Not far from where I live, there’s an elementary school with just 36 students. It’s not a private school. It doesn’t have a special curriculum. It’s a regular public school designed to serve several hundred students. But the neighborhood has changed into a business district, and the few residents who remain are mostly older people with no children. Enrollment at the local elementary school has fallen so much there are only three children each in the second and fifth grades.

Should a school with so few students remain open? Our school board doesn’t think so. Citing studies that advise a school have at least 100 students for good social and academic interaction, the school board recommended it be shut down next March, at the end of the current academic year. Local residents are opposed to closure because the school has been a fixture of the neighborhood for more than a hundred years. Parents like the atmosphere of a small school, and don’t want their children to have to walk to more distant schools. But with only 36 students left, it’s hard to make a case for keeping the school open.

Communities throughout Japan are wrestling with similar decisions about haiko (school consolidations and closings). In big cities, redevelopment causes population shifts that can drastically affect school enrollment. In the countryside, young people move to urban areas for better job opportunities and more excitement.

But the bigger issue is that Japanese are simply having fewer children. The most recent census counted about 18 million children under the age of 15, representing just 14.1 percent of the total population. That’s a record low. In 1982, there were more than 17 million children enrolled in public elementary and middle schools. Twenty years later, that number had fallen to 11 million. The need for classrooms dropped proportionally, from 500,000 in 1982 to just 390,000 in 2002.

As a result, schools all over the country are trying to figure out what to do with idle space, usually referred to as aki kyoshitsu (empty classrooms) or yoyu kyoshitsu (surplus classrooms). In many cases, the school stays open, and unused classrooms are remodeled for other purposes. Although it’s been traditional for Japanese schoolchildren to eat lunch at their desks, for example, many schools are converting empty classrooms into lunchrooms where students from different grades can eat together. This is important, educators say, because children today come from smaller families and have fewer opportunities to socialize with children of other ages.

But when enrollment drops too low, schools end up shutting down completely. More than 2,000 schools have closed in Japan over the past 10 years. Hokkaido had the most, with 248 closures, followed by Tokyo with 165 and Niigata Prefecture with 145. Every time a school closes, local governments face the problem of what to do with the old building.

Schools belong to local governments but are built with subsidies from the national coffers. Until a few years ago, if a school building was converted to another use before it had completed its expected life span (60 years for concrete buildings), the local government had to return the subsidy to the Education Ministry. In 1997, when the stockpile of empty school buildings had grown to alarming proportions, the ministry eased the regulations to make it easier to put old school buildings to new uses.

In big cities, where demand for real estate is high, it’s not difficult to find customers to take over empty schools. A common pattern is for a private school to lease the building, sometimes on a temporary basis so the government can get the school back later, if needed. Tokyo’s Minato Ward recently struck a deal allowing an international school to lease an elementary school that closed several years earlier due to insufficient enrollment.

In the countryside, it’s much harder to find paying tenants. To help local governments in rural areas, and to encourage the development of alternative schools, the revised regulations stipulate that if a building is loaned without compensation for educational purposes, the local government need not pay back the subsidy provided the building is at least 10 years old. In Fukui Prefecture, the city of Katsuyama leased an unused school building to a former Osaka University professor who wanted to open a private boarding school based on the principles of British educator A.S. Neill. The school is successful and has a waiting list of more than 100 children.

In other cases, school buildings are converted to wholly new uses, as can be seen by the 50 examples on the Education Ministry’s Web site. My favorite is the Tonton Kosaku-kan (Bang-Bang Handicraft Center) in Kawakami, Nara Prefecture. The village converted an old middle school into a family-oriented woodworking center where children and parents can practice wood crafts together. You can even stay overnight in simple guest rooms furnished with wooden bunk beds.

In Kumamoto Prefecture, the town of Chuomachi converted a school into a community center that offers bathing and day-care services for senior citizens. The city of Noboribetsu, in Hokkaido, turned an old school building into a small factory in which local agricultural products are processed into high-priced sausages, cheese and ice cream.

These are interesting uses that serve the community, but sometimes citizens would prefer their local government simply sell off old schools. Some people argue that it’s better to get rid of idle real estate and let the private sector build housing or offices. I have my doubts about that. I think it makes sense for local governments to hang on to schools so they can be converted back if the school-age population spikes again. I’d hate to see schools get as crowded as they were during the postwar baby boom, when as many as 60 kids were packed into a single classroom.

I’m simplifying here, I know, but to me the solution is obvious. Convert some of those unused schools into child-care centers. Have them provide services that really help working parents, including options for early morning and evening care. If Japanese women got some genuine support for raising children, maybe they’d start having more of them again. School enrollment would rise, and there would be fewer empty classrooms.

It’s elementary, Watson.

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