When Kentaro Yokobori was born almost seven years ago, he was the first newborn in the Sogio district of Kawakami village in 25 years. His birth was like a miracle for many villagers.
Well-wishers visited her parents Miho and Hirohito for more than a week – almost all of them elderly, including some who could barely walk.
“The elderly people were very happy to see [Kentaro], and an elderly lady who had difficulty climbing the stairs, with her cane, came up to me to hold my baby in her arms. All the old people took turns holding my baby,” Miho recalls.
In this quarter-century without newborns, the village’s population has more than halved to just 1,150 – down from 6,000 just 40 years ago – as young residents leave and that older residents were dying. Many homes have been abandoned, some overrun with wildlife.
Kawakami is just one of countless small rural towns and villages that have been forgotten and neglected as young Japanese people head to the cities. More than 90% of Japanese people now live in urban areas like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, all connected by from Japan Shinkansen bullet trains always on time.
This has left rural areas and industries like agriculture, forestry and agriculture facing severe labor shortages that will likely worsen in the coming years as labor getting old. By 2022, the number of people working in agriculture and forestry had fallen to 1.9 million, from 2.25 million 10 years earlier.
Yet Kawakami’s disappearance is emblematic of a problem that goes far beyond the Japanese countryside.
The problem for Japan is that city dwellers don’t have babies either.
“Time is running out to procreate,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a recent press conference, a slogan that so far seems to have failed to inspire the majority of the Japanese public.
Amid a flood of baffling demographics, he warned earlier this year that the country was “on the verge of not being able to maintain social functions”.
The country recorded 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number on record and just over half of the 1.5 million births recorded in 1982. Its fertility rate – the average number of children born to women during their childbearing years – dropped to 1.3 – well below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. Deaths have exceeded births for more than a decade.
And in the absence of significant immigration – foreigners made up just 2.2% of the population in 2021, according to the Japanese government, compared to 13.6% in the United States – some fear that the country is rushing to the point of no return, when the number of women of childbearing age reaches a critical level at which there is no way to reverse the trend of population decline .
All of this has left leaders of the world’s third-largest economy facing the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for a burgeoning elderly population even as the workforce shrinks.
Contrasted with hectic urban lifestyles and long working hours that leave Japanese people little time to start a family, and the rising cost of living that means having a baby is simply too expensive for many. youth. Then there are the cultural taboos that surround discussions of fertility and the patriarchal norms that hurt mothers returning to work.
Dr Yuka Okada, director of the Grace Sugiyama Clinic in Tokyo, said cultural barriers meant talking about a woman’s fertility was often off limits.
“(People see the subject as) a bit embarrassing. Think about your body and think about (what happens) after fertility. It is very important. So it’s not bothersome. »
Okada is one of the few working mothers in Japan to have a very successful postpartum career. Many highly educated Japanese women are relegated to part-time or retail jobs – if they re-enter the workforce. In 2021, 39% of female workers worked part-time, compared to 15% of men, according to the OECD.
Tokyo hopes to address some of these issues, so that working women today become working mothers tomorrow. The metropolitan government begins to subsidize egg freezing, so that women have a better chance of a successful pregnancy if they decide to have a baby later in life.
New parents in Japan already receive a “baby bonus” of thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses. For singles? A state-sponsored dating service powered by artificial intelligence.
It remains to be seen whether such measures can reverse the trend, in urban or rural areas. But back in the countryside, the village of Kawakami offers a preemptive tale of what may happen if population decline is not reversed.
Along with its declining population, many of its traditional trades and ways of life are in danger of disappearing.
Among the villagers who took turns holding young Kentaro was Kaoru Harumashi, a longtime resident of Kawakami Village in his 60s. The master carpenter formed a close bond with the boy, teaching him how to carve local cedar from the surrounding forests.
“He calls me grandpa, but if a real grandpa lived here, he wouldn’t call me grandpa,” he said. “My grandson lives in Kyoto and I don’t see him often. I probably feel stronger affection for Kentaro, who I see more often, even though we’re not related by blood.
Harumashi’s two sons left the village years ago, as do many other young rural residents in Japan.
“If the children don’t choose to continue living in the village, they will go to town,” he said.
When the Yokoboris moved to Kawakami village a decade ago, they were unaware that most residents were well past retirement age. Over the years, they have seen older friends die and longstanding community traditions fall by the wayside.
“There are not enough people to maintain villages, communities, festivals and other neighborhood organizations, and it becomes impossible to do so,” Miho said.
“The more I get to know people, I mean the old people, the more sadness I feel having to say goodbye to them. Life actually goes on with or without the village,” she said. At the same time, it is very sad to see the surrounding local population dwindling.”
If that sounds depressing, it may be because in recent years Japan’s battle to raise the birth rate has given little cause for optimism.
However, a small glimmer of hope can be seen in the history of the Yokoboris. Kentaro’s birth was unusual, not only because the village had waited so long, but also because his parents had moved from the city to the countryside, bucking the decades-old trend that young people were increasingly plump for the convenience of 24/7 Japanese city life.
Some recent surveys suggest that more and more young people like them are considering the attractions of country life, lured by the low cost of living, clean air and low-stress lifestyles that many consider essential to having a family. A survey of Tokyo-area residents found that 34% of respondents expressed an interest in moving to a rural area, up from 25.1% in 2019. Among people in their 20s, up to 44 .9% expressed an interest.
The Yokobori say starting a family would have been much more difficult – financially and personally – if they were still living in the city.
Their decision to move was triggered by a Japanese national tragedy twelve years ago. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake violently shook the ground for several minutes across much of the country, triggering tsunami waves taller than a 10-story building that devastated huge swaths of the east coast and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. .
Miho was then an office worker in Tokyo. She remembers feeling helpless as daily life in Japan’s largest city crumbled.
“Everyone was panicking, so it was like a war, although I’ve never experienced a war. It was like having money but not being able to buy water. All transport was closed, so you couldn’t use them. I felt very weak,” she recalls.
The tragedy was a wake-up call for Miho and Hirohito, who was working as a graphic designer at the time.
“Things I was relying on suddenly felt unreliable and I felt like I was actually living in a very unstable place. I felt I had to secure such a place on my own,” he said.
The couple found this place in one of Japan’s most remote regions, Nara Prefecture. It’s a land of majestic mountains and tiny townships, nestled along winding roads under towering cedars taller than most buildings.
They quit their city jobs and moved to a simple mountain house, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned the art of woodworking and specialized in the production of cedar barrels for Japanese sake breweries. She is a full-time housewife. They raise chickens, grow vegetables, chop wood and take care of Kentaro, who is about to enter first grade.
The big question, both for the village of Kawakami and for the rest of Japan: is Kentaro’s birth a sign of better times to come – or a miraculous birth into a dying way of life.