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From Tokyo, it takes a four-hour shinkansen ride, another 75 minutes on a local train and then 25 minutes by bus to get to a remote town in Akita Prefecture called Fujisato — one of the towns with the highest proportions of older people anywhere in the world, with more than half of the population age 65 and older.

The demographic challenges faced by Fujisato, a graying ghost town with a population of fewer than 3,000, provide a glimpse into the future for similar towns and villages in decline in Japan and around the world.

Taking a quick walk down the street conveys the town’s fate. Step off the bus in the town center and there’s no one to be seen.

Stores and restaurants are closed, buildings are rusted and houses appear vacant. Any young outsider immediately stands out — and often triggers chatter among the older local residents.

The main hospital in town is only open two days a week, with a run-down pharmacy located across the street. Local residents, especially older people who don’t have a car, need to take the bus for an hour and a half to visit a larger general hospital in the nearby city of Noshiro.

“The bus ride to the general hospital has become a problem because it is too long” without a toilet break, said Takako Saito, 48, an official at the Fujisato town office.

“Older people are prescribed extra medication so they don’t need to make as many trips to the hospital,” she says, adding, “now with the pandemic, there are more concerns.”

The main hospital in town is only open two days a week, with a run-down pharmacy located across the street. | YING ZHOU
The main hospital in town is only open two days a week, with a run-down pharmacy located across the street. | YING ZHOU

The town has been suffering from a vicious cycle: A lack of jobs causes younger people to move away, which results in stores, restaurants and other industries losing business and leaves mainly the retired population, creating a burden on the town’s social welfare coffers.

As of last year, Fujisato was the municipality with the second-largest share of older people in the prefecture, with 51.1% of its population age 65 or older. The figure for Akita Prefecture, the highest nationwide, is 37.9%, while the national average is 28.7%, the highest in the world.

Children under 15 make up less than 7% of the town’s population, and there were only four babies born in Fujisato in the entire year, making them as precious as diamonds.

Experts say that Fujisato and a few other places like it in Japan’s countryside are ground zero for the country’s looming demographic trends.

What is happening in Fujisato “is highly likely to happen elsewhere,” said Manabu Shimasawa, 51, a senior researcher at the Chubu Region Institute for Social and Economic Research who is well-versed in regional economies from his years teaching at Akita University.

“What Akita should be doing is building a long-term policy premised on the fact that the population will continue to shrink,” said Shimasawa. “In the past, people built many houses, schools, train stations, shinkansen lines and department stores to serve the reality of growing populations. Now, it should be doing the opposite.”

This includes creating a “compact city,” which would involve concentrating the population in certain areas, making public services such as sanitation and garbage collection more efficient, Shimasawa said.

A run-down pharmacy sits across the street from Fujisato's main hospital, which is open only two days a week. | YING ZHOU
A run-down pharmacy sits across the street from Fujisato’s main hospital, which is open only two days a week. | YING ZHOU

According to 2016 data from the town office, deteriorating local industries are also a serious problem for the town. More than 55% of outlets such as restaurants, clothing shops and grocery stores closed during the previous quarter of a century, leaving a total of just 25 shops that remain open.

Surrounded by the Shirakami mountain range, part of a World Heritage site, Fujisato was once a thriving local town with nearly 10,000 residents.

Tamiko Kirikoshi, who moved to Fujisato 44 years ago as a newlywed from Aomori Prefecture, recalls the years of hustle and bustle in a town rich with culture and tradition built by decades of hard work.

“This street was once bustling,” said Kirikoshi, 71, looking at the now-empty main street. “Here, there used to be a tofu shop. There was a hair salon over there. And there used to be a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).”

She said she worked extremely hard to sustain her household. She ran a tea house for 10 years, while her husband published a weekly community newspaper called Fujisato Shimbun — her elder daughter helped out with the delivery when she was an elementary school student. The family ran the newsletter for nearly 30 years until its final edition was published in 2012 after Kirikoshi’s husband passed away.

For Kirikoshi, life in Fujisato was buzzing and filled with energy and many people, both young and old.

But now, the bleak facts and numbers confronting Fujisato and similar communities place them on a path, ultimately, toward socioeconomic extinction.

The main street in the town of Fujisato, Akita Prefecture, is deserted in November. | YING ZHOU
The main street in the town of Fujisato, Akita Prefecture, is deserted in November. | YING ZHOU

In response to this grim demographic reality, the town office — in collaboration with the local Social Welfare Council (SWC), a publicly funded welfare organization — is encouraging people over 65 to continue working until 75, or as long as their physical condition allows.

The council provides opportunities for older people to find work by matchmaking with the private sector, training in new skills and creating social bonds with others.

Kazuko Komori, 70, who has lived in Fujisato her entire life, is benefiting from the programs. She currently works at a hot-spring facility four days a week, mainly helping with events hosted by the SWC, which has held classes on playing traditional instruments, paper cutting and making Japanese confections.

“It is delightful to work here because I can meet with and talk to my friends often while earning an allowance to support my household,” she said.

Shimasawa of the Chubu Region Institute for Social and Economic Research believes the SWC’s work is a step in the right direction.

He points out that the key is for municipalities to provide jobs in fields that older people can work in, such as agriculture and tourism.

“To adapt to a superaged society, it is important to increase older people’s roles in society by providing them work that at the same time can help them keep in good health,” Shimasawa said. “Though a person can retire from his or her job, one can never retire from society.”

Ying Zhou is a graduate student at Akita International University. This article is part of her coursework in journalism at the Graduate School of Global Communication Practices.

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