Population Decline in Rural Japan

It is well known that population decline is a serious issue in Japan.  Birthrates are down due to many of the predictable reasons that affect developed nations.  Women are getting married and having babies later, having a child out of wedlock is frowned upon (and virtually not an option in Japan), school and work are taking precedence, etc.

When you look at Japan’s demographics and compare them to a country like the U.S., there are many obvious differences.  For one, though they are two of the most powerful countries in the world, Japan is barely 1/20th the size of the US. (377,930km2 compared to 9,833,000km2).  It is only almost the size of the state of California.  Population-wise however, Japan has more than 1/3 that of the US (127 million to 319 million).  As a result, Japan’s population density is nearly 10X greater.  Considering those numbers, one may wonder why a little decline is putting the country in crisis.  The real issue however, isn’t about overall numbers in particular, it’s about how the numbers are distributed.

In Japan, roughly 94% of people live in urban areas.  With a nationwide average population density of about 350people/km2, this means urban places like Tokyo are incredibly dense (5,500+people/km2) whereas the entire Tohoku region (the six northernmost prefectures of Honshu, Japan’s japan-poplargest island) is relatively incredibly sparse (about 150ppl/km2).  This huge difference is where Japan’s population decline problem lies.  Such an imbalance has resulted in severely overcrowded cities but, at the same time, deteriorating towns and villages.

This is the issue that I have been exposed to in Japan, population decline in rural communities.  Here, decline is drastic, and the reasons for it are each a giant issue in themselves.  Below are just a few:

  • Small population size to begin with
  • Lack of easy access
  • Infrequent public transportation
  • Scarcity of higher education institutions
  • Limited job opportunities

All of these causes are unfortunately part of a greater feedback loop that results in even more detrimental factors.  Take lack of easy access and infrequent public transportation for example.  Villages and towns inherently have fewer people which means the amount of people who need transporting is also few.  With a smaller demand, the supply is naturally smaller.  Basic economics.  In rural japan, trains run every few hours (as opposed to every few minutes in Tokyo) and there are only a few small stations scattered about.  Consequently, this makes access much more difficult, which in turn results in a decreased desire to frequent said villages and towns.  Basic convenience.  As places become less desirable, transportation demands also become less, and so too does the supply.  Everything in equilibrium.  And now we’re back at the beginning of the feedback loop.

The reasons behind population decline in the countryside of japan are different from those of the nation as a whole.  The inaka has all the same contributing developed nation/lower birthrate factors, but they are magnified by simply being in the inaka.  What’s more, is that the method for increasing rural populations has to be much more location sensitive than in bigger cities.  By that, I mean the countryside is not a proper place to build skyscrapers or launch big industry.  The culture and people are what need preserving, which is exactly what industry would threaten.  Adding another sky scraper in Tokyo or Osaka is no big deal, but when you build one in the middle of traditional land and rice fields, it’s a complete eyesore that will never fit with the nature of the surrounding community.  And therein lies yet another issue facing populations in rural Japan.

Sotogahama Town, Aomori Prefecture, Japan

Rural populations have to increase in order to survive, but how do you preserve the population without disgracing its already-established place and culture?  Sure, maybe more people would want to live in the inaka if there were hundreds of store chains, restaurants, buildings and touristy things, but then it wouldn’t be the inaka.  This is the main problem I have been thinking about lately.  I very much wish to see these communities survive, and I think it can be done without “selling out” and bringing in corporations, but I guess we’ll have to try some things and see.

I have a few ideas that I will post about later but if you have any insights or thoughts on this topic, please let me know!  I’d be very curious to hear what you think.


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