In the nation's declining provinces, it is not only the living who are neglected.

Family shrines that hold the ashes of generations are often overgrown or broken, something once unheard of in a society that reveres its ancestors. With the population dying off at an average rate of about half a million a year over the next five years — equivalent to losing Chicago — there are insufficient family members left in many rural areas to look after the graves.

The abandoned family shrines are one of the most visible indicators of the hollowing out in the provinces, where the decline from mortality is supplemented by an exodus of youth seeking work in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Stopping that rot has become critical for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who faces regional elections in April that will test his support for a party leadership contest in the autumn.