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When he retired from his job at a cement maker in 2000, Yukio Ebisuzaki had no strong attachments to any of the eight cities he had lived in over his 40-year career, so he decided to return to his childhood home on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea and live in his parents’ house.

“I didn’t intend to come back to the island when I left home after finishing junior high school because life here was inconvenient and there was no place to go for fun,” he said.

Many islanders felt like Ebisuzaki and left Okikamuro Island for school or work. As of Aug. 1, the island’s population had fallen to 193, compared with about 3,000 in the early 1900s. Of those who remain, more than three quarters are over 60 years old.

On this, the 400th anniversary of Okikamuro settlement, depopulation and a dearth of young people are serious problems, but the islanders are finding ways to cope.

Ebisuzaki is a young 68 and wears a number of different hats in the community: He is the welfare commissioner and heads the local fire brigade, for example.

“I regularly visit elderly people, many of whom live alone, to look after them,” he said. “I’m still busy (even) after retirement, and my wife, who is 61, is also actively involved in volunteer work, although she was initially reluctant to live here.” Ebisuzaki is also working with other residents on the island’s 400th anniversary events.

Despite the challenges it faces, Okikamuro has fared better than some isolated rural areas. The quiet, 1 sq.-km. island has managed to attract concerts and lectures.

Shizuo Niiyama, a 55-year-old priest at the only Buddhist temple on the island, is in charge of the 400th anniversary events. In 1975, he also returned home — reluctantly.

“I couldn’t see any hope for the future of Okikamuro,” Niiyama said, remembering his homecoming after graduating from the prestigious Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, where he studied international politics and was active in the student movement. “I felt I gave up my life at the age of 24.”

Two years later, he faced a turning point when he became the island’s council chairman and had to negotiate with lawmakers and bureaucrats to build a bridge between Okikamuro and the nearby island of Suo Oshima.

Before the bridge was constructed, the only link between Okikamuro and Suo Oshima was an hourly ferry that ran during the daytime. The islanders had no access to emergency medical care, particularly at night.

“There was no way for a fire engine or even a tanker truck for collecting human waste to (operate here). Who would want to return to such an isolated island?” Niiyama asked.

But Niiyama fought hard for the islanders and managed to get a 400-meter-long bridge in built in 1983, bringing the first major roads and a public bus service. Before the bridge, there were no cars on Okikamuro.

Although the island still has no convenience store, a mobile store delivers perishables twice a week.

“I initially opposed construction of the bridge because I was worried about outsiders coming to the island and forcing residents to lock their doors,” Ebisuzaki said jokingly. “But I was one of the first to benefit from it when I drove my sick mother to the hospital via the bridge.”

The bridge has also helped bring some islanders back home.

“I decided to come back because we have the bridge now,” said Masao Ishii, 84.

“We had concerns over emergencies, such as sudden illnesses, but we feel relieved now,” said Ishii, who worked as a volunteer tour guide on the island after living in Osaka until the age of 68. “I hope more people will follow.”

Two couples moved to Okikamuro this year after their retirement, said Niiyama, and the islanders are hoping for an influx of baby boomers, who will begin retiring in droves next year.

Ishii recalls trips he made to Hawaii to meet with descendants of people who left Okikamuro to live there, saying, “I was really pleased when they welcomed me.”

Okikamuro has a long history of sending out immigrants to places as diverse as Hawaii, Korea, Taiwan and Latin America. Some families had TV sets given to them by relatives in Hawaii before TV had even arrived in Japan.

Some descendants of the immigrants visited the island in August to take part in the Bon festival dance as part of the 400th anniversary celebration.

“There are associations of Okikamuro people in Tokyo, Osaka and even in Hawaii, so we can feel ties with those who left the island,” Niiyama said. “The 400th anniversary events have given us opportunities to strengthen those ties, and we can’t say that Okikamuro is really suffering from depopulation as long as we maintain those relationships.”

Another returnee, Shoji Matsumoto, 49, is promoting communications between the islanders and people around the world through the Internet. On his Welcome to Okikamuro Web site — www.h3.dion.ne.jp/~kamuro/ — Matsumoto, the owner of the only guesthouse on the island, posts the latest news about the island and maintains a mailing list that lets people know what’s happening.

“I think the bridge has contributed to linking people, both in and outside the island, and it has helped me keep the guesthouse,” he said, as he served sashimi made from sea bream caught fresh by his father. “I don’t believe Okikamuro will become uninhabited.”

But despite the improvement in their lives, concerns remain over the aging of the island’s population.

Neither Ebisuzaki nor Ishii expect their children to return home. The aging neighbors are thus forced to look after each other.

“We call out to each other, ‘How are you today?’ But there’s a limit to what we can do,” Matsumoto said.

Ebisuzaki echoed the sentiment, suggesting that more helpers need to come to the island to care for the elderly. “We also need a doctor,” he said. The only doctor on the island died several years ago.

Aware of these challenges, Niiyama, who is also chairman of the Suo Oshima Town Assembly, is struggling to meet them. “I believe we can present a model for an aging, depopulated community if people on Okikamuro can live decently here.”

Niiyama’s own legacy seems secure. His 28-year-old daughter is ready to take over for him as the temple’s 22nd priest.

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