Photographer documents ‘lost villages’

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — Londoners are getting their first glimpse of the hundreds of Japanese villages suffering from the effects of depopulation.

Sam Seager, 29, is exhibiting photos he took from all over Japan to highlight the growing problem of the exodus from the countryside to towns.

His images show abandoned hotels and rural homes that have fallen into disrepair after elderly residents died and their children decided to stay in the towns.

Seager’s interest was prompted by an article he read about the plight of residents in Ogama on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. Only six people are left in the village, which he visited, and there are plans to turn the location into a waste dump.

Seager, who studied Japanese and law at university, wanted to capture the effects of depopulation on camera, and visited several villages during a three-month tour that spanned 6,500 km.

He says he was “shocked” by the “consistent” way in which villages had been depopulated and virtually abandoned.

Seager found many residents were resigned to the situation and appeared to be happy and healthy with their lives despite the decline.

He was also keen to snap the more mundane, quirky and fun aspects of rural life, such as a couple ballroom dancing and a man standing beside a large bear killed by hunters.

One haunting image shows an abandoned room with a cat’s skeleton laying on top of its hair.

He started his journey in the Goto Islands near Nagasaki in Kyushu, then moved his way up the northern coastline, which borders the Sea of Japan, up to Hokkaido.

The intrepid photographer also visited areas outside of Nagoya and the Izu Islands, southwest of Tokyo.

Seager, who works in marketing for a record company, would sometimes stay with the families of Japanese friends or just arrive in places and set up camp.

He says he was always struck by the “incredible generosity” of many strangers who would sometimes house and feed him.

He would always tell them the purpose of his visit before getting out his camera.

In an interview, Seager said the pattern would often be the same in each village — homes abandoned after the elderly died because no one wanted to buy them.

Many of the properties were old and dilapidated and the children who inherited them would sometimes use them to grow crops.

Some of the villages were abandoned or with a few residents just hanging on and trying to make a living by growing crops. He took photos of an empty hotel that had been constructed at the height of the bubble economy, and one shot depicts a people carrier that appears to have been abandoned on the edge of a cliff.

But despite the rather desolate air, he found most residents were not so despondent.

He said, “Even though the infrastructure was crumbling, elderly people were well.

“A lot of the people I spoke to seemed resigned to the situation. They don’t feel like they can change things.

“They are living their lives in the village until it is unsustainable to do so.”

Seager said that during his journey he tried to capture what is best summed up by the ancient Japanese aesthetic of “sabi” — a celebration of that which is old and faded with, at heart, a very Buddhist sense of life’s transitory nature.

Seager’s exhibition “Lost Villages” has been showing at the Orange Dot Gallery in Bloomsbury, central London.