As the population gets older do we risk losing the summer festivals that make Japan unique?

Alex K.T. Martin joins Deep Dive to discuss this and other demographic-related woes the country faces. Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna 00:08 Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. [sounds from Kyoto] You're listening to sounds from this past weekend's Gion Festival in Kyoto. That's one of the big three traditional festivals in Japan. Around 150,000 people reportedly attended this year's festival, which involves a parade with elaborate floats that winds its way through the city streets. For lucky — or should I say, wealthy — 84 attendees, premium seats were offered at a hefty price of ¥400,000, that's around $2,870. The idea of premium seats is just one way that Kyoto and other cities across the country are trying to cover costs. The Awa Odori Festival in Tokushima, for example, is selling them for ¥200,000, and premium seats at the Aomori Nebuta Festival are going for as much as ¥1 million. So will appealing to wealthy visitors and tourists help the summer traditions stay alive? This week. Alex K.T. Martin joins me to talk about matsuri and how they're connected to Japan's aging population. Alex, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Alex Martin 01:25

Thank you, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 01:26

So for our discussion, I want to refer to traditional Japanese festivals as “matsuri,” the Japanese word for it. Japan has other festivals like music festivals and film festivals, but the word “matsuri” I think denotes a specific brand of celebration.

Alex Martin 01:42

That’s correct, matsuri are an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Shaun McKenna 01:46

Now, I mentioned the Gion Matsuri at the top of the show. Have you ever been to that one?

Alex Martin 01:50

Unfortunately not.

Shaun McKenna 01:51

What matsuri have you been to?

Alex Martin 01:53

I’ve been to many, there’s my local matsuri at Suwa Shrine coming up this weekend, I think. And then there’s the Nezu Shrine festival, which is also another shrine in my neighborhood. In terms of the bigger ones I’ve been to the Aomori Nebuta Festival where they have these gigantic floats that they’re known for. Then also in Tokyo, the Sanja Festival in Asakusa, which already happened. But that’s always great.

Shaun McKenna 02:14

Cool. What’s your favorite matsuri?

Alex Martin 02:16

I think I just like my local festivals to be honest. Obviously, you know, the massive ones are fun to go to, all these people coming together, huge celebrations and festivities, but at the end of the day, I like the small sort of local festivals at the local shrines.

Shaun McKenna 02:30

What do you like about them?

Alex Martin 02:31

I think, for me, you know, there’s a sense of nostalgia involved, these old sort of food stalls and people wearing their happi coats and kimonos. And, you know, selling these little sweets that I’ve been eating since I was a little boy. And it’s like, you know, going back in time, I guess, and sort of, like, regaining that sort of sense of wonder when you when you’re going to these festivals as a child. How about you?

Shaun McKenna 02:52

Well, my favorite is probably the Koenji Awa Odori in Tokyo. I have a lot of fond memories, not stretching back as far as yours, but a lot of good memories hanging out with friends under the train tracks, like through the night, we would be kind of like, you know, drinking together, and then a random dance troupe would just show up and perform. And it was a really great atmosphere. But I have to say, I haven’t actually been to any matsuri since the pandemic. That seems to be a problem and you address this in a story you’re writing that’s going to come out this weekend.

Alex Martin 03:26

Yeah, that’s correct. So when the pandemic first hit, at least in 2020 and 2021, I think most matsuri in the country were canceled. These include the firework festivals as well. And I think last year, you know, gradually, we began to see more festivals come back up again, but not to the level of pre-pandemic days. So this year, this summer, actually, it was probably going to be the first time when there’s no restrictions at all.

Shaun McKenna 03:51

Have any of these festivals kind of disappeared with a pandemic?

Alex Martin 03:55

Oh, yes. Well, I don’t think there’s strong stats to back this up at this point just yet. It’ll probably come out, you know, in the years to come. But I’m sure there are many that died out. I know, there’s one, a bon odori festival in Tanashi, in western Tokyo... so they’re not going to be having their annual bon odori festival this year or, you know, ever after from here on. And I think there are many other festivals, especially in rural areas, small festivals that have died out during the pandemic.

Shaun McKenna 04:21

Do we know how many Monthsary are held in Japan?

