Isles trampled in white elephant stampede

Instead of bidding tearful farewells to island life, Japan should save it from government projects


Japan’s islands have long been a source of tearful TV documentaries that focus on aging populations and families abandoned by children who have left for the cities.

So when I moved to a small island in the Seto Inland Sea five years ago, I expected to find a withering population of people just barely getting by. What I didn’t expect was huge, government-funded projects.

In a place where the population loses 25 people a year to death or emigration to one of Japan’s larger islands, you wouldn’t think the government would be spending money on new buildings with little long-term benefit or innovations only a small percentage of a progressively smaller population could benefit from. But, this is Japan. Despite the dwindling population on this island, there has been amazing, and often inexplicable development here over the past few years.

When I came to the island in 1998, there were 13 kindergarten students. This year there are four. We have 34 elementary school students, 22 junior high. The 27 high school students that live on the island have to take a ferry to the mainland. If they want to participate in extra-curricular activities after school, they have to either live in the school dormitory or with relatives on the mainland because the last ferry back to the island leaves at 5:55 p.m.

Despite the fall in numbers, in 2000, a new elementary and junior high school was built on our island, to replace the old wooden school. The island people were so full of nostalgia for the old school that they held a party for it the night before it was to be torn down.

Many people wondered why the old school had to go. After all, it had remained perfectly functional for over 100 years.

By 2001, they were already combining grades and teaching them together because there weren’t enough students. Now, in 2002, there are some grades with no students. And for the past two years, there has been discussion of closing down the new school altogether and just ferrying the students to a neighboring island.

For over a hundred years, the main businesses here were stone mining and fishing. But now, most of the stone used in Japan comes from China, so the stone factories on the island have closed. The fishermen still make their living from the over-fished Seto Inland Sea. They have adapted by learning to grow seaweed and produce fisheries so they no longer only rely on the sea. Nonetheless, two years ago the entire side of a mountain was blasted out to make room for a second port. The new port has been finished for a year, yet there is rarely, if ever, a boat in it, and certainly no need for it.

A handful of ryokan and minshuku stand along the small stretch of public beach. Again, although the amount of people on the island who make a living from tourism is small, a new beach was installed this year. Large ships brought in new sand and machines were employed for six months to move the sand, reshape the coastline and widen the beach to accommodate more tourists.

Thanks to massive government grants every 10 years, the island can continue to build new projects according to its wants rather than its needs, in a pattern that’s been repeated in struggling communities around the country for years. Meanwhile, the island’s future and welfare is suffering in ways the government has failed to recognize, or has just plain ignored.

Japan’s islands provide a safe, close community and a healthy environment, something mainland-living rarely offers. Rather than dumping government money into white elephants, they should be working on ways to bring people to the island.

Just one plainly obvious and easy solution would be to improve the ferry service, which stops just before 6 p.m. daily. For years, the service has catered to people who live and work on the island. Adding even one late ferry would allow more people to live on the island and have jobs on the mainland, thus encouraging the development of a new community. Surely that would be better than becoming fodder for another tearful TV documentary.