• Kyodo

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An aerospace-focused home-stay program for elementary school students has revitalized the small town in Kagoshima Prefecture that hosts Japan’s space program, drawing children from across the nation to an area where depopulation has skewed demographics heavily toward the elderly.

With a population of around 6,000, Minamitane on Tanegashima Island began the program in 1996 to boost the economy and increase the population of school-age children.

Under the program, children from the second to sixth grades stay at local homes for a year to experience aspects of the space program, watching liftoffs at the Tanegashima Space Center and participating in experiments conducted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which runs the space center.

Eating space food and launching model rockets are among other activities they can undertake while taking part in the program.

The program has hosted 578 children since it was launched 20 years ago. It has recently been hosting about 30 to 40 a year, including the 30 in this year’s class who are enrolled in seven elementary schools in town.

“Every day is so fulfilling because I can experience what I cannot if I continue to lead an urban life, such as watching a rocket liftoff,” said Sora Masada, a 12-year-old from Kiyosu, Aichi Prefecture. He said his dream is to become a scientist.

While the program costs ¥70,000 per student per month, the municipality provides a ¥40,000 subsidy to each household. The host town has established a liaison council to do all it can to support the children.

“Our community, including schools, has been revitalized” by the program, a school official said.

A Minamitane official pitched the program as enabling children to develop a mentality by which they can care for their families and friends, and become more independent-minded. The official hopes the children develop a strong attachment to Minamitane and view it as “their second hometown.”

Starting next April, the town will provide accommodations so children and their families can live together in the town during the program.

“Having students with different family backgrounds mingle with local students is good for both,” said Kazuhiro Fukudome, principal of Keinan Elementary School, one of the seven that accepts students for the program.

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