Alex Martin 04:24

By some estimates, there are around 300,000 festivals in Japan, which is interesting, because I think I’ve read some other statistics saying that that’s the same number of neighborhood associations in Japan. And these are the groups that typically host matsuri in cities and villages.

Shaun McKenna 04:42

OK, what is the purpose of a Japanese matsuri, like, and what are we likely to see if we go to one?

Alex Martin 04:48

Typically, matsuri are held for the local shrines or temples. It’s a way to sort of offer thanks and pay tribute to the local gods. That said, matsuri are quite seasonal, a matsuri held during the spring is usually to sort of pray for harvest, during the fall is to thank the gods for the harvest... during the summer, traditionally, there were a lot of plagues sort of going around in the cities back centuries ago. So they would host these mysteries to sort of ward off the evil spirits to keep away the bad diseases and all that. And then there’s the o-Bon season, that’s when the souls of the deceased sort of returned from a netherworld to sort of visit their living families. And during that time, a lot of communities, they host what is called the “bon odori,” sort of a dancing sort of festival.

Shaun McKenna 05:34

OK, and just for those listening overseas, o-Bon is kind of a week of holidays that happens typically in the middle of August.

Alex Martin 05:41

Right, and during these festivals, typically you’ll see people carrying what they call mikoshi, which are basically portable shrines, small shrines that are hoisted on the shoulders of you know, dozens of people carrying them around the town. You’ll see “dashi” which are these floats, some are quite big, actually, people can actually climb onto them sometimes. Then you’ll see these what they call the “yatai,” the foodstalls, not just food but some sort of sell masks for children, maybe there’s like a shooting gallery for kids.

Shaun McKenna 06:09

OK, like a carnival.

Alex Martin 06:11

A carnival, yeah, basically. So, you know, the three components of matsuri generally are: the mikoshi, portable shrine; the dashi, the floats; and number three, the yatai, the stalls.

Shaun McKenna 06:20

OK, you said that one of the factors in the matsuri trying to stay alive is cost. How do the matsuri raise money, and then what is that money spent on?

Alex Martin 06:29

When it comes to the small neighborhood matsuri, I think a lot of them rely on donations from, you know, the town’s folk. When it comes to the bigger ones, like Aomori’s Nebuta or the Gion Festival or the Sanja the matsuri itself is a huge sort of tourism draw. So, for example, the Nebuta, I think they typically gather around a million people every year? Obviously, this wasn’t the case during the pandemic, which goes back to the story of you know, matsuri were having a really hard time during these past three years. So it really depends, I think.

Shaun McKenna 06:58

Do they ever get commercial sponsorship?

Alex Martin 07:00

Yes. So if you go to the Aomori Nebuta Festival, you’ll see these little sort of signs on the bottom of the floats. With, you know, corporate logos or whatnot. So they seek sponsors, and that’s one way to sort of advertise, I guess.

Shaun McKenna 07:12

And then what is the money spent on?

Alex Martin 07:14

So matsuri can be quite expensive. These mikoshi, for example, the portable shrines, even the ones for the kids, they call it the “kodomo mikoshi,” they can cost you know, tens of thousands of yen. When it comes to the bigger ones, so the regular mikoshi can cost anywhere from like a million yen to I think the most expensive ones are like ¥100 million. And then you have all these happi coats, the drums or taiko, for the the music, and it’s a lot of stuff that actually have to spend money on.

Shaun McKenna 07:41

Another factor that you mentioned in your story is that these kinds of cultural traditions, so matsuri and odori are often important to the elderly, but maybe not as popular with young people?

Alex Martin 07:53

I think it’s not unpopular with younger people. I think people of all generations, they love matsuri in Japan, you know, it’s just, it’s just a fun festival, right? So even the kids, kids love it. My son loves it. My daughter loves it. The only thing is like when you got you need someone to organize these festivals. I think this is an issue not just in Japan. But you know, in any developing country, people just come and go now in the cities, right? So for example, if I’m correct, you live in Nerima, but I’m pretty sure you’ve probably never sort of helped out with a local town association or anything, right?

Shaun McKenna 08:23

Right. No, I’ve never...

