The Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan are turning history on its head.
The remote outposts that were used for centuries by medieval rulers to banish rivals have become a model for regional revival as the town of Ama, on one of the four permanently inhabited islets, attracts economic migrants from the mainland.
Through steps including expanding seafood exports, debt reduction and a revamp of the high school to provide a platform for entry to top colleges, the town found a recipe for countering the plight of demographic decline. With about 900 local districts at risk of becoming ghost towns within the next few decades, Ama’s success off the west coast of Shimane Prefecture has caught attention from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration — and even from Australian educators.
“Ama got serious because it was in real difficulty,” said Hideaki Tanaka, who teaches government at Meiji University in Tokyo. “Many places that rely on government support feel comfortable with the status quo, but resources are limited and it’s unsustainable.”
Mayor Michio Yamauchi saw the writing on the wall in 2004. With ¥10.15 billion in debt to the central government and less than 5 percent of the money needed to pay that back, Ama was on the road to bankruptcy.
The town’s population had shrunk by two-thirds over the postwar period to fewer than 2,400. Two of every five residents were elderly. Even so, Ama still poured money into public works, increasing its debt burden without creating jobs.
“I decided to slash spending and remove waste, even if it meant reducing public amenities,” Yamauchi, 76, said by telephone from his office. “I cut my own salary to convince everyone of my resolve.”
While avoiding fiscal disaster was vital, that’s not the only lesson Ama holds, said Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co.
Just as importantly, the town focused the economy on local specialties, expanded its sales and marketing networks, and attracted young people.
Ama accomplished much of this with a public-private seafood company, which drew migrants like Toru Fujii, 44, and his wife, Yuko, 46.
They relocated with two children in 2005 after Fujii got tired of his administrative job in Nagano and answered an advertisement to help set up the venture, called Furusato Ama.
The company invested in a freezing system that enhances freshness by limiting ice-crystal formation in food, and then set about tapping national and global markets for the squid, oysters and fish that thrive around the Oki Islands.
Furusato Ama now employs about 30 people, has been profitable for five years and has annual sales of about ¥200 million, said Satoshi Fujita, a town official.
Ama’s catch is typically transported by boat to warehouses on the mainland, then flown to distribution centers in Tokyo and Kobe, from where some consignments are air-freighted to Shanghai, Dubai and the United States, said Fujita.
The connections linking the town’s seafood buyers with the wider world are also being used by ranchers to sell Oki beef and by islanders like Fujii, who started a side business making squid crackers.
“The salary they offered my husband before we left was low and I had a lot concerns,” Yuko Fujii said by phone from Ama. “We agreed because they were upfront about all the inconveniences and disadvantages.”
The couple, who had a third child after coming to Ama, are among the more than 300 migrants from the country’s main islands who have made it their home under the current mayor, according to the town office. Most are in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
The revival of Oki-Dozen High School is part to Ama’s strategy for a different future. It has recruited teachers from an external education service and overhauled the curriculum.
One new course prepares students for entry into Japan’s top universities while others nurture future leaders for the Oki Islands by teaching town planning and product development, said Misao Yoshimoto, a senior town official.
Australian Ambassador Bruce Miller inspected Oki-Dozen in May to check its suitability for cooperation with schools in his country, the embassy said.
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