Critics say Kochi Shinkin Bank has lost its way and is acting more like an investment firm than a regional lender. Supporters say it shows that provincial banks can thrive in Japan even as their customer base shrinks, so long as they're prepared to adopt new business models.

The bank's president, Kurumi Yamazaki, steers clear of the wider debate. Sitting in her office at the bank's headquarters — a modern five-story building sheathed in glass and stone — Yamazaki says she's focused on maximizing returns for customers. This means maintaining services and offering above-average interest on deposits. With weak loan demand in Kochi, the most remote prefecture on the smallest of Japan's four main islands, the bank pushed into bond and stock investments to make ends meet.

Japan's 264 shinkin banks play a similar role to local credit unions in the U.S. and are bearing the brunt of demographic decline. Kochi Shinkin stands out partly because it's run by a woman, which is a rarity in Japan, and partly because Yamazaki started as a teller fresh out of high school, a career track that's unusual among bank presidents. But the most notable thing about Kochi Shinkin is its success as the economy around it contracts.