Alex Martin 08:25

Same as me. I live in Sendagi, I go to local festivals, but I don’t think I’ve actually helped out in organizing one. So it’s two different things. The organizers are typically people who have been living there for generations, which automatically means most of the time, they’re quite old. The thing is, they’re looking for new people to come in and organize these matsuri but they’re having a really hard time finding them. I also spoke to Professor Haga of Sophia University. He’s a sociologist and he’s been sort of studying matsuri and its sort of sociological significance. And he mentioned that there was a big turning point in the 1970s and ’80s, and that’s when a drastic change sort of happened in Japanese society, which had an impact on how these matsuri were organized and presented.

Shaun McKenna 09:03

What was the change?

Alex Martin 09:05

So essentially, until then, a typical Japanese family were often extended families, so you would have your grandparents living with your parents. So it was like a three-generation or sometimes it was like, four-generational family thing. But during this period, in the 1970s, and ’80s, we saw a proliferation of nuclear families and even single-person households. That’s the norm now, but this is when it first began sort of emerging as a big sort of demographic group. And that obviously has an impact on traditional community festivities and things like that, because people are no longer sort of attached to their local areas and hometowns. People move into the big cities with their nuclear families. Perhaps they would go back to their hometown once a year during the New Year’s holidays, but they’re not as involved in local sort of community tasks anymore. So though, there was a big transition in the 1970s and ’80s, which sort of continues to this day.

Shaun McKenna 09:58

What do you think is the solution to this shrinking pool of organizers for matsuri because we don’t want to see matsuri disappear, obviously.

Alex Martin 10:06

Sure, I think there are several solutions. Obviously, villages and communities might want to be a bit more creative when sort of drawing potential organizing personnel. A lot of these chonai-kai neighborhood associations are quite rigid, and perhaps not as welcoming to newcomers, as you might expect. So maybe that’s one way to sort of like, you know, maybe they should have their arms open a little bit wider so they are more accepting of people. On the other hand, there are organizations like Omatsuri Japan, that I interviewed for this story, they basically sort of help produce these local matsuri on behalf of the organizers. They know how to sort of PR matsuri or get like, you know, corporate sponsors, like beer companies to have them sort of like markets or beers at these festivals and stuff like that. I also talked to a guy called Miyata-san who has an organization called Ashita Suki. He goes around helping carry these mikoshi, these mikoshi can be quite heavy, actually because he’s scamming quite heavy actually...

Shaun McKenna 11:01

I’ve done it before, it’s quite heavy, yeah.

Alex Martin 11:04

It’s quite a labor. So at the same time, it’s sort of like symbolic, right, you know, you can’t have a matsuri without a mikoshi, sort of like that kind of thing. So I think he’s carried about 500 mikoshi, over the course of like, in the last decade or so just going around to the little sort of festivals in the countryside and helping them out actually, like physically helping them out, like carrying them, the mikoshi around, stuff like that. So there are people who are trying to sort of like, you know, help these local festivities, either physically or through sort of PR tactics. Then I think the organizers themselves need to sort of like, you know, become a little bit more creative when they’re trying to appeal the benefits of not just one city, but perhaps joining their neighborhood association. And another sort of interesting phenomenon is the Koenji Awa Odori that you went to, you mentioned, that originated in Tokushima Prefecture and it still goes on in Tokushima, obviously, but it’s sort of branched out into different Awa Odori sub branches all across Japan, I think there’s several dozen now. The one in Koenji is one of the bigger ones, obviously, I think it attracts like, I don’t know, a million or 2 million people each year. It’s massive. I’ve been to that before. It’s great. So Professor Haga told me that these dance-centric festivals are actually they’re good in the sense that it’s relatively easy to replicate, as long as you have the music and the necessary clothing or attire, then you can just practice on your own and actually go out and present, you know, the dance to the public, or you can actually join the dance. So I think it’s a very sort of organic way of sort of spreading the matsuri fever.

Shaun McKenna 12:29

Right, it’s a kind of an in-real-life TikTok.

Alex Martin 12:32

Yeah, it’s very, very photogenic. So you go online during the season, and you’ll see a lot of, you know, TikTok or Instagram posts of people just dancing and doing their matsuri thing, right. It’s very colorful.

