TOKAMACHI, NIIGATA PREF. - Aging settlements nestled in mountain valleys or fishing villages are drawing more than just retirees who want to live in seclusion.
Nowadays, aspiring young people are feeling the charm of such locations, sensing the potential to start anew, leading in some cases to the rescue of marginal hamlets from the verge of extinction.
Kanako Sato, a 29-year-old mother, is just one example of the people who are opting for the benefits of “slow living” over the hustle and bustle of big city life.
“When I was helping villagers with their farming activities, I gradually realized that their way of life, philosophy and culture came from agriculture and those values were shaping the community and the region,” Sato said in a recent interview.
Over a decade ago, the depopulated Iketani settlement, surrounded by mountain forests and terraced paddy fields in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, had nearly vanished, with just 13 residents in six households remaining. Many of its villagers were over 65.
The situation became bleak when a strong earthquake struck the region in 2004, damaging roads and agricultural fields.
Toichiro Sone, an 80-year-old resident, recalled the time after the quake. “I thought it was over. Big cracks had opened in the farming fields. We held a meeting with villagers and talked about all of us moving to a different place,” Sone said.
That would have meant abandoning the community and the land passed down and protected by generations of their ancestors. Traditionally, land inheritance has been a crucial part of Japan’s society.
But the quake unexpectedly brought young volunteers to the community, and the villagers had a change of heart, Sone said.
“Our spirit was lifted by volunteers. They also praised our settlement, which we had taken for granted, saying it was such a beautiful place. So I felt I wanted to hang on here a bit more.”
Eventually, some individuals and a family moved to the community, boosting the number of residents to 24 in 2016.
Sato started as a volunteer. But she was so intrigued by the settlement that she declined a job offer from an advertising agency and started farming there when she was just out of a Tokyo university six years ago.
One day a villager told her that unlike people, crops can’t be fooled; that they grow according to how they are taken care of and that people should be treated the same way. It was all she needed to hear.
“I thought (their values and philosophy) were so precious and I didn’t want them to disappear,” she said. Becoming a farmer herself, she thought, was one way to help stop the disappearance of the community and preserve what she had learned.
In 2011, Sato moved to an abandoned elementary school in the settlement and lived there for two and a half years before moving into Sone’s home, where he taught her how to grow rice and other vegetables.
It was a rough start. On a few occasions, she had accidents in a light pickup truck or saw vegetables rot before she could store them for winter. Withstanding freezing weather with a stove at the school or shoveling snow for hours every morning were not what she had expected.
Sone said that he initially thought Sato might give up, because the farm activities required both physical strength and years of experience. Sato would meticulously write down instructions in a notebook, and with every new challenge she took on, he became more convinced she was there for the long haul.
After marrying a local man and giving birth to a daughter, she has continued her work. Although she is temporarily out of the settlement, she is commuting to her farmland from the same city and planning to rejoin the settlement after renovating her new home.
“I never thought of quitting,” said Sato. “My sense of value has totally changed. There were individuals and families in the settlement who were my role models. I wanted to become like them and I wanted to revive their community. This idea has kept me going.”
Sato, who now manages 1 hectare of paddy fields and 10 ares of vegetable fields, says unlike in Tokyo she enjoys close relations with the residents and interactions with her customers, some of whom she came to know through Facebook.
“I am quite satisfied with my current life,” both in terms of quality and income, Sato said. “I feel much more secure here than in Tokyo because I built everything myself, such as my job and relations with people,” she said.
The help of volunteers and new settlers not only lifted the spirits of the residents but also generated new ideas to financially revive the community, Sone said. The villagers market their brand of rice at higher prices rather than sell it through the agricultural cooperative, which often results in stable but average revenue.
Sone welcomes young settlers to the community.
“I believe the good nature here could be utilized in something that can generate cash and attract people. I don’t have an idea myself but I guess young people may have better ideas. I want new settlers to help find such ways and revive the community,” said Sone.
The Iketani settlement story is not unique, according to Hiroshi Takahashi, the representative chair of a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization supporting people who are considering relocating to rural Japan.
“One might have an image that most people relocating to rural areas are retired seniors but that picture has changed totally over the last seven to eight years,” Takahashi said. “Now young and competent people full of drive are heading to rural areas and have achieved success.”
The number of visitors to his center and inquiries dramatically increased over the last few years, especially among those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who now account for 70 percent of the total.
Takahashi believes the trend reflects the collapse of the permanent employment system in Japan and an increase in the number of unstable jobs as simply working at big companies does not guarantee security and satisfaction anymore.
He added that more people are also opting to lead sustainable lives especially after the March 2011 reactor meltdowns, which laid bare the negative side of convenient and modern technology.
A 2014 government survey showed that about 40 percent of people are interested in moving to rural areas from Tokyo in search of a slow-paced life or better living conditions, among other reasons, but many raised concerns about finding work if they relocate.
“People may think that they would struggle finding work in rural villages but I learned from locals that a job is not something that is provided but can be created ourselves,” said Sato. “Villagers flexibly adjust to economic situations while sticking to a philosophy of life. One day, I hope to become like them.”