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On this island, depopulation isn’t the problem — inertia is

by Amy Chavez

After having appeared recently on the BBC, Marketplace and NPR talking about depopulation in the Seto Inland Sea, it occurs to me that I have not written expansively enough on this topic for The Japan Times. I have merely been an observer of the depopulation phenomenon on these pages.

The rapid decrease in Japan’s population is most evident in the countryside and on islands like mine. In fact, here on Shiraishi, the population has dropped from more than 900 when I first arrived in 1997 to the current 563.

A recent Cabinet Office survey asked people in rural areas what the main problems were that they faced living in the countryside. The top answers were scarcity of jobs, lack of transportation and a shortage of shopping and entertainment facilities. The same survey asked residents what was needed to encourage more people to relocate to their area, and the answers were the same.

Many people blame the government for not doing more to revitalize rural communities. But I disagree. Yes, the government can help, by changing land tax laws, for example, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the communities to help themselves.

Shiraishi is blessed with plenty of infrastructure, but unfortunately much of it is going to waste because we no longer have the population to support it. The new port (built with government funding in 2002) is a white elephant, with only a few boats anchored in it. Our beach, upgraded with government funding (starting in 2001 and still a work in progress) is seldom crowded despite its enhancement and beautification. Our new kindergarten, elementary and junior high schools (built in 1997) has two kindergartners, 13 elementary school pupils and eight junior high school students and is facing the prospect of closure in another five years because we will have no more students to attend. None, zero, zilch.

The collection of five minshuku and ryokan accommodations on the beach, leftovers from headier days, are physically falling apart despite still being in operation. Their aging owners, looking to retire in the near future (or doing minimal business to supplement their government pensions) don’t want to invest money in maintenance they won’t make a return on.

We’ve had several NGOs come to help “save” our island, but they’ve had little effect. Right now, for example, we have a visiting artist over from Tokyo, supported by an NGO, who will hold an exhibition here in September. Keep in mind that this is not the struggling artist you might imagine but a pharmacist, supporting his hobby with government money and private grants. Okaaaay.

Since the reasons behind depopulation are not chiral, each region must be handled individually. The Inland Sea islands have huge advantages over Japan’s isolated farming villages, for example, that are also experiencing shrinking populations.

Whereas country towns need to have a cottage industry or invent something to lure tourists, the islands have a bountiful natural resource that has gone relatively unexploited: the sea. A mere purchase of rowboats or kayaks and anyone could be in business for themselves with little outlay or commitment. Businesses like these are just waiting to happen.

And what a great environment for raising children. Every day we hear complaints that young people spend more time inside than out, more time in front of a computer than reading books, and have more interest in social media than interacting with real people. But how many of the people who complain are doing something about it? Those who wax lyrical about their own childhood and growing up among nature, running in fields and catching turtles in streams are the same ones who have failed to provide the same for their own children. There is absolutely no reason why children can’t still do those things today — unless, of course, we don’t give them the option.

Japanese universities bring in professors who live in Osaka, Kyoto or Tokyo to teach a class once a week at some of the more provincial universities. I know a woman in Amami Oshima, one of the Ryukyu Islands, who is flown 400 km into Kagoshima once a week to teach! Schools think nothing of paying these professors’ transportation costs.

The island, with its low-cost lifestyle, cheap housing and excellent Wi-Fi, should be a magnet for artists and writers who want a quiet environment among nature to nurture their creativity. What if we had artists in residence who were actually living here — those who came of their own free will, set up studios, brought their families and supported the community? Wouldn’t this be better than importing an unknown artist from Tokyo for a week who might (or might not) bring out a few more tourists?

People employed in IT could work from an island in the Seto Inland Sea and commute to the office once a week. Time, energy and resources spent by NGOs should be used to cultivate business-minded entrepreneurs who could bring wealth to the island through business startups.

Kagawa’s Naoshima serves as an example of what one person can do to bring an island afflicted by depopulation back to sustainability. One man’s idea of art amid the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea turned the island around.

Shiraishi Island should be a model of revitalization. I have had long conversations with people about what can be done to revive the island and the community here — and believe me, there are many things that can be done. But they’re not being done for specific reasons. And without investing in tractable solutions, the number of empty houses increases each year.

When visitors come to Shiraishi, they feel compelled to ask me about all the abandoned houses. While it may seem that vacant homes are a natural effect of Japan’s dual scourges of an aging society and depopulation, there’s much more to it than that.

Many visitors find these fallow and fertile prospects for fix-me-uppers irresistibly attractive and would like to buy them. Yet none of these homeless houses are sold or rented out.