Shaun McKenna 12:43

Yeah, I really do want to actually go to the Tokushima one, one day, I think, just from being at the Koenji one and enjoying it so much.

Alex Martin 12:52

Yeah. And the thing is, you know, the smaller minority that I mentioned before, the ones held by the neighborhood associations or villages or hamlets, these are the ones that, you know, are having a really hard time sort of, you know, going on. I talked to Mr. Kenichi Kubota, he is the owner of a used-car dealership, in Tatekawa, which is a district in Sumida Ward, I believe. And he’s been basically trying to revive his local summer festival for the past two decades or so. And one way he succeeded was, uh, he began teaching drums, taiko to little children, and have them actually perform at the summer Bon festival, that gives, you know, kids something to sort of look forward to. Plus, hitting the drums to a certain rhythm isn’t as difficult compared to other instruments, for example. So he’s been doing this for a long time. And just before the pandemic, I think he had about 40 kids who were practicing drums who would actually present at the festival. And what he said was, like, you know, if you have 40 children coming to a festival, their parents are going to come too, right? Then their grandparents come too. So you can expect, you know, at least, you know, several 100 people just coming just to see the kids perform. And that, you know, creates this sort of nice vibe, you know, that’s already a matsuri in itself. So, so he was, you know, that was one way for him to sort of tackle the situation, I think.

Shaun McKenna 14:04

How’s he thinking this year’s matsuri in his neighborhood of Tatekawa is gonna go?

Alex Martin 14:10

So he typically starts these rehearsal sessions in July, this month. And I asked him the other day after I wrote the article, and how’s it going, and he sent me some photographs of the most recent rehearsal sessions and I saw at least 15 kids there, so maybe not as many as the pre-pandemic days, but I think he’s off to a pretty good start.

Shaun McKenna 14:35

Alex, you mentioned that matsuri are important to Japan’s older residents, and that they need to get young people kind of involved in the organization of these cultural traditions. On a related note, you recently wrote another story that concerned the aging population, and that was called “Inside Japan’s oldest village.”

Alex Martin 14:55

Right. So back in 2014, then-government advisor Hiroya Masuda – he was the former governor of Iwate prefecture — he released what people call the Masuda Report, and he warned that nearly half of Japan’s municipalities were facing possible extinction by 2040 due to the rapid aging and shrinking of the population, and at the top of the list of the Masuda Report was this village called Nanmoku in Gunma Prefecture. So I just went there for a night to check it out.

Shaun McKenna 15:23

What’s Nanmoku like?

Alex Martin 15:25

So Nanmoku is a village situated pretty deep in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. Population around 1,500. But in terms of the ratio of those 65 and over, it’s a whopping 67.4%, which is over double the national average, I think. In terms of how it looks like, well it’s a typical sort of countryside village, you know, you got this main alley sort of winding up into the mountains, and you have stores and homes lining the streets. However, I noticed a lot of abandoned homes in the area, and not many people walking around. I guess people just drive now, so you don’t see that many residents walking around in the first place. But it’s a typical Japanese countryside town in terms of the atmosphere.

Shaun McKenna 16:09

How did Nanmoku wind up becoming the oldest village in Japan?

Alex Martin 16:13

Actually quite a difficult question. So back in its heyday, when three different villages sort of combined to form Nanmoku — I think this is back in the 1950s — their population was around 10,000. And the local economy was really thriving, thanks to robust konjac production, as well as a silkworm industry.

Shaun McKenna 16:34

OK, so konnyaku is kind of that gelatinous gray corm of a plant, like the bulb of a plant, that’s also known as Devil’s Tongue, and it’s used in winter oden.

Alex Martin 16:45

That’s correct. It’s very healthy too. Anyway, you know, they had several sort of local industries that were really thriving and sort of bringing in a lot of money. But then things started peaking out in the 1970s when konnyaku production moved to the flatlines, a lot of imports came in and silkworm production wasn’t as necessary anymore, as before. The forestry industry also took a hit... the entire nation’s forestry industry took a hit during that period, because there were a lot of, sort of, cheaper imports coming in. Same thing happened in Nanmoku. So a lot of its younger residents started moving out of the town. What happened was like the older people remained in the village, which brought up the average age significantly and by 2015, I think the population dropped below 2,000. But what’s interesting is one of the big draws of the village now is that they have three old folks’ homes of varying degrees of care. And it’s a small village, but you know, they have three of these, which is quite rare, I think, in terms of when you compare to other sorts of small villages and towns in Japan.

