November 2015 | www.selectasset.com
Building rural route to nowhere

It’s the middle of the afternoon in a small mountain village in Nagano Prefecture in the middle north section of Japan main island of Honshu, and it’s mostly quiet. There are some indications of the wider world outside—electricity poles, cars in driveways, some garishly colored vending machines—but there’s not a soul in site.

Recently, raising quiet a racket, a nine-man crew, working on and off for the past few weeks, has just finished resurfacing the main road through the village, but the road is hardly used. Except for the regular but brief rushes of traffic at lunchtime, early mornings and evenings, a vehicle passes by only once every 5 or 10 minutes. More often it’s less often, especially at night. Another brand new road that winds its way up to the next village is travelled even less. The local bus comes by twice a day to pick up and drop off five children. Few other people are ever seen on board.

The name of the village is unimportant and it may change before you read this. For the past decade Japan has been systematically re-zoning and combining fading rural towns and villages into new “cities” that are usually located somewhere in the vicinity of a bullet train station that has rail links to Tokyo, Osaka or some other crowded urban center.  So the people may be gone, by commerce carries on

Only the names remain

It’s no secret that the old folks of Japan’s villages are steadily, albeit slowly, dying, while many of the younger people have fled for metropolises and the opportunities they represent. Naturally, the village is a bit livelier during a few days in August, when native sons and daughters come to visit their parents with their own families for the Japanese obon festival of ancestor remembrance. There are also some other smaller summer festivals, but they don’t last long, and the sound of a baby crying is rare.

Unfortunately, this town is no anomaly. It could be one of many rice farming villages or fishing ports sprinkled around the country. Population thinning is occurring throughout rural Japan, as statistics illustrate. According to a World Bank estimate based on the United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects, after reaching a peak of 34.0 million in 1961, the 2014 rural population in Japan stood at just 8.9 million. That’s a massive 74% drop in 53 years. In 2013 alone it declined by 689,000 souls. As a percentage of total population, the rural population over the same period has plummeted from about 36.7% to only 7.5%.  (In 2014, the total population of Japan was 127.1 million, down 280,000 people since 2013.)

Consider this statistic: one in seven homes in Japan is uninhabited. For some residents, watching neighbors go “missing in action” have gone has become theater. In Nagaro, a tiny village on Shikoku Island, the human exodus has moved a local artist to replace the missing people in her village with life-sized dolls. You can see some of them at the website japanrealm.com in the Valley of Dolls video story.

Welcome to my ghost town

Perhaps the Valley of Dolls could become a tourist attraction, but what do villages that are still full of real people need to do to survive or attract new residents. One issue for small farmers like the ones in the Nagano area is profitability. For those who reside deep inside rice-growing country, rice has been a key part of well-being. However, despite the whopping 778% government tariffs and various subsidies, rice farmers have seen a steady decline in their crops value. A 60-kilogram bag of top-quality brown rice sells to the local agricultural cooperative for around 11,500 yen, but 30 years ago the same bag could fetch as much as 35,000 yen. The falling price of rice coupled with the ever-increasing expense of operating and maintaining farm equipment and applying the necessary chemicals to the paddies means that many farmers are having a hard time breaking even.

A shift towards vegetable farming or livestock, or break to independence from the cooperative system to improve profits might help (nationwide, there’s one cooperative employee for every two full-time rice farmers!). But can such changes overcome the nationwide trend of falling fertility, a rapidly aging population and migration to the cities to find better jobs, more convenience and amusement? If there were serious food shortages in Japan, out of necessity many people might move to the countryside and reinvigorate some of its villages. But there is no such crisis. Energy is in short supply. Food is plentiful. Evidentially, despite Japan’s near total reliance on imported food (except for rice, eggs and a few other items) the nation’s savings and nonagricultural activities are sufficient to keep its urban dwellers well enough fed.

Green acres is no place for me

Rural depopulation trends do not mean the entire Japanese countryside is about to revert to wilderness. It is still home to 8.9 million people. Although agriculture accounts for only 1.4% of the Japanese gross domestic product, if you include the forestry, fishing, small industries, tourism and other activities, there is still a considerable amount going on outside the urban areas. Country life overall is far from over as long as people want to keep living it. Perhaps in the future more people will appreciate the advantages of living in the countryside (such as lower land prices and fresh air) and seek out new lives away from the cities. However, the figures clearly show that rural Japan is loosing people at an alarming rate. For some villages it’s too late as they have already disappeared and thousands more are on the brink.

The gardens of the occupied houses in this Nagano village are still well kept, and the residents seem to be in reasonably good spirits. But, it can’t be denied, as in many of Japan’s rural communities, it’s not the way it used to be. In the words of the lady who runs the only general store, “Thirty years ago there were always people walking up and down the road and my shop was busy, but so many people have died or left for the city. Nobody is having any children, and that’s why there are so few people.” Although this particular village is not on the brink, when the oldest generation has gone, there will be considerably fewer residents. So now and mostly likely for the considerable future, it’s very quiet in this village in central Japan, with its freshly resurfaced road that’s hardly used.