AKITA - On a recent weekday morning, a group of men in their 70s and 80s gathered for baseball practice just down the road from a junior high school where students were arriving to start the day.
At full strength, the Shimohama Club baseball team’s 33 players outnumber the students. Only 27 children attend the school, one of about two dozen in the city of Akita, the eponymous capital of the Tohoku region prefecture.
Akita Prefecture has the oldest population in the country and more than one-third of its residents are over the age of 65 — demographic woes which reflect a nationwide issue.
“It’s scary,” said Koji Otomo, 87, a retired teacher and head of the baseball club. “With the population declining steadily and quickly like this, there is no way of painting a vision for the future.”
Akita’s population is forecast to fall 41 percent by 2045, when half of the prefecture’s projected 600,000 residents will be older than 65, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
In 2015, the prefecture crafted a plan to stop the demographic decline with steps such as expanding medical subsidies for schoolchildren, providing extra day care support and helping workers pay back student loans.
But so far little has changed.
The prefecture, where several cities are redesigning themselves to provide more efficient services for the dwindling population, is one of the largest in the country and, at the same time, one of the most sparsely populated.
“It is quite costly to offer administrative services in an area where the population is getting scarce,” Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake said in an interview. “It is very difficult to maintain such communities.”
As evening falls, pedestrians become few on the main street leading to Akita Station, the city’s transportation hub.
“Let’s enjoy night shopping,” reads a sign at a nearby department store — but it closes its doors at 7:30 p.m.
With 15.5 deaths for every 1,000 residents in 2017, the prefecture’s death rate tops the country. Its birth rate, at 5.4 births per 1,000 residents, is Japan’s lowest.
“We now have more funeral parlors. There are increased instances where an old building is torn down and a new one under construction at the site turns out to be a funeral home,” said Fumika Miura, a local government employee.
Although labor shortfalls persist across the country, the issue is compounded in Akita: there are not enough workers to meet the growing demand for elderly care.
Jun Numaya, director of elder care provider Fukinotou, said a lack of qualified caregivers forced it to suspend operations at one of its three facilities last year.
“Potential clients are out there, but we cannot take them because of the labor shortage. That’s what’s happening in this industry,” he said.
Numaya, who is also a member of the Akita Prefectural Assembly, said the prefecture’s problems will eventually have a direct impact on Tokyo.
“Children born and raised in the countryside move to Tokyo, produce, spend money and get the economy moving. That’s how things have worked since the era of Japan’s postwar economic growth,” he said.
“But the countryside is losing its ability to bear and raise children and provide them (to Tokyo) because of lower birth rates,” he added. “If the countryside stops functioning, Tokyo naturally stops functioning as well.”
‘They want young people’
Starting this autumn, women in Kazuno, a city of 31,000 people in northern Akita, must go to the neighboring city of Odate to give birth. Universities deploying obstetricians to the region are focusing on an Odate hospital partly because there were too few pregnancies in Kazuno.
“Childbirth is the very foundation of any region. This could become the primary factor to push Kazuno into a decline,” said Daisuke Anbo, a leader of a citizens’ group seeking to restore labor and delivery services there.
Already, one-third of the prefecture’s companies allow employees to keep working after 70, the highest rate in the country.
At Asahi Taxi in the city of Akita, more than half of its 148 drivers are 65 or older.
“Half of us here in this company are past typical retirement ages. People probably don’t even think they are doing something special by working hard into an advanced age,” said Tadashi Sato, head of the company’s general affairs division. He is 81.
Younger adults are an increasingly precious commodity in the prefecture. Sakura Nakamura, an Akita International University student from Nagasaki, realized that when she visited local companies to raise funds.
“I was quite frequently asked if I would be staying in Akita,” she said. “I felt their expectations. I also felt slightly pressured (to stay). That made me keenly realize that they want young people.”
As the population has shrunk, wildlife has moved back in, including wild bears emboldened by fading signs of human activity and drawn in by unharvested chestnuts and persimmons. Twenty people were killed or injured by bears in the prefecture in the year to March, a record high.
Just outside Aniai Elementary School in the city of Kitaakita, a “Beware of bears” sign is illustrated with a menacing animal.
Apple farmer Satomi Ito got firsthand experience with bears’ encroachment when his neighbor was mauled last year. As the sole hunting rifle owner in the mountainous hamlet, he finished off 11 bears caught in traps in just three months last year.
“This is unthinkable. It used to be just one or two bears a year at most that were captured,” said Ito, 66.
Since Akita’s population slide is probably unstoppable, drastic changes are needed, said Yutaka Okada, a senior economist at Mizuho Research Institute.
“The population in Akita will need to be consolidated as much as possible to one or two places,” he said. “As Japan’s total population will likely fall by 30 or 40 million by 2060, it is unlikely every municipality will stage a sharp rebound.”
Metropolises such as Tokyo will not be spared, he added.
“Popular areas (of the city) will survive, but it would not be surprising if areas that are not so popular have a lot of vacant houses and turn into slums,” he said.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government expects its population to peak in 2025 at 14 million before starting a steady decline. And by 2055, people 65 or older are expected to account for one-third of its population, up from 23 percent in 2015.