The aforementioned scarcity of jobs, lack of transportation and a shortage of shopping and entertainment facilities don’t seem to be barriers for the kinds of people who would like to move here, buy a house and fix it up, whether those potential buyers be foreign or Japanese.

But these dwellings, many heritage homes in their own right, will never get the chance to be revived because there is one thing most people don’t realize about this island paradise among the cobalt waters of the Seto Inland Sea: that despite many people wanting to move here, none of them can. This is because the islanders do not see residents as a fungible commodity, and therefore will not sell their houses to outsiders.

It’s no secret that one undervalued aspect of the Seto Inland Sea is tourism. But tourism doesn’t just happen — it’s a business. The few entrepreneurs here that can make that happen are all islanders. These younger people have grown up on the island, gone to university in Osaka or Tokyo, and come back to use their skills here. They are welcomed back because they are not outsiders.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of these island entrepreneurs to save Shiraishi from a slow death. The number of abandoned houses will increase, the port will stay barren, the new school will eventually close. The minshuku and ryokan will be shuttered, the children of the deceased owners preferring to stay in the cities. When the stands serving food and shaved ice on the beach disappear, even day trippers will cease to come.

Most of the islanders are elderly. They prefer the safe, comfortable predictability of a lifestyle they have always known. They want to preserve their traditions and their old way of life. They’re clinging to stasis in a world of constant flux.

Upon closer look, depopulation itself is not the problem; communities not taking action to reverse it is.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Michael Darmousseh

    I’d love to live on an Island like this, but I wonder if I would be able to find accommodations if no one is willing to sell me a house. I can definitely work remotely as long as internet is decent

    • KenjiAd

      Buying a house can be difficult, but renting one shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s an empty house anyway, and the owner would love to make yen out of nothing.

      I suspect though that you would need to go through the “right” channel – perhaps through the mayor or whoever is in charge of the internal affair of the small community.

      The fact of the matter is that local real estate people pre-screen (read “discriminate”) potential renters in Japan, so if you, a foreigner, simply go talk to them, I’m afraid that they would just say no. You have to go through the “right” channel.

      And there is another challenge. You would almost certainly need a “Hoshounin (保証人)” or Guarantor who agrees to be held responsible in case something bad happened with your rental property. The Hoshounin must be a Japanese person for all the practical reasons, and should be someone at a sufficiently high social status that would provide a peace of mind to the owner.

      Without a big Hoshounin, I think that a chance of your successfully renting a house in a rural area would be even worse than Boston Red Sox winning the World Series this year. LOL

      • Michael Darmousseh

        Wow that sounds really difficult. Would living in a larger area for a few years first help?

      • KenjiAd

        It won’t hurt of course. But the real reason for why it’s so hard to move into a rural areas, particularly islands, is because people in those areas don’t want outsiders, as this article describes.

        I can tell you one anecdote. When I was a student, me and buddies were camping on the beach of one of the remote islands in Okinawa. As soon as started camping, people there shone a search light on our tent.

        Next morning, local kids came to the tent and told us that their parents were saying we were all thieves. We asked why, and they told us that parents were saying outsiders steal fishes.

        Many islanders don’t trust outsiders. They may tolerate tourists for a short time period, but even then, not completely.

        So to move in, you need 1) a good connection with someone powerful in that area and 2) a strong Guarantor.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacobjjung/ Jake Jung

    While it may be close in proximity to Okayama, Naoshima is in the fact the pride of Kagawa Prefecture.

  • hermiepret

    Easy way to make money that is working for me, do a search for “Traders Superstore “its swing trading the oil market and it really works.

  • Steve Novosel

    “But these shortcomings are also a function of how 90% of Japanese
    “vacation,” which is not at all except during the extended national
    holidays”

    (citation needed)

    I don’t know a single working Japanese person who hasn’t taken at least a short holiday somewhere in the last year. It may be a three day weekend, but it’s a holiday. Where do you make up this weird stuff? And what on earth does it have to do with this article?

    “If it weren’t for foreigners, it’s arguable that anyone would have discovered the great skiing on Hokkaido.”

    Yes! If it weren’t for foreigners nobody in Japan would ever have even heard of Hokkaido! Sheesh….

    • Jeffrey

      Frentic weekend sightseeing trips do not constitute a vacation where one has enough time to disconnect from the daily grind that is the working life for most Japanese, who take off far less time, OUTSIDE of national holidays, than do Americans, Australians, Canadians and certainly the folks in the EU with their mandated six weeks a year of time off. The only Japanese that have any kind of extended leisure time are young women still living at home and college students, who don’t spend much time studying to begin with.

