In the nation’s declining provinces, it is not only the living who are neglected.
Family shrines that hold the ashes of generations are often overgrown or broken, something once unheard of in a society that reveres its ancestors. With the population dying off at an average rate of about half a million a year over the next five years — equivalent to losing Chicago — there are insufficient family members left in many rural areas to look after the graves.
The abandoned family shrines are one of the most visible indicators of the hollowing out in the provinces, where the decline from mortality is supplemented by an exodus of youth seeking work in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Stopping that rot has become critical for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who faces regional elections in April that will test his support for a party leadership contest in the autumn.
“The government made regional revitalization one of the most important tasks,” said Yoshihiro Katayama, professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo. “Abe is doing this partly for regional elections because winning them will strengthen his standing in the party leadership contest.”
To spearhead a drive to slow the rural exodus, Abe turned to Shigeru Ishiba, the man who beat him in the first round of votes in the last party leadership race in 2012. Ishiba in September was given a new Cabinet post of overcoming population decline and revitalizing the regional economy, a task that successive programs of public works and subsidies have failed to achieve.
Much of the population drain is due to the draw of the Tokyo metropolitan area, which accounts for 38 percent of Japan’s economy. The average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime stood at 1.13 in Tokyo in 2013, the nation’s lowest, compared with a national rate of 1.43. Ishiba would need to get the rate up to 2.07 nationally to stem the decline.
Tokyo is a demographic “black hole,” said Hiroya Masuda, who served as internal affairs minister during Abe’s previous premiership in 2007. Masuda last year named 896 towns, or more than a half of all municipalities in Japan, that may vanish as they run out of people.
“This is an area policy makers have avoided,” said Masuda, a government adviser on regional revitalization. “We haven’t tackled a population drop in regional areas head-on even though everybody knows what’s going on.”
By 2040, 30 percent of all Japanese will live in Tokyo and three nearby prefectures, up from 28 percent in 2010. In that time, the nation’s population is forecast to fall 16 percent, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The national population will drop below 100 million in 2048, from a peak of 128 million in 2008.
Signs of regional decline are everywhere, from abandoned schools to overgrown rice fields. Few are as upsetting for many Japanese than the cracked and broken monuments to families that have died out or moved to the big cities.
Some cemeteries have been around so long that no one even knows who owns the land, said Koichi Kawano, assistant deputy director for the Kumamoto Prefectural Government. In Kumamoto, the population has declined 3.1 percent over the past decade.
“That’s why people are calling city halls to report abandoned, decrepit cemeteries,” he said. “When you don’t know who manages cemeteries, you will turn to the government as a last resort.”
In Japan, where Shinto-Buddhism is the predominant belief system, the cremation rate is more than 99 percent, one of the highest in the world. Most families have a traditional stone monument in the graveyard near their family home, where the ashes of each generation are interred. In the city of Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, 43 percent of the 15,123 gravestones were abandoned, according to a 2013 survey.
On the mountains above Hitoyoshi, fallen trees lie across graves covered with moss, said Satoshi Masuda, a local official. Some are so weathered that the names chiseled into the stone are no longer readable.
“What I saw made me sad,” said Masuda, who grew up in Hitoyoshi. “People built graves on top of the mountains for the view, but now they’ve been taken over by forest. As worshipers and grave-keepers vanished, some were just forgotten.”
The government wants to curb the migration to Tokyo through measures such as creating 300,000 regional jobs in the next five years and offering tax breaks for companies that move their headquarters out of the capital.
Unlike previous revival efforts that relied largely upon the central government handing out money and infrastructure projects, Abe’s approach is to get local authorities to come up with their own strategies by March 2016 to win national subsidies.
“They are sending a strong message to the regions that from now on, they have to compete,” said Kazunori Kawamura, associate professor of political science at Tohoku University in northeast Japan. “The central government can’t just dole out subsidies any longer because it’s having its own problem.”
Abe’s fiscal and monetary stimulus that boosted share prices and weakened the yen have forced the government to save money elsewhere to curb the nation’s borrowing. Japan’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is projected by the International Monetary Fund to reach more than 245 percent this year.
Ishiba’s job is to see that the limited funds and decay in the regions don’t undermine the Liberal Democratic Party’s support, which has traditionally been strong in rural areas. In a poll in October by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 58 percent of respondents said they were optimistic about Abe’s regional policy, while 38 percent said they were not hopeful.
That support may dwindle as signs of regional dereliction increase. Candidates backed by Abe’s LDP have lost in three gubernatorial elections since July. In January, Abe’s candidate lost in Saga Prefecture, a politically conservative farming province in western Japan, after the powerful agricultural lobby backed a rival.
“Abe’s top-down style is backfiring in the regions,” said Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “Voters in the countryside don’t necessarily agree with his agenda. His focus on regional revitalization may help in local polls, but he can’t solve issues with money when a region’s identity is at stake.”