KANAZAWA, ISHIKAWA PREF. – With its artistic traditions and preserved traditional neighborhoods, the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, has long been known as “Little Kyoto.” But over the past year, it has also been seen as a potential model for future continuing care retirement communities, or CCRCs, nationwide.
About 15 minutes by car from Kanazawa Station, where the fastest train now whisks visitors to Kyoto in about two hours and the new Hokuriku Shinkansen reaches Tokyo in roughly three, lies one CCRC, Share Kanazawa.
At first glance, Share Kanazawa appears to be some sort of college campus, community center, or perhaps a camping area, with its many wooden buildings connected by sidewalks. U.S.-made silver Airstream trailers sit parked in a number of lots. Small flower and vegetable gardens abound.
Many of the buildings are clearly apartments, but there is also a gymnasium, a building housing the nonprofit Gaia Nature School, as well as a bar called Mock, where a jazz band from Osaka is due to perform. On the well-kept streets are a mixture of college students, children with special needs and elderly people.
“I moved here from Yokosuka (in Kanagawa Prefecture) after reading about Share Kanazawa in a brochure, and don’t regret it at all,” says 73-year-old Soshichiro Suzuki.
“The lifestyle here so far has been ideal,” he adds. “This is a real community with many kinds of people, allowing me to work with special needs kids and live an independent lifestyle. It’s very different from the standard retirement center where there are only old people.”
While common in many nations, the idea of establishing a small village in the countryside that can serve as a community of not only elderly residents from across the country but also students, special needs children and local volunteers is something that the Japanese government has only recently begun to pursue in earnest.
The impetus for creating CCRCs based on the Share Kanazawa model was borne out of a realization that Japan’s overcrowded urban populations — especially Tokyo — are rapidly aging, and that there is a shortage of qualified medical personnel and facilities nationwide to handle the increase in seniors.
At the same time, the dwindling birthrate as well as the continuing exodus from other parts of Japan to Tokyo are worsening economic disparities between the capital and the rest of the country.
The solution, from the central government’s point of view as well as local governments willing to participate, is to encourage people living in the capital to help re-create and relocate Tokyo-area seniors to places like Share Kanazawa as part of a broader effort to revitalize rural regions.
Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Share Kanazawa, and on Feb. 7, Shigeru Ishiba, the minister in charge of revitalizing regions, dropped by to meet with residents and explain the government’s thoughts about CCRCs.
“We want to develop facilities that include not only the elderly, but also younger people and children. The idea is to create a city of sorts,” Ishiba said. “Of course, we also want to provide help for people with physical limitations. This is not something Japan really has, but there are over 2,000 CCRC facilities in the United States.
“However, in the case of the U.S., many of these facilities people can’t get into unless they’re wealthy, which is not good,” he added. “So Share Kanazawa is really a model for Japan.”
Japan’s CCRCs are, as the government envisions them, villas located outside of Tokyo where the elderly live and have easy access not only to medical and social welfare services, but also a wide range of activities that allow them to better integrate into the community.
There are several issues involved, starting with where to create them. Convenience is important, as is access to medical and social welfare services. Many localities have excellent medical and social welfare facilities. But as their populations decline — sometimes rapidly — who will use them, and who will pay the taxes that support them, has become a key issue.
For local governments hosting CCRCs, having elderly taxpayers relocate to their areas from big cities means they can maintain and possibly even grow local employment opportunities, especially in the health care sector.
But a more fundamental question remains: Will people who were born and raised in a city like Tokyo, with all its modern conveniences and mild weather, be willing to relocate to a rural area where daily life is quite different?
“I saw the different climate as a good thing, and I think a lot of people want to spend their elderly years in a good environment,” says Suzuki, the Share Kanazawa resident.
Statistics appear to bear this out — among men at least.
An August 2014 Cabinet Office survey found that just over half of Tokyo men in their 50s and nearly 37 percent of those in their 60s would be willing to discuss relocating out of Tokyo.
For women, the figures were much lower. Just 34 percent in their 50s and 28 percent in their 60s said they would consider it.
Among the people who are interested, the prospect of beginning a “second life” outside Tokyo in a place where one can live a healthy and active lifestyle that costs less than in the capital was cited as a key reason.
Still, even managers of Share Kanazawa said they were surprised the facility has drawn so much high-level interest from outside the area.
“When we started Share Kanazawa, we didn’t really have it in mind as a place for people outside Kanazawa. But it is unique because it’s a community of many different kinds of people,” said Ryosei Oya, head of the Bussi-En Group, a social welfare organization that runs Share Kanazawa.
Oya said that given the growing number of vacant buildings in towns and smaller cities due to depopulation, plenty of opportunities exist for other parts of the country to create their own CCRC.
“You don’t need to spend a lot of money because many existing places can be renovated,” he said.
A 2014 Internal Affairs Ministry report showed that there were an astronomical 8.2 million empty homes and buildings across Japan.
Besides the economic impact from depopulation and the loss of local businesses, municipal governments are concerned that, left unused, they will become fire and safety hazards.
But the real challenge, both Oya and Suzuki acknowledge, is not the “hard” aspects of CCRCs — like acquiring land and buildings — but rather ensuring there are enough people to establish a diverse, supportive community.
“That’s what’s most important . . . you need many different kinds of people,” Suzuki said. “For example, I think it’s fine to have foreign medical professionals working in CCRCs as doctors and nurses. But elderly residents also want people they can talk to; people with their shared experiences and backgrounds.”
Asked how best to convince large numbers of Tokyoites to consider relocating to such CCRCs, Ishiba said that what is needed first is a recognition among big-city residents of the small-town values in other parts of the country.
After the March 2011 disasters, Ishiba said, there was an increase in the number of people who realized that there are things money can’t buy in the capital.
“Japan won’t be changed from Tokyo. It will be changed from the regions,” Ishiba said. “Of course, it’s the individual choice among the people of Tokyo whether to move. But there are strong individual connections in Japan’s regions, and a strong sense of really living.
“Regional values, and things like wide, open lands, good food, fresh air and strong, individual communication, offer a new value system, where older and younger people can get together in a region like Kanazawa.”
Tomoo Matsuda, chief researcher and producer at the Mitsubishi Research Institute and an expert on the topic of CCRCs, believes they can offer a broader variety of local employment opportunities beyond that of caregivers at standard senior centers.
“CCRCs can create diverse value-added jobs like health data analysts, activity planners catering to healthy seniors and asset management planners,” he said.
To those local governments looking to host CCRCs — currently about 260 nationwide have expressed interest — Matsuda said they need also to challenge potential residents.
“There’s no appeal for Tokyo seniors in local governments saying ‘we have good land and are surrounded by nature, so please come.’ But by saying things like ‘if you move to our city, you must spend a minimum of 20 hours at a local university studying local issues, and a minimum of 10 hours a week working locally or serving as a home teacher or career adviser for local students,’ the bar is raised and you can attract potential consumers,” Matsuda said.