      • Steve Novosel

        Would you kindly quit repeating yourself?

        I don’t know what sort of Japanese people you know, but everyone I know takes way more holidays than anyone I ever worked with in the US. The vast majority of people I knew in the US took holidays at a) Thanksgiving and/or Christmas b) their kids’ spring breaks c) maybe a 3 day weekend trip sometime. If that. I know professionals in the US with good jobs who haven’t taken a week off in YEARS. I don’t know anyone in Japan who hasn’t taken a week off in the past year.

        Plus a lot of Japanese take their ‘summer holidays’ at off peak times, like many are taking them now or next month. And what’s wrong with taking holidays at the national holiday periods? That’s exactly what most Europeans do.

  • spartan2600

    There’s one simple solution to depopulation and the Japanese economy- mass immigration. Millions of Filipino’s wouldn’t be scared away if some Shiraishi islanders aren’t entirely welcoming. Japanese are either going to have to learn to live with immigrants or see their economy collapse. Tweaking some tax codes might give a minor boost to Shiraishi island, and you can get on your high horse about Japanese city-dwellers moving back to their hometowns all you want, but immigrant would fix all the problems very simply.

    • Jeffrey

      Japan is over-populated and has been for some 200 years. Currently, as reported in the JT just the other day, in the first six months of 2014 more Japanese died than were born. This means that while the population is falling Japan is also aging at a slower rate than previously.

      Japan has one of the most inefficient modern economies. In spite of many workers logging long hours in the office, Japanese productivity is low compared to S. Korea, the U.S. and Canada among other mature capitalist economies. An influx of, likely, mostly unskilled immigrants is not going to fix this. There is a huge, mostly untapped labor resource in Japanese women. Address these issues first, and you find your perceived need mass immigration drops way down the list of fixing what ails Japan.

  • spartan2600

    >It certainly has more to offer than most of the middle section of the U.S. east of the Rockies.

    Ignorance is no excuse. Northern Minnesota is gorgeous, a friend just hosted some French couch surfers who came here because they heard this area is the most beautiful in the USA. They’re not wrong. Texas, North Dakota, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all states with very beautiful regions and attractions.

    • Jeffrey

      Spartan, unwad your regionally chauvinistic panties. I’ve been to most of the places you list and I did not write “all of the middle section of the U.S. . . ” I wrote most. And while almost all states have some beauty spots, most of the Great Plains is a dry landscape with bad weather and monotonous topography. East of the Mississippi isn’t much better until your bump up against the Appalachians.

      As for the visiting French thinking that northern Minnesota was the most beautiful place in America, well, the French also thought at one time that Jerry Lewis was a comedy genius. I doubt that even Garrison Keillor thinks that upper Minnesota is the most beautiful place in America.

  • KenjiAd

    People living in rural areas of Japan often live with unspoken rules, which is the basis of an intricate social equilibrium in a small, tight community.

    Outsiders are necessarily a disturbance to the equilibrium, which insiders invariably dislike. Even if the insiders are not necessarily xenophobic, many of them probably have certain prejudices against foreigners, fearing that foreigners are not going to follow their unspoken rules.

    So it would be difficult for an outsider, even a Japanese outsider, to just move into a rural area and hope everything will work out alright. I guess the outcome would depend a lot on the social, political skill of that outsider. That person would need to do a lot of ass kissing to be accepted.

    • J.P. Bunny

      I don’t have anything against rural communities having their own unspoken rules and prejudices against outsiders living amongst them. But, they have no one but themselves to blame as their communities and villages die off. A bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Al_Martinez

    I still have a memory of a visit to Shiraishi seared into my head: a woman walking out of her home with two big plastic bags of garbage and tossing them into the ocean. I guess these rural folks do have a different mindset.

  • Mots

    I and my wife recently moved to a Seto Naikai Island near Innoshima. I can affirm that it is near impossible to buy a home there via a realtor as a outsider with a bag of money looking for a holiday or weekend retreat to escape from the big city.

    But, if you get to know the people and are willing to become a member of the community, roll up your sleeves and work on farming and improvement of the neighborhood, the local people are very friendly, accepting and helpful. We moved to our island (although I am still in the US half time due to my business). My wife and I work at home via the internet, as well as farm on our island. There is no more beautiful place on the earth than the Seto Naikai area of Japan. After the inevitable currency collapse (which is inevitable within a few years), the countryside of Japan will come into its own as the most important area of Japan which has resources of food and energy.