Shaun McKenna 17:46

Is anything being done to save the village? Or are people just kind of going to basically let it age out?

Alex Martin 17:53

So you have to understand this is like a big national phenomenon. It’s a big demographic decline. For example, last year, there were twice as many people who died than were born. Having said that, these elderly care facilities is actually one of the plans of the current mayor, when he came in, back in 2014, the same year that the Masuda Report came out. His idea was that at that point, there was only one elderly care facility, and the waiting list was about 2.5 years, I think. So what would happen was the elderly residents would have to sort of move out of town to go to a different facility, which would be a population drain, obviously, right? So what he thought was OK, we’ll make two more new ones. It could zero waiting-list time. At the same time, it produces new work for the younger residents living in the village or people who want to move into the village. At the same time, you know, he was very actively trying to sort of seek out newcomers to move into the village. There’s obviously a lot of open homes, abandoned homes that can be rented out for quite a cheap deal. And Nanmoku is actually very beautiful. You know, it sort of like sits by the valley of the Nanmoku River. It’s not too far from Tokyo. So the access is actually not that bad. It’s not like in the middle of nowhere or anything like that. So especially during the pandemic when a lot of people started doing remote work, they were actively trying to recruit younger people into the village.

Shaun McKenna 19:12

Well, one of the younger people that you spoke to for the story was a guy named Ryo Igarashi, right? At the young age of 43. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

Alex Martin 19:23

Right. Yeah, I mean, in Japan, the whole definition of, you know, being young and old, it’s quite different. It’s very skewed to an interesting demographic sort of thing. But anyway, yeah. So Ryo Igarashi, he came from Yokohama and he basically lived all over Japan. He was working at different farms. And at the end, he decided to move to Nanmoku, and sort of create his own organic farming business. He rented a house for ¥30,000 a year, which is, you know, almost basically free, I would say, with a small sort of plot of farmland. He began from there and sort of gradually expanded his farming thing and now he’s self-sustainable. He did tell me that initially, the villagers were somewhat skeptical about what he was trying to do, because they had this memory of, you know, their thriving konjac industry falling to the ground. And I think that sort of sense of loss, you know that economic loss from those golden years sort of persisted. So they were a little bit skeptical. But he showed up to these village organizations and parties and whatnot, and got himself known to the villagers. And then things began changing, they became very, very accepting of him and started helping out with, you know, whatever he needed to do, devices, machinery and stuff like that.

Shaun McKenna 20:34

Now, it’s interesting, what you said there in that, you know, maybe like, things weren’t that easy for him, and people were skeptical about his organic farming venture. I would think that a village that is looking for younger people might not be so picky? This kind of like reminds me of what you talked about in the earlier segment of the show about these neighborhood associations and how they’re a bit rigid when it comes to new membership.

Alex Martin 20:59

Well, he didn’t meet any resistance moving into Nanmoku. Actually, the current mayor, I think, sort of helped him out a lot to like figure out where to live and what to do in the onset. It was more, like, when he was actually trying to sort of form his farming business that he met, not resistance, but some sort of skeptical glances, I guess, here and there. But you know, you got to understand that a lot of these small communities in the countryside in Japan, they abide by sort of a code of conduct, I think. This is probably not just in Japan, anywhere you go to, you know, if it’s like a place where generations of people live there, because everybody knows each other, right? There’s no way to sort of detach yourself from the community, you have to sort of like get yourself inside the community. So I think a lot of the villages are trying to be sort of welcoming, trying to accept a lot of people from different backgrounds, but at the same time, you know, you have old time residents living there for generations and generations, and you can’t ask them to like, you know, be OK, we’re gonna have another person coming moving in right next to you just be nice, you know, I think it has to become from both ways. So people moving into these villages, they need to understand that, you know, it’s a community based system, so you need to sort of adapt to this new reality. It’s not like living in Tokyo, at the same time villagers, I think they’re trying their best to sort of accommodate, but at the same time, you know, they’ve been living on this land for like, forever. So, you know, they know this place, as you know, better than anyone else. So I think it’s a matter of sort of finding a nice balance between these two sides.

