Jim Young/Reuters

Atlantic staff writer Alana Semuels recently joined members of The Masthead for a conference call about her writing on rural decline in Japan. Here are the takeaways from our conversation.

If you want to hear more, you can download the transcript from the call, or listen to the recording.

  1. People everywhere are fleeing rural areas. In 1950, approximately half of Japan’s population lived in urban areas. By 2014, it was 94 percent. While the numbers are much more extreme in Japan than the U.S., rural areas are shrinking here, too. Alana wrote about American rural decline after she visited Fossil, Oregon, a town of 450, where the median age is 56. Once a booming lumber mill town, Fossil has seen a 42 percent decrease in wage and salary employment since 1970. As technology advances in traditionally rural industries like logging, farming, and mining, fewer employees are needed. Young people move away to find jobs in larger, urban centers, and they don’t come back. “In Oregon, I talked to a guy whose father ran a farm,” Semuels said. “He used to have 12 employees, and now, because of technology, he only has one.”
  2. Building codes could be the one thing keeping people in rural America. When I asked Alana why Japan has such high numbers of people living in cities, she said it all comes down to building codes. “In Japan you have these massive cities that go on forever because there are no zoning regulations. You can build basically anything, anywhere.” This means that, on average, it’s much less expensive to live in a Japanese city than an American one. It’s therefore easier for Japanese young people to move to cities to find work. “You’re not going to be priced out in the way you would be in San Francisco, for example.” If U.S. cities relaxed their building codes, we could see a similar full-scale rural exodus. (The most prominent U.S. city that’s done this, however, is Houston, where a lack of zoning made the city affordable, but flood-prone.)
  3. Small towns are doing everything they can to convince people to move back. Local governments market their towns as “tourist destinations” or “retirement destinations.” In Japan, some towns have invested in matchmaking organizations, attempting to lure city women to rural areas with the promise of eligible (and economically secure) men. Many Japanese towns also mail brochures to the millennials who grew up there, detailing the many advantages of rural life. The problem, however, is that most shrinking towns have the same strategies. “Not every town is going to come back as a tourist destination or a retirement destination,” said Alana. “Some of them have to decide to die.”

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