Since the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, merged with six towns and villages 10 years ago, the population has grown by 3.4 percent to more than 421,000 people.
However, the data also reveal that while the population in what was formerly Toyota has grown 4.6 percent, the number of people living in the other six towns and villages has declined by 6.1 percent.
The gap between the number of people living in the city and in the country — a key concern before the merger — has only widened.
To stem the decline, officials and residents in Toyota have combined efforts to establish the Empty Houses Information Bank, which introduces vacant houses in rural areas to people in the cities and publishing magazines containing related information.
Four and a half years ago, Satomi Watanabe, 37, moved from Midori Ward in Nagoya to what was formerly the town of Asahi, northeast of Toyota.
She has always been interested in agriculture and paid close attention to food safety, especially with regard to organic vegetables.
Eventually, she quit her position as an elementary school teacher and studied organic farming in Canada before moving to her current residence. She now works full time as a farmer with her husband, Terumi, 36, who quit his auto industry job.
Satomi is earning only a quarter of her previous income as a teacher, which makes her apprehensive about the future.
“Income from farming products is not enough and we have to spend our savings to survive. I hope we can increase the quantity of our crops and start making a profit in five years,” she explained.
However, she remains optimistic. “I have a feeling that coming here has allowed me to live life the way I want to,” she added.
She is drawn to the strong bonds between the residents in the rural area, and the nature surrounding them.
Satomi used the information bank to find her house when she was wanted to move.
Those who have registered with the bank can send a request to purchase or rent a place through the bank.
Currently, there are 200 people registered, but only seven houses are available.
According to an official at city hall, the number of vacant houses is never enough, because a large number of people are interested in relocating to the countryside.
It is not uncommon for residents to leave houses empty in rural areas, but many of them are reluctant to rent them out because the family altar is still in the house, or they have not completed al the necessary paperwork to inherit the house after their parents passed away.
The bank system was established in 2010, but the number of households that used it and moved in totaled just 40.
The city of Toyota has also constructed low-rent public housing units administered by the city and published information for those who want to move in, but the actual situation is that their efforts have not helped stem depopulation in the countryside.
“We know that it’s not enough to just increase the number of people (living in rural areas),” said Yukio Ando, 61, a local businessman.
Ando welcomes new potential residents. At the same time, he is also working on revitalizing Asahi.
Residents in the area hold regular meetings to discuss settlement issues, persuading owners to rent out their empty houses and screening those who are interested in moving in.
The interviews are usually conducted by five people including mayors of the wards, checking to make sure that the interested persons are willing to participate in activities essential to the community, including cutting grass and cleaning local shrines.
An applicant needs to be approved by at least three screeners to move into a property registered at the bank.
“The person has to integrate with the community and contribute ideas to help the city grow. Otherwise, accepting relocation would not be good for each other,” said Ando.
“It is important for the residents to do what they can, for example by working on empty houses and visiting the elderly,” said Isao Taniguchi, associate professor of the Human Relations Faculty at Sugiyama Jogakuen University. “It leads to their vitality and pride in their community,” he said, pointing at the importance of activities that promote social interaction.
This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on April 30.