Japan's disappearing village a sign of things to come for rural Japan

Nanmoku is the oldest town in the oldest country in the world. How one Japanese town is dealing with a declining population, many elderly residents and a decrease in jobs.

With few children in school, no tax base and an elderly population, Nanmoku could soon die out

Many classes at the village elementary school sit empty. The number of students in the school is only 24 at the moment. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

About 100 kilometres from Tokyo, the frenetic capital of Japan, in the mountain village of Nanmoku, elementary school principal Keiko Kato, points to a graph that lays out the dilemma facing her town.

The Y axis denotes the number of children in the school, the X axis is time, and it shows a steep, constant decline that is about to hit zero.

Over the past 50 years, student numbers in the town of Nanmoku slid from around 1,200 to 24.

With each passing year, the children grew fewer and the town grew older. Today, Nanmoku, with a population of roughly 2,000 people, has the distinction of being the oldest town in the oldest country in the world, demographically speaking.

 
School principal Keiko Kato says the number of children in her school continues to decline. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Many rural towns in Japan are facing the same plight: declining populations, large numbers of older residents and, because of that, too few jobs.

Lots of people over 65, few children

While in all of Japan more than a quarter of the population is over 65, in Nanmoku it's 61 per cent.

Not only is Japan's population aging, it's shrinking. Too few babies are being born to replace people who are dying. The country as a whole has a labour shortage, and that means even if there are jobs, there isn't anyone to fill them.

Its fertility rate is 1.43 babies per woman. A rate of 2.07 is needed to maintain the current population, which sits just below 127 million people.

In 2017, the country's population dropped by 394,373, according to government data. If nothing changes the trend, government projections are that the population will fall below 100 million by 2053 and that the decline will only continue from there. 

Fewer babies each year means fewer workers, and that translates into an insufficient tax base to pay for the health care and retirement costs for the growing number of elderly.  

But as an educator, Kato sees benefits to the very small school population.

Kato says the small classes help teachers focus on individual student needs. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"Because there are so few students. We know them all," Kato says. "That way, we can personalize our teaching for each child."

Kato points out that the students all have their own computers and even their own individual equipment for science courses.

School classrooms sit empty

But most of the four-storey school sits empty.

Down the winding road from the school is the municipal building, where Saijo Hasegawa has been mayor for more than three years now.

Mayor Saijo Hasegawa explains his plan to invest in the village’s only resource: the elderly. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"What happened here is what's happening all over Japan, but it really happened over a shorter period of time," he said.

Hasegawa says Nanmoku was a farming town, but technological improvements to equipment over the years didn't work in the hilly environment. So, people left and didn't return.

Hasegawa says the population drop sent the cost of living in Nanmoku up. He says there are also infrastructure issues because the town doesn't have the proper tax base. 

Around the town, the impact can be seen in businesses that have closed up and houses that are empty. Roads that in other parts of Japan would have been re-paved show cracks and age.

Hasegawa says the village tried to reverse the exodus.

"About 20 or 30 years ago, they had a policy, for example, of giving people $3,000 if they moved here and had a baby. There was also something for if people got married."

Incentives to stay

Nanmoku isn't alone in trying to woo younger residents. Rural towns all over Japan have for years offered up various gimmicks in an effort to spur population growth.

There's even one case that was covered by international media of a town where there is a standing offer to give each newcomer a cow or the cash equivalent.

The village of Nanmoku sits in the mountains about 100 kilometres from Tokyo. Its mayor says it has the distinction of being chosen as the Japanese village most likely to disappear because of its shrinking population. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

None of it has worked.

Hasegawa doesn't have anything good to say about something called the Hometown Tax Donation Program, an attempt by the Japanese government to spread around some of the country's tax wealth to poorer districts.

It allowed people to donate a portion of their income and resident taxes to a rural area. In return, they're exempt from paying a portion of what they owe in taxes, and they get special gifts from the local area, anything from melons to sake and even crab or wagyu beef.

Hasegawa says it's fine if a town has something of value to give, but Nanmoku does not, so the program is of no help.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo, says the tax program is just a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution.

"I think that Japan's demographic problems are only going to worsen, and it's hard to be optimistic, because what can they really do?"

The country could open its doors to immigrants and refugees, but given current government policy, that's not likely to happen, he says.

Plan B for Nanmoku

Back in Nanmoku, Mayor Hasegawa has his own business plan to keep the town alive — he's investing in its only resource: its elderly population.

He says he ran on a promise to build more care homes for seniors. So far, one has been completed, and another is under construction. Some people have even returned to town to live in the homes, he says.

"We want to make sure that older people come back here but we also want to attract people to work in those homes."

All in their 90s, residents at Nanmoku’s newest care home talk about life in the new facility. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

At the newly built care home just a short walk away, a group of nonagenarians sits at table cracking jokes as they do crafts together. They're not shy about sharing their ages or about saying how much they like the company.

The facility next door that's under construction will have room for another 21 residents plus staff. But the village is still waiting to find out whether people will be attracted to live and work in Nanmoku because of the new jobs.

This report was produced with financial assistance from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

About the Author

By Adam Walsh and Philippe Grenier

Adam Walsh is a CBC Newfoundland and Labrador journalist working in Tokyo on a secondment to NHK, Japan's public broadcaster. Phillipe Grenier is a Radio-Canada videojournalist formerly stationed in St. John's, and now working in Tokyo.

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