NANMOKU, GUNMA PREF. – Chikara Imai, 73, is quick to dismiss the new parties in Sunday’s national election, saying old ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is what the country’s most elderly village needs for survival.
Nanmoku, 107 km (67 miles) northwest of Tokyo, is at the forefront of the nation’s battle against an aging and shrinking population. Its population has halved over the past 20 years to 1,963, and with a median age of 70.6, Nanmoku is now Japan’s oldest municipality.
Nanmoku and places like it across the country are a key support base for the LDP, which has been in power for most of the past six decades.
“Rural Japan is no Tokyo. Those people may say something ideal in Tokyo, something like ‘Let’s change Japan.’ But here, it won’t strike home,” Imai said.
Sunday’s Lower House election pits Abe’s LDP-led coalition against two brand new parties: Kibo no To (Party of Hope) headed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike; and the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which emerged from a breakup of the traditional opposition Democratic Party.
But Koike’s “reformist, conservative” challenge doesn’t resonate much in Nanmoku. Most municipalities are shrinking in Japan, so far the only important developed country with a declining population. They look to Tokyo for a lifeline.
“For back country dwellers, strong ties with the central government come in handy when we need to ask for help in such times as a natural disaster. This village has no option but to support them,” the 73-year-old Imai said.
Gunma Prefecture, where Nanmoku is located, has long been an LDP stronghold and has produced four prime ministers, including Keizo Obuchi, who served as prime minister from 1998 to 2000.
On Sunday, the Nanmoku municipality will provide transportation to elderly villagers who would otherwise have difficulty getting to the polls.
Mountains account for 90 percent of Nanmoku’s total land area, leaving little space for farming and housing. Some of the houses, built along a river running through the village, look abandoned. Few customers come by the several general shops that remain open.
The village’s sole remaining elementary school has just 24 students this year, down from a high of 1,632 in 1959, when Nanmoku operated three grade schools.
Farms that used to grow devil’s tongue, a starchy potato-like plant, have yielded to large-scale operations in other municipalities blessed with ample farm land.
“Until this day, we have not found a substitute (industry),” Nanmoku Mayor Saijo Hasegawa said.
With independent revenue sources covering less than 20 percent of the village’s budget, Hasegawa sees a continuity in government support for Nanmoku as essential, and is wary of a change in administration.
“There’s no such thing as one-year plan to fight population decline. It takes 20, 30 years for any measures to take effect,” Hasegawa said. “In a change of government, politicians tend to deny everything about the former government, which is scary.”
The nation’s demographic challenge is one of the biggest facing the new government after Sunday’s elections. People aged 65 or older account for 27.2 percent of the total population, the highest on record, while the population is forecast to fall by nearly a third by 2065 when almost 40 percent will be 65 or older.
The government has earmarked a record ¥32.5 trillion ($29 billion) this fiscal year to pay for social security services, the bulk of which is spent on the elderly. Social security outlays account for roughly a third of this year’s national budget.
As part of a drive to tackle Japan’s demographic time-bomb, the government in 2009 started a program to financially help local municipalities recruit urbanites to work in agriculture and other sectors for eventual settlement.
Yohka Tanaka, who grew up in Tokyo and went to college in the United States, moved to Nanmoku two years ago through the program. He is now working on natural farming, which uses no pesticides or fertilizers.
Tanaka, 26, aims to prove the viability of such farming so environmentally-conscious young people will follow in his foot steps.
“This place is perfect for natural farming … As long as I stick around, the village won’t disappear.”