A couple strolls through rural Yamagata Prefecture, which is expected to lose more than one-third of women between the ages of 20 and 40 by 2040.
B.S.P.I. / Getty

Can Anything Stop Rural Decline?

Small towns across Japan are on the verge of collapse. Whether they can do so gracefully has consequences for societies around the globe.

TOCHIKUBO, Japan—The children had moved to the big city, never to return.

So their parents, both over 70, live out their days in this small town in the mountains, gazing at the rice paddies below, wondering what will become of the house they built, the garden they tended, the town they love.

“I don’t expect them to come back,” Kensaku Fueki, 73, told me, about his three daughters, all married and living in Tokyo. “It’s very tough to live on farming.”

For decades, young people have been fleeing this rural village, lured by the pull of Japan’s big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Tochikubo’s school now has eight children, and more than half of the town’s 170 people are over the age of 50. “Who will come here now?” said Fueki, who grew up in this village and remembers a time when many of the houses weren’t abandoned, when more people farmed the land and children roamed the streets.

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This village is not an anomaly. Japan is slowly becoming something like one big city-state, with the majority of the population centered in an urban belt that runs through the cluster of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, all located relatively near each other, along the route of Japan’s bullet train. In 1950, 53 percent of Japan’s population lived in urban regions; by 2014, 93 percent did. (In the U.S., by contrast, 81 percent of the population lives in urban regions.) It is mostly young people who move to the cities, and that means that as Japan’s population ages, the cities and towns outside the city-state are left to fade away. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs says that now, around 15,000 of Japan’s 65,000 or so communities have more than half of their population over the age of 65.

In some rural regions, nature is reclaiming the land. Families are tearing down unused homes, turning the land back into fields. Bear attacks near settlements in Japan’s north are increasing as humans stop pruning back trees and maintaining their land. Wild boars have been ravaging farmland across the island of Honshu. “What will happen in the future, for most places, the only outcome will be total disappearance,” said Peter Matanle, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Sheffield, who has extensively studied Japan’s rural decline. Fields and empty lots will replace homes and farmland, and in some places, only graveyards will be left to mark the land where people once lived.

A controversial 2014 book by Hiroya Masuda, a former governor of Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, predicted that 896 cities, towns, and villages would be extinct by 2040. Dozens of towns will see the number of young people drop significantly, as the share of elderly people grows, he predicted. Overall, Japan’s population is expected to shrink from a peak of 128 million in 2010 to 97 million by 2050.

The disappearance of towns and cities across rural Japan is not necessarily a problem in itself. Civilizations change; towns that were once population hubs become smaller and turn into ghost towns, and then fields. The problem is getting from here to there. Japanese towns are wrestling with dilemmas like how to run their governments with fewer tax dollars, and how to provide services for an increasingly needy population with fewer workers. To make this all the more challenging, governance is strained by the population decline as well: In Yamagata Prefecture, 45 percent of seats in the local assembly race in 2015 were uncontested because of a lack of candidates.

Other regions of the world will soon have to face these challenges, too. Just about every developed country is aging and urbanizing, though Japan is doing so the fastest. Its solutions to combating this decline may be significant for the rest of the world. So, too, may its failures.

The reasons that Japan’s rural population is shrinking and aging mirror those in the United States and other developed countries. Jobs are increasingly clustered in cities, and the jobs that remain in the countryside require fewer workers than they did half a century ago. “There are very few economic opportunities outside major cities,” John Mock, an anthropologist at Temple University’s Japan campus, told me. Unlike the United States, which has colleges and universities located across the country, Japan has few major learning centers located outside major cities, Mock said. That means as young people increasingly pursue college educations, they leave for the cities, and often don’t return.

“They graduate high school, they go to university in Tokyo, they start working in Tokyo, and they set up their lives in Tokyo and never come back,” said Hiroko Seki, a 76-year old woman who runs a stationery store in a small city called Minamiuonuma, 20 minutes down the hill from Tochikubo by car. Seki’s store, which was founded by her grandparents 86 years ago, was one of the few businesses open on a street full of shuttered shops. She lives upstairs with her son, who is helping to run the store, and his family, but her two other children live in Tokyo and aren’t planning on coming back. Of the 500 or so teenagers who graduate high school in Minamiuonuma every year, only about 100 remain in the city after graduating. Everybody else goes off to college, and only 40 come back after graduating from college on average, the mayor, Shigeo Hayashi, told me.

There’s another reason that rural areas in Japan have a faster-growing share of elderly people than those in the rest of the world: the country’s falling fertility rate. Japan's fertility rate fell by a third between 1972 and 2015; the U.S.’s fell by 8 percent during that same period. When a population is shrinking and most of that population lives in urban centers, that spells problems for rural areas like Tochikubo and Minamiuonuma, unless there is a lot of immigration. “It's a mathematical, cast-iron certainty under national population decline that as Tokyo continues to grow, everywhere else continues to shrink,” Matanle said.

The problem is not necessarily that Japan will run out of money to care for its growing elderly population. In 2000, the country implemented a mandatory long-term care insurance program that is paid into by everyone over 40. Elderly people, even in rural areas, can receive services like home help and adult day care for moderate fees.  But someone needs to be around to provide these services.

The question, for rural regions, isn’t so much how to prevent the inevitable as to how to slow it down, slow enough that the pain it causes is less severe. Right now, the decline of these places is happening fast, within a generation or two. If it can be a more gradual process, perhaps then basic social services can at least survive for long enough to provide for the remaining residents.

