As a word of introduction, this is a small excerpt of my research involving the intersecting factors between Japan’s dwindling countryside communities and the overall issue of depopulation, a rapidly aging society, and declining birthrates. In particular. I am interested in what this means for the agricultural industry in Japan as well as the intangible cultural heritage and knowledge held within these countryside, or “inaka,” communities. Thus, the title for this project was Inakunaru Inaka, or roughly Disappearing Countryside.
Inakunaru Inaka: Japan's Disappearing Countryside
Contemporary Japan can conjure images of massive flashing screens, neon lights, over-crowded subway cars, and high-speed, state-of-the-art technology. Think robots taking pizza orders, miniature bullet trains delivering sushi, and toilets with built-in Wi-Fi. This might be true for the urban metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, but the same can’t necessarily be said for many of the regional communities that lie outside of major economic centers. While it is undeniable that Japan is a global force in technology, it is also leading the globe in rapid depopulation and hyper-aging, shrinking rural communities.
With declining birthrates and growing elderly populations, Japan is facing a crisis that threatens to leave its countryside “extinct” according to some leading researchers. A 2014 report published by Hiroya Masuda, a Japanese politician and the head of a government committee on local revitalization, shocked politicians and bureaucrats with its bleak predictions regarding the future of Japan’s outlying towns and villages. It sparked a rise in reports, magazine articles, and books concerned with the same topic, and seemed to shift the perception of rural depopulation as a side-effect of national economic growth to one of a national crisis. Titled Chihō Shōmetsu (Translated as Local Extinctions and Demise of the Regions), the report was issued by the Japan Policy Council, or JPC, a think tank headed by Masuda. In it, the authors identified 896 of Japan’s 1800 municipalities as shōmetsu kanōsei toshi, or “cities that could face extinction” (Yakushiji, 2015).
Masuda warned that many of these endangered communities aren’t aware of the impending threat and likely won’t be until the depopulation has progressed beyond a tipping point (Yakushiji, 2015). There are various factors that contribute to the declining rural populations, some of which are governmental, some of which are social, and from the perspective of emigrating youth, financial and behavioral. At the heart of the issue, however, is Japan’s dwindling fertility rate and an increased rate of rural exodus that is leaving Japan’s regional communities heavily inhabited by aged populations. The consequences of these demographic changes are already being felt throughout the country. Many questions and issues arise amid this crisis, such as what effects will this have on the agricultural industry?
Japan’s geography has historically been a source of difficulty regarding agricultural production due to a relatively small amount of arable land–or land capable of being used to cultivate crops. Information from 2016 showed that Japan’s rate of caloric self-sufficiency dropped to 38%, suggesting the very real danger of increasing needs to rely more heavily on imported goods to meet the nation’s food needs (Wider, 2018). Even still, due to both the rapid industrialization and growth of the postwar period, the geography and demographics of Japan began to shift. Rural expansion encroached on farmland and younger generations began to leave the countryside for work in urban centers. In 2015, the amount of arable land was estimated to be around 11.52% of Japan’s total landmass, down by nearly 4% from 1958 (“Japan-Arable Land,” n.d.). Former deputy director-general of the Rural Development Bureau Yamashita Kazuhito estimates that from 1958 to 2008 Japan lost nearly 2.5 million hectares of farmland–about the total area of rice paddies in all of Japan in 2008–from conversion to industrial and residential use (2008a). He has also strongly argued that the history of the farmland system in Japan has contributed to the dwindling amount of agricultural land and the decline in populations employed in the agricultural industry.
In 2015 it was estimated that only 3.49% of people employed in Japan worked in the agricultural industry. This is because the basis of Japan’s agriculture is composed of many micro farmers and other independent farmers that have been forced to abandon their plots because of the inability to financial support themselves. This has resulted in an overall reduction of rural farming households from 5.66 million in 1965 to 2.85 million in 2005, and thus contributing to the deterioration of regional communities (Yamashita, 2008b). Additionally, this has created a situation where those who are employed in the agricultural industry are predominantly the ageing populations left to remain in the emptying countryside. In 2008 8.5% of people employed in the agricultural industry were aged 39 years or below, those aged 40-49 made up 6.5%, aged 50-59 made up 14.7%, aged 60-64 made up 9.9%, aged 65-69 made up 13.6%, and those 70 and older made up 46.8% (Yamashita, 2008b). Additionally, 57.8% of full-time farming households operated without any men younger than 65 years of age (Yamashita, 2008b).
Local governments and associations have adopted a family-centric view of the crisis when creating countermeasures by focusing on how best to attract young people and new families to set their roots down as a bottom up way of revitalizing and community in a sustainable way. An additional benefit of this approach is the ability to preserve intangible assets such as cultural knowledge, locally produced products, and traditional crafts. One movement known as “Zero to One” has become popular for its success in revitalizing some small communities, if only enough to sustain themselves. In this approach entire communities come together to take part in regional promotion committees charged with creating plans of action to promote economic stimulation and inbound migration. A town in Tottori prefecture called Chizu has become the focus of research for its successful implementation of the “Zero to One” approach, raising its predicted 2040 population from 3,700 to 5,000 (Edahiro & Kume, 2017). Other towns have attempted to attract families by giving away run-down homes and selling land for very cheap, even giving subsidies for renovation costs (Lee, 2018).
Whether adopting “Zero to One” revitalization methods, increasing the initiatives for “Green Tourism,” or trying to encourage a more even distribution of economic activity, Japanese governmental bodies and communities know that there is no stopping depopulation and that the fertility rate can only rise so much. The mission now is to slow the progress enough to stabilize communities and regroup, preparing for a world with a smaller work force and smaller communities. To do this, towns and villages are merging, joining together to thrive rather than attempting to fight the inevitable battle against depopulation in isolated communities. Shifts in population into more centralized locations allows for the creation of more conservation areas, national parks, and designated agricultural productions regions where old communities once were. Relocating rather than maintaining regional communities also allows them the opportunity to pool their efforts of revitalization and to have a greater population of people to carry on cultural traditions.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.