Remote islands think out of the box to fight depopulation

by Takafumi Sukegawa


As Japan as a whole struggles with a rapidly aging and declining population, some of its remote islands are taking bold steps to rejuvenate themselves, attracting both young people and tourists.

Initiatives to cope with their dwindling communities include ideas focused on tourism, education and encouraging outsiders to relocate to them.

Ojika Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, an islet with a population of 2,500, now attracts around 20,000 tourists a year with a program offering visitors a chance to experience the traditional life of an islander.

Shoichiro Udo, a 73-year-old fisherman, hosts tourists at his home a day or two a week, serving fish he catches himself, either as sashimi or deep-fried.

“At first, I wondered why they would come here, since there’s nothing to see,” Udo said.

The island in the East China Sea once thrived on abalone fishing. But when the local fishery industry declined, the island’s population fell.

About a decade ago, a group of islanders, concerned that the island community was losing its vitality, initiated a tourism program offering an ¥8,000 overnight stay at resident’s homes, including hands-on experiences of fishing or farming and dining with the family. It was not long before the nature-rich island became a magnet for tourists, with visitors gradually increasing through word of mouth.

Residents for their part found themselves enjoying the visitors. Locals say the island has a history of hospitality as a port of call for ships engaged in trade with China in olden times.

The number of host families has increased from the initial seven to nearly 30, with Udo so far welcoming more than 1,000 guests.

“Our guests are just like family members,” his wife, Yasuyo, 72, said.

With an increase in visitors, restaurants and accommodation facilities have opened one after another on the island and some abandoned old houses have been renovated into modern lodgings with designs modeled after old Japanese-style houses. Residents expect an increase in foreign tourists since an uninhabited islet, only 30 minutes by ferry, is home to some of the dozens of sites linked to persecuted Christians in the 17th to 19th centuries that the central government has proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ryoko Ikeda, the 58-year-old owner of an accessory shop on Ojika Island, has begun studying English so she can converse with foreigners and post local news on social media.

“By attracting people from around the world, I want to help enliven this island,” Ikeda said.

Hiroshima Prefecture’s Osakikamijima Island, located in the Seto Inland Sea, sees education as the key to address the issue of depopulation and aging.

A prefectural government-run boarding school to educate mainly in English will open on the island in April 2019.

The Hiroshima Eichi Gakuen, or Hiroshima Global Academy, will offer integrated education from junior high to high school levels, aims to produce quality graduates capable of being active in the international community.

The school plans to accept some 40 students a year, including foreign students, at the high school level.

With most of the classes to be taught in English, the school will also introduce the International Baccalaureate educational program, which qualifies students to enter leading universities overseas.

The town of Osakikamijima is also trying to lure a branch campus of the College of the Atlantic in Maine. It has already exchanged a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. school on future cooperation and people-to-people exchanges.

“Our goal is to have education from elementary through university levels being completed on the island,” Osakikamijima Mayor Yukinori Takata said.

The island’s population has declined to around 7,800 from its peak of 25,000, with those aged 65 or older accounting for 47 percent.

“If more young people come to the island, the whole town will be given a new lease on life,” the 65-year-old mayor said.

In collaboration with the other schools on the island — Osaki Kaisei High School with about 80 students and the National Institute of Technology, Hiroshima College, which has 700 students, the Hiroshima Eichi School plans to have exchange programs with foreign students and classes to discuss issues facing the island.

Kenji Nakahara, the 53-year-old principal of Osaki Kaisei, is keen on the three-way cooperation.

“Discussing problems for the island from various viewpoints will be a useful education for students to build a foundation for succeeding in the world,” Nakahara said.

Elsewhere, standing out among old houses on a small island in the Sea of Japan is a wooden two-story shared home built for newcomers by the municipal government.

Kenji Kono, 22, relocated to Awashima Island in April 2017 and now takes care of horses used for sightseeing. He is one of some 20 young people who have moved to the island in Niigata Prefecture in the past five years. Originally from Nagaoka in the prefecture, Kono graduated from an animal-related vocational school.

While struggling to find a job, he made a chance visit to the island and was soon enamored with its natural environment.

Kono now lives in the shared house with seven other people in their 20s and 30s recruited from outside the island as staff attached to the Awashimaura village office.

“I learn from them the island’s way of doing things and how to cook. It’s good to have companions,” said Kono, the youngest of the eight.

The shared home is the brainchild of Awashimaura village Mayor Tateo Hombo, 64.

Afraid that the island would not have a future unless it attracted people from outside, Hombo actively employed non-locals at the village office, tapping into the central government’s “local vitalization cooperator” support system for depopulated regions.

As a result, the island’s population began increasing several years ago.

“Thanks to an increase in the young population, the only nursery school on the island is already filled,” a village hall official said.

In 2016, Hanako Aoyagi, 31, opened Guesthouse Omusubinoie, the first new business on the island in several decades.

Aoyagi was a resident of the shared house after moving from the city of Niigata.

She renovated an empty house with funds from crowdfunding, to offer a place where islanders and outsiders can meet. In the summer of 2017, the guesthouse had some 300 people.

“I hope more people, being fond of the island, will come to fulfill their dreams here,” Aoyagi said.

The Japanese archipelago has around 6,800 islands, of which several hundred are inhabited.

Remote islands can develop if they draw attention by taking advantage of their characteristics, said Masahiro Okubo, head of the nonprofit organization Rito Keizai Shimbunsha (Archipelago News), which runs media specializing in news about small inhabited islands.

“What’s important for such islands is to make efforts to increase the number of people who want to come back after their first visit,” Okubo said. “It’s also important to consider how to create working places by making use of their resources to lure working generations.”