Villagers in places like Tochikubo farm rice in the mountains; the average age of active farmers in Japan is now 66.  (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

One obvious solution to reversing, or at least slowing, rural Japan’s decline would be to open up the country to immigration. Just 1.8 percent of the country’s population is foreign-born, compared to 13 percent of the population in the United States. But Japan is a country whose national identity is, in some ways, based upon racial homogeneity. Proposals to significantly increase immigration have gone nowhere, and polls consistently find that two-thirds of Japanese are against large-scale immigration. And it’s unlikely that immigrants, even if they were allowed in, would move to rural areas where there are few jobs even for the people who want to stay.

Many areas have focused on attracting new residents with attractions like new community centers, schools, and medical facilities, but they’re all competing against each other as they do so. In Minamiuonuma, for instance, city leaders talk about their newly-built global IT park, where start-ups can set up offices for low rent, and a business academy for people interested in creating their own business. They built a brand-new hospital and medical college to attract doctors and nurses, and are in the process of building a series of homes for active retired people in the hope that retirees will want to relocate to the city. Like almost every other shrinking city, Minamiuonuma sends brochures to young people from the region to try to get them to come home. But still, the population continues to shrink. City leaders told me their initiatives are simply hoping to slow the rate of decline, so that the city of 60,000 will have 43,000 residents in 2060, rather than the 37,000 it is currently projected to have.

Other areas are trying to grow the population they have by increasing the birth rate. Both Minamiuonuma and Tochikubo sit in Niigata Prefecture, which is expected to be among the regions hardest-hit by population decline. Masuda, the Iwate governor, predicted that Niigata will lose 40 percent of its women aged 20 to 40 by 2040. I visited the Declining Birthrate Countermeasures Division in Niigata, a small office overlooking the ocean in one of Niigata City’s only tall buildings. Yukiko Tamaki, the division’s director, told me that Niigata sponsors matchmaking events for its young people, and even invited a matchmaking company to come in and pair rural men with women living in cities like Tokyo. “For our division, one of the most important things is making couples,” she told me. The fertility rate of women in Niigata has fallen from nearly four babies per woman in 1950 to 1.43 babies per woman in more recent years.

Women in Niigata want more babies, Tamaki told me. A survey the prefecture conducted found that while, on average, women want 2.4 children, they have 1.8. So Niigata is focusing on making it easier for women to have babies and still work. The prefecture is giving certifications to companies that have good parental leave policies in the hope that doing so will motivate companies to be more flexible, but it has no real sway over what companies decide. And it is reducing interest payments for families who borrow money to pay for their children’s education. But the prefecture hasn’t seen a significant uptick in marriages, or in births. When I asked them about supporting births outside of marriage, officials told me such a thing wouldn’t be acceptable in Japan. Even telling couples to get married doesn’t necessarily go over well. “We are the public sector. It’s difficult for us to say, ‘You should marry as soon as possible, you’re mature enough to have babies,’” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround, what are these towns to do? Some are trying to simply adapt to the new reality. What “adapting” looks like, however, is pretty grim—more sacrifice than triumph. Yubari, for instance, a town on the northern island of Hokkaido, which lost 90 percent of its population between 1960 and 2014, declared bankruptcy in 2007. Since then, it has drastically cut back on services such as public buses and snow removal, merged schools, laid off government employees, and cut funds for public parks. It relocated residents from public housing on the outskirts of town to apartments close to the city center. “Population isn’t everything,” the town’s mayor told Bloomberg last year.

A woman rides her bike past closed stores in Minamiuonuma, which is trying to slow the rapid decline of its population by recruiting young people from big cities.  (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

In some places, adapting has meant that elderly people are working for longer, or themselves taking on roles as caregivers for people who are even older. In Tochikubo, for instance, people who might have wanted to retire at 65 are still tilling the fields at 75. Older adults like Kensaku Fueki, whose three daughters live in Tokyo, still climb on their roofs every winter to shovel snow to ensure their houses won’t collapse. (Last year, an 80-year-old man died in Tochikubo after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow.) Seventy-year-olds like Fueki and his wife Kura care for 80-year-olds like their neighbor, Ayako Kuwabara, a white-haired woman I met as she embarked on a daily constitutional around the town. “In aging societies, our whole understanding of what it means to be elderly has to be shifted upwards and adjusted,” Richard Jackson, president of the Global Aging Institute, told me. “Sixty is the new 40. The question is, will 80 be the new 60?”

Kensaku Fueki and his wife Kura aren’t worried about their own aging, per se. They can still drive, and have no difficulties going about their daily lives. They’re most concerned about the disappearance of a way of life—that no young people will come to the village and learn how to farm rice without machines or how to weave cloth or make sake. “It’s difficult for us to give knowledge to the younger generation,” Fueki told me.

But they’re also facing the future by acknowledging that their own disappearance, or that of their town, is not the end of the world. Among the blood pressure cuff and pill dispensers on their kitchen table sit papers they have started to draw up. They recently began end-of-life discussions with their daughters, to decide what to do with their house and their property since their children don’t want to live in Tochikubo. It’s no use to try to sustain their home, they decided: Maintenance costs are high, and without someone left to shovel the snow off the roof, it will eventually collapse. Instead, they plan to pay to have their house knocked down after they die—returning it, and a small piece of their village, back to the land.

This story is part of a series supported by the Abe Fellowship for Journalists, a reporting grant from the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.