Gifu town looks to share-house initiative to meet depopulation challenge

Chunichi Shimbun

A small village in central Japan facing depopulation has renovated an empty home into a share house in a bid to attract young women who want to experience life in the countryside.

The village of Shirakawa, Gifu Prefecture, hopes that through the experience, some visitors will end up staying permanently to boost village numbers. But with the maximum stay at the share house set at two years, it is unclear whether the initiative will succeed.

“The task lies in finding a more permanent place to go on to in two years,” said one of the staffers involved in the project.

The share house was established with the support of the village to provide people with a simple way to experience life in the area.

Young members of the Community-Reactivating Cooperator Squad, a project subsidized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to help people migrate and get used to rural life, took charge of the project, renaming an empty house in Hirase district, south of the village, Yamagoya Ijo Hoshizora Miman (More Than a Hut, Less Than the Starry Sky).

They posted information online looking for people interested in moving in and started accepting tenants last November.

The share house is a wooden one-story building about 100 sq. meters in size, with five bedrooms and a common area that includes a living room, kitchen and bathroom.

The house is limited to females only, with a minimum stay of one month. The utility bills are shared equally among the residents, but the monthly rent is extremely low at ¥5,000.

Five women currently live in the share house — some come from Aichi and Akita prefectures, and are working for nonprofit organizations, including some offering nature-based tourist activities.

Miko Kitamura, 22, who moved in last month, was originally from Toba in Mie Prefecture. She graduated from Kitasato University School of Veterinary Medicine in March and joined a company that sells Japanese food in New York, only to resign at the end of May.

She wanted to achieve her dream of being a farmer and having her own restaurant, so she decided to move to the share house to experience life in the countryside.

“The villagers have kindly taught me about working in the fields, weeding and so on. I’m glad I can interact with so many people,” Kitamura said.

Last year, approximately 1.73 million tourists visited the village of Shirakawa, home to the traditional gassho-zukuri (thatched-roof houses) designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However, the problems of depopulation and an aging population are becoming serious, with the number of villagers declining from over 9,000 in the 1960s to 1,664 as of June 1. Residents aged 65 and over comprise 31.25 percent of the total.

To lure people from outside the village, it is providing information on empty houses and job vacancies. This has been met with some success, with the number of new residents slowly growing.

“We want to support them so that they will become permanent residents, not temporary ones,” said Kazunari Takahashi, 43, an official at the village’s tourism promotion division.

Maiko Fukuda, 34, who is living in the share house and working as a coordinator for the rest of the tenants, said share house residents will also look for ways to remain permanently in the village.

“This place is for people who want to try out life in the countryside, so we’ll discuss what we need to do if we want to settle here for a longer term,” she said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on June 17.