According to The World Bank, less than 7% of Japan’s total population live outside of urban areas. And because most Japanese villages and small towns are extremely rural, as you would expect, the number of people in these areas are threateningly low. There are many reasons for this, as I have mentioned here.
The town I live in has a population hovering around 6,000 which provides a population density of only 26 people/km2 (compared to an average of 350 people/km2 nationwide and over 6,000 people/km2 in places like Tokyo). Like much of rural Japan, it is mainly made up of elderly folks and young families. Almost all the children in town are of elementary or middle school age, but nearly every year the number of entering first graders decreases.
What tends to happen is that, after middle school, students commute or move to a nearby city where they attend high school (as there are relatively very few high schools in the inaka). Upon graduating, a majority will leave for bigger prefectures such as Miyagi or Tokyo where there almost always tends to be more opportunity.
As of now, irreversible population decline in parts of the inaka (countryside) seems somewhat unavoidable. Schools are being shut down, local restaurants and shops are closing, and people are moving away or simply dying of old age. It is an extremely sad sight to see especially when you know how wonderful the people are and how much culture would be lost if there is no one to preserve it in coming generations.
I loved living in Seattle before coming to Japan, but I am so thankful that I was placed in the Aomori inaka. It is probably the most beautiful place I have ever lived in, with the most wonderful people and the kindest atmosphere. There is peace in the countryside that you just can’t get in the city. What’s unfortunate then, is how uncommon it has become for people to live near mountains and water. In that sense, rural population decline not only threatens loss of community, but also loss of a most desirable way of living that encompasses naturalness and peace of mind.
Based on observation, it seems the economic issue surrounding this decline is a lack of people able as well as necessary to support a countryside economy. As young people leave, they take both supply and demand away from the rural and bring it to the urban. The question currently unanswered is, “how do you preserve a dwindling community and retain its culture without drastically changing its makeup?” I think this lies at the heart of Japan’s nationwide population decline problem. There is a severe need to increase the population, but no desire to change who makes up said population. As it doesn’t appear that Japan will open its borders to masses of foreigners any time soon (apart from students and English teachers), the question then becomes “how do you even out the country’s population density and bring it to rural areas that are in dire need?”
The part of Japan’s population decline 問題 that I have been personally exposed to is that of rural Japan, specifically a small town in the Tsugaru region of Aomori prefecture. The question here is not only “how do we even out the population density and bring people to the inaka?” but also “how do we keep people from leaving?” It’s clear that in order to maintain and add to existing populations in rural areas, the areas themselves need to be viewed as desirable places to live. There are so many wonderful things that come with living in such places, but unfortunately, without knowing the people and nature of these little towns and villages, on paper, a scarcity of schools, jobs, public transportation, restaurants and shops could arguably be enough to deem any place undesirable.
What I think is crucial, (besides simply getting the word out about how great rural Japan is), is an increase in fun local places for people to gather. There is usually no shortage of community clubs or activities that residents can participate in, but there does seem to be a shortage of established places where people (from in or out of town) can leisurely come and go as they please; spaces where they can simply visit and spend time with other members of the community, young and old. [In the inaka, there are obviously many places to gather outside but, speaking to Aomori, no one really wants to do that for about 6 months of less-than-comfortable temperatures.]
The main issue is that young people are leaving, so anything that would give them an incentive to stay should probably be considered. One small thing that could potentially help fill this need is a local coffee shop(s). Such a place would be able to further develop an already rich community while providing a fun neighborhood place for students and young people to study, work, hang out, wait for the next train, etc.
As an aside, while there are many logistical requirements for establishments such as coffee shops, I think ideally a community-run space that wouldn’t require things like permits would be the way to go. I’m not sure if that’s legally possible in Japan, but if members of the community are the ones providing for and frequenting the “shop,” it could become a sort of for-the-community-by-the-community type of space. In that way, it would be community and people-based instead of business-based.
The goal is to give people a reason to stay and an additional reason to visit, while hopefully slowing population decline as a result. Since coffee and tea are the two most popular drinks in Japan, and the number of cafes has been rapidly increasing nationwide, there may be potential for such shops to help out rural areas.
What do you guys think?? This is an issue I haven’t really encountered before so I’m curious to hear from others who have/had experience with it. If anyone has any suggestions, or has dealt with this type of problem before, I’d appreciate any and all feedback. Cheers!