After having appeared recently on the BBC, Marketplace and NPR talking about depopulation in the Seto Inland Sea, it occurs to me that I have not written expansively enough on this topic for The Japan Times. I have merely been an observer of the depopulation phenomenon on these pages.
The rapid decrease in Japan’s population is most evident in the countryside and on islands like mine. In fact, here on Shiraishi, the population has dropped from more than 900 when I first arrived in 1997 to the current 563.
A recent Cabinet Office survey asked people in rural areas what the main problems were that they faced living in the countryside. The top answers were scarcity of jobs, lack of transportation and a shortage of shopping and entertainment facilities. The same survey asked residents what was needed to encourage more people to relocate to their area, and the answers were the same.
Many people blame the government for not doing more to revitalize rural communities. But I disagree. Yes, the government can help, by changing land tax laws, for example, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the communities to help themselves.
Shiraishi is blessed with plenty of infrastructure, but unfortunately much of it is going to waste because we no longer have the population to support it. The new port (built with government funding in 2002) is a white elephant, with only a few boats anchored in it. Our beach, upgraded with government funding (starting in 2001 and still a work in progress) is seldom crowded despite its enhancement and beautification. Our new kindergarten, elementary and junior high schools (built in 1997) has two kindergartners, 13 elementary school pupils and eight junior high school students and is facing the prospect of closure in another five years because we will have no more students to attend. None, zero, zilch.
The collection of five minshuku and ryokan accommodations on the beach, leftovers from headier days, are physically falling apart despite still being in operation. Their aging owners, looking to retire in the near future (or doing minimal business to supplement their government pensions) don’t want to invest money in maintenance they won’t make a return on.
We’ve had several NGOs come to help “save” our island, but they’ve had little effect. Right now, for example, we have a visiting artist over from Tokyo, supported by an NGO, who will hold an exhibition here in September. Keep in mind that this is not the struggling artist you might imagine but a pharmacist, supporting his hobby with government money and private grants. Okaaaay.
Since the reasons behind depopulation are not chiral, each region must be handled individually. The Inland Sea islands have huge advantages over Japan’s isolated farming villages, for example, that are also experiencing shrinking populations.
Whereas country towns need to have a cottage industry or invent something to lure tourists, the islands have a bountiful natural resource that has gone relatively unexploited: the sea. A mere purchase of rowboats or kayaks and anyone could be in business for themselves with little outlay or commitment. Businesses like these are just waiting to happen.
And what a great environment for raising children. Every day we hear complaints that young people spend more time inside than out, more time in front of a computer than reading books, and have more interest in social media than interacting with real people. But how many of the people who complain are doing something about it? Those who wax lyrical about their own childhood and growing up among nature, running in fields and catching turtles in streams are the same ones who have failed to provide the same for their own children. There is absolutely no reason why children can’t still do those things today — unless, of course, we don’t give them the option.
Japanese universities bring in professors who live in Osaka, Kyoto or Tokyo to teach a class once a week at some of the more provincial universities. I know a woman in Amami Oshima, one of the Ryukyu Islands, who is flown 400 km into Kagoshima once a week to teach! Schools think nothing of paying these professors’ transportation costs.
The island, with its low-cost lifestyle, cheap housing and excellent Wi-Fi, should be a magnet for artists and writers who want a quiet environment among nature to nurture their creativity. What if we had artists in residence who were actually living here — those who came of their own free will, set up studios, brought their families and supported the community? Wouldn’t this be better than importing an unknown artist from Tokyo for a week who might (or might not) bring out a few more tourists?
People employed in IT could work from an island in the Seto Inland Sea and commute to the office once a week. Time, energy and resources spent by NGOs should be used to cultivate business-minded entrepreneurs who could bring wealth to the island through business startups.
Kagawa’s Naoshima serves as an example of what one person can do to bring an island afflicted by depopulation back to sustainability. One man’s idea of art amid the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea turned the island around.
Shiraishi Island should be a model of revitalization. I have had long conversations with people about what can be done to revive the island and the community here — and believe me, there are many things that can be done. But they’re not being done for specific reasons. And without investing in tractable solutions, the number of empty houses increases each year.
When visitors come to Shiraishi, they feel compelled to ask me about all the abandoned houses. While it may seem that vacant homes are a natural effect of Japan’s dual scourges of an aging society and depopulation, there’s much more to it than that.
Many visitors find these fallow and fertile prospects for fix-me-uppers irresistibly attractive and would like to buy them. Yet none of these homeless houses are sold or rented out.
The aforementioned scarcity of jobs, lack of transportation and a shortage of shopping and entertainment facilities don’t seem to be barriers for the kinds of people who would like to move here, buy a house and fix it up, whether those potential buyers be foreign or Japanese.
But these dwellings, many heritage homes in their own right, will never get the chance to be revived because there is one thing most people don’t realize about this island paradise among the cobalt waters of the Seto Inland Sea: that despite many people wanting to move here, none of them can. This is because the islanders do not see residents as a fungible commodity, and therefore will not sell their houses to outsiders.
It’s no secret that one undervalued aspect of the Seto Inland Sea is tourism. But tourism doesn’t just happen — it’s a business. The few entrepreneurs here that can make that happen are all islanders. These younger people have grown up on the island, gone to university in Osaka or Tokyo, and come back to use their skills here. They are welcomed back because they are not outsiders.
Unfortunately, there are not enough of these island entrepreneurs to save Shiraishi from a slow death. The number of abandoned houses will increase, the port will stay barren, the new school will eventually close. The minshuku and ryokan will be shuttered, the children of the deceased owners preferring to stay in the cities. When the stands serving food and shaved ice on the beach disappear, even day trippers will cease to come.
Most of the islanders are elderly. They prefer the safe, comfortable predictability of a lifestyle they have always known. They want to preserve their traditions and their old way of life. They’re clinging to stasis in a world of constant flux.
Upon closer look, depopulation itself is not the problem; communities not taking action to reverse it is.
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