Shaun McKenna 22:28

Well, it reminds me, when the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes left Japan, he wrote a very long piece that we can link to in the show notes, it was titled, “Japan was the future, but it’s stuck in the past.” In it, he talked about one village that he did a story on that had a similar situation to Nanmoku. The village was filled with older people, and they desperately wanted younger people to move there. However, Wingfield-Hayes kind of implied that they were desperate for young people as long as they were Japanese, and I kind of think this picks up on what you were just saying about, you know, kind of meeting a certain standard, if you’re going to kind of try to like move into these places. My question to you is after, you know, seeing a lot of these villages yourself, shouldn’t they be kind of trying to accommodate new people coming in?

Alex Martin 23:18

Yeah, I suppose you could say that. It’s kind of like what I was talking about before with the neighborhood association and the matsuri. They will probably need to get creative to attract new people, especially young people who may want something different from the place they choose to live. At the same time, a lot of these villages are obviously aging out. And the people there who are trying to solve these problems are themselves often elderly, for example, the mayor of Nanmoku, he’s very sprightly, he’s energetic, but he’s 68 years old. And you can’t help it, but perhaps the solutions might come from a younger population with new ideas to accommodate the younger generation. So yeah, I think the towns and the villages that have a chance of surviving in the long run are those that are coming up with these sort of new, interesting ideas.

Shaun McKenna 24:12

Alex, in that last segment, you mentioned a statistic that twice as many people died in Japan last year as were born.

Alex Martin 24:19

That’s correct. In 2025, two years from now, all 6.5 million of Japan’s Baby Boom generation will be 75 or older. At the same time the birth rate has been sagging, the number of newborns have been going down each year. And then the number of marriages or people who want to get married, these are also going down. There are various reasons behind it. One, perhaps, there’s a huge population of so called non-regular workers, temp workers, contract workers, people with less financial stability, and you know, financial stability directly as impacts on the notion of getting married and having kids so it’s basically a long sort of demographic decline that’s impacting a lot of things. At the same time we’re seeing a soaring number of single person households, people just living on their own. So, one of the side effects of this is a phenomenon called kodokushi, or lonely deaths.

Shaun McKenna 25:16

Right, you spoke about this phenomenon and specifically an issue tied to it in a piece you wrote recently titled, “In Japan, plenty of inheritances, but no one to claim them.” Set this up for us. You went to an apartment in eastern Tokyo, and you were there with a woman named Miwa Yuzawa.

Alex Martin 25:34

That’s correct. So I visited an area called Higashikoiwa, and this is in Edogawa Ward, I believe. I tagged along with a company called Bxia. They are a special cleaning company dedicated to cleaning and sorting out the properties of the deceased. In Japanese you call them ihin seirishi, there’s a name for these people, actually, but it’s hard to translate this in English, so I’m not going to be able to do that. But anyway, so the owner was a 76 year-old woman who died alone. No one discovered her until several months afterward. And then, her estranged daughter asked Bxia, this company, to go through her possessions and dispose of anything that’s not cash or expensive kimono parts or important documents. So they were sifting through her property and picking these things out and then getting ready to sort of either take whatever was remaining to recycle centers or disposal sites.

Shaun McKenna 26:31

So how common a problem is this?

Alex Martin 26:33

Oh, it’s everywhere. I don’t think there’s like hard statistics on how many kodokushi happen each year — I think Tokyo releases some numbers — but I don’t think there’s like a national figure. But by all indications, I think the numbers are soaring. According to the 2020 census, there were 21.1 million single person households in Japan, and that’s 14.8% increase from 2015. A third of those are single individuals who are 65 and older. And the problem is, you know, if a person dies, and if they have a will left behind, that’s fine. But in many cases, they leave without any directions, and that can obviously cause complications. In other cases, they just simply don’t have any heirs. And when that happens, oftentimes the local administrators need to intervene. What they do is they post a little sort of paper on the outside of the door to the apartment, saying that, you know, “contact here, if you know, this person.” Ideally, a relative or someone might drop by to check up on the person and contact the city, but oftentimes, that’s not the case. And at the end of the day, they need to sort of clear out the place, they need to hire someone like Bxia to come in, sort through the stuff and dispose of whatever is unnecessary, and then they will take whatever’s left to like a storage space. So in terms of stats in fiscal 2021, the government received ¥64.7 billion from the assets of the seized individuals who didn’t have any heirs. That’s 7.8% up from the previous year, and almost double from a decade ago.

