economic opportunities here are limited: The bulk of local employment comes from mountaintop limestone mining, agriculture, and, in the Japanese tradition, pork-barrel construction projects funded by the national government.
Kanna boasts a few modest general stores, a bakery, a watch repair shop, and an onsen, or traditional Japanese-style hot spring. In stark contrast to the hustle, noise, and glittering hyper-modernity of Tokyo, Kanna seems to turn itself in early for the night. At 5 p.m., the town’s public-address system plays the town’s traditional quitting song—here, it’s the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Time to go home.
For Kanna, the loss of its young people occurs early. Upon completing middle school, top performing students generally undertake their high school studies at more prestigious schools in the prefecture’s major cities of Maebashi and Takasaki. A university education even further afield then follows. From there, few return to Kanna.
Tomomi Saito, 31, is an exception to this trend. She returned to Kanna full-time after completing her studies at the Takasaki City University of Economics to work as an educational assistant before joining the town office as an administrator with the Board of Education. “I want to maintain Kanna’s pride in itself,” she told me when asked why she came back to her tiny hometown. She cited the town’s scenery and rich culture, and the relaxed pace of life here compared to Japan’s major cities.
Saito is not alone in that regard—the town has welcomed a 28-year old tourism coordinator and a recently graduated nurse to join Kanna’s medical clinic. But for every returnee a small town such as Kanna receives, others leave permanently to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Among the fundamental challenges for rural towns: transportation and lack of economic opportunities. Kanna technically sits just outside the border of the massive Greater Tokyo Area, but the nearest train station is an hour away by car. And non-tourism jobs in the area are largely limited to low-paying agriculture, construction, and mining work. Kanna is hard-pressed to compete with larger cities for better paying, white-collar positions.
Fifteen years ago, when the issue of declining populations first came to prominence, a spate of town mergers occurred as a stopgap measure. Adjoining villages were melded into a larger municipal body; the former town councils and services consolidated into a new central bureaucracy for so-called merger towns. Kanna-machi itself is the result of such an amalgamation of two smaller villages in 2003. The well has run dry on that particular solution, however: Were Kanna to merge again, its only options are two modest towns to its north and south; both are more than 20 kilometers away.
So Kanna has had to be creative. Beginning in 2009, the town began trying harder to leverage its striking natural surroundings and local history in the hopes of expanding its modest local tourism sector.
The remote mountain location that keeps Kanna isolated could also be its economic salvation. In the fall, day-trippers flock to the area as the leaves begin to change color. During the country’s Golden Week celebrations last spring, more than 20,000 revelers came to Kanna’s Koinobori festival, which featured hundreds of carp-shaped streamers decorating the village and countryside. In the summer, a riverside beer garden and campground have proven to be a popular draw, thanks to unusually oppressive heat last year in Japan. The town also hosts the Kanna Mountain Run and Walk, a grueling 26-kilometer mountain marathon course that attracts participants from across the country and abroad.
To fuel its visitor appeal, the town is emphasizing its most unique attraction: dinosaurs. Kanna is near the site of the first fossilized dinosaur footprints found in Japan. In 1987, a sprawling dinosaur museum opened on the riverside near the town’s center, with a major renovation completed in May of this year. The museum marked visitor number 1,111,111 this past summer. There’s a massive fossil dominating the lobby of the town hall, and local craftsmen turn out increasing numbers of handmade model dinosaurs. A new town mascot, the perpetually cheerful Saurus-kun, furthers the dinosaur angle through his many media appearances.
Indeed, Saurus-kun has proven to be something of a breakout star for Kanna: His “character goods”—plushies, pins, stationery and the like—frequently sell out, according to town officials. One particularly sought-after memento by tourists are the dinosaur-shaped business cards issued to town employees—something of a sensation in the generally staid world of Japanese officialdom.
Even the winding mountain road leading to Kanna has been turned into an attraction: It holds one of Japan’s newest “melody roads”—a stretch of specially grooved asphalt whose vibrations play a tune when driven over. If you’re driving into town at exactly 28 mph, you’ll hear the traditional Japanese folk tune “Koinobori” singing through your tires.
A different tack: foreign recruitment
About 480 miles away from Kanna, the city of Izumo is taking a different, perhaps more radical approach to ensuring its long-term viability: an aggressive campaign to recruit foreign residents, particularly Portuguese speakers, to the city.
Izumo City is a town of 175,000 residents in the southern prefecture of Shimane—the second-least populous in Japan. It’s perhaps best known as the home of Izumo-taisha, Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine. Izumo faces competition for its young residents from larger nearby cities like Hiroshima; as with Kanna-machi, it is itself a merger town, having joined with the former town of Kamogawa in 2011. Thanks in part to this consolidation, Izumo has so far managed to avoid the precipitous population declines experienced elsewhere in the country. Overall population figures have remained remarkably flat over the last three decades, with only minor variances from year to year.
To further combat its demographic malaise, the city in 2016 launched an unusual plan in historically insular Japan: Dubbed the Multicultural Living Promotion Plan, the initiative sought to increase the number of long-term foreign residents in the city to 30 percent by 2021 through an aggressive recruitment and retention campaign. Online digital advertisements targeted Brazilian-born residents of Japan, owing to historic ties between the two countries. The city launched a Portuguese-language Facebook page, Curta Izumo. Local employers also began outreach. Photos of a Portuguese-language job advertisement—a rarity in Japan—went viral last year on Twitter. According to town spokesperson Hiroyuki Tachibana, similar English-language campaigns were undertaken by the city as well.
Thanks to these efforts, the town was able to meet its recruitment target early this year—two years ahead of schedule. The success in attracting Portuguese residents in particular was so rapid, in fact, that the town is now scrambling to expand its Portuguese-language services to residents. It is part of the slowly growing accommodation for non-Japanese speakers in the country.
In addition to the digital outreach, Tachibana credits the appeal of Izumo’s relaxed lifestyle, compared to the more hectic page of larger cities, as well as its natural offerings. But he remains circumspect on whether other towns will follow suit: “I do not know if [other cities] will use the Izumo model,” in attempting to woo new foreign residents, he said.
Indeed, despite the aging crisis and declining birthrate—and the severe labor crunch those conditions have brought with them—Japan has been reluctant to tap into immigration as a solution, emphasizing instead various birthrate-boosting countermeasures. A new skilled worker visa program designed to bring in foreign-born laborers saw only a handful of recipients this year. As worries of gai-atsu—foreign influence—linger, the Izumo model may prove a tough sell, despite its evident success.
Meanwhile, Japan’s overall population trajectory remains firmly fixed on its worrying course: Preliminary government figures from the first half of 2019 showed that the number of new babies born in the country had the sharpest drop in 30 years.