Shaun McKenna 28:04

Just to be clear, though, people can make a claim for this stuff, right? Distant relatives and stuff?

Alex Martin 28:10

Yes, yes. The thing is, sometimes, rightful heirs would sort of waive their rights. This happens, a lot of times, with homes and properties. For example, an old person was living in an aging home on the outskirts of Tokyo, and he or she dies, but the heirs don’t want to take over responsibility of the home, so they would waive their rights to the property. And it would just be up in the air pretty much right? Because nobody wants it, but nobody’s taking it down. So this is one of the root causes of the akiya, so called abandoned homes, issue in Japan that’s plaguing the entire country. I shouldn’t say plaguing, but it’s sort of like a phenomenon where you see more and more abandoned homes that have just been sitting there. And in addition to this, there are dormant bank accounts, which are bank accounts that haven’t been touched in 10 years or more.

Shaun McKenna 28:57

What happens to the bank accounts of people who’ve passed away with no next of kin?

Alex Martin 29:02

So each year, bank accounts worth around ¥120 billion become dormant. That’s just over $160 million. But a new law in Japan now allows these funds to be used by the government to support nonprofit organizations. And on June 21, there was a revision to that legislation that was approved by the Diet, which paves the way for these funds to be invested in startups with a strong public interest mission. You know what’s interesting to me, though, during all these three stories about the matsuri, the oldest village and the property being left behind, it’s that for years and years, I’ve been hearing about the graying population and the falling birth rates, right. Growing up in Japan, it’s been an issue, you know, a constant issue. You’d hear about this constantly in the news reports. And now it’s like I’m seeing in the reporting on the results, or the force results, of the consequences of this demographic decline.

Shaun McKenna 29:51

Right. In a way it’s kind of like how we’ve heard the alarm sounded for years on climate change, and now here we are in a heatwave in parts of Japan and South Korea being flooded by torrential rainstorms.

Alex Martin 30:02

Truem and, I mean, I don’t want to sound grim or negative, but there are other things looming in the horizon, for example, the pension system, right? Is it going to be sustainable? A lot of pundits say that “no, it’s not,” at some point there’s going to be a pension system crisis looming on the horizon. Is the Social Security system, is not going to be sustainable, right? So everything is linked to this demographic decline, you’re gonna have: the population is going to fall, we’re gonna have more old people, less young workers. And what we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges facing Japan moving forward.

Shaun McKenna 30:32

Wow. OK, so Alex Martin, thanks very much for coming on Deep Dive.

Alex Martin 30:36

Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 30:42

My thanks again to Alex K.T. Martin for coming on this week’s show. We’ll put links to the stories mentioned in this episode in the show notes. Elsewhere in the news. COVID 19 cases are continuing to rise and taking a toll on the elderly in particular. Experts are blaming it on the high heat, declining immunity and the start of the summer holidays. Japan Times writer Tomoko Otake reports Japan’s ninth wave is hitting the west of the country particularly hard and that the number of hospital admissions is also rising. And last week saw the release of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s reportedly final film “Kimitachi wa Do Ikiru Ka?”... which we now know will have the English title “The Boy and the Heron.” Film critic Matt Schley reviewed the film for us, be sure to check out his thoughts on it. And as of recording, the film has in its first four days earned ¥2.14 billion. That’s just over $15.3 million and the highest opening for me as Miyazaki film. Not bad for a movie that didn’t have any promotion. Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez. Our intern is Christophe Loing. The closing theme is by Oscar Boyd and the theme music was written by Japanese musician LLL. I’m Sean McKenna. Thanks for listening, and podtsukaresama.