Village without newborns in 25 years exposes Japan’s population crisis

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When Kentaro Yokobori was born nearly seven years ago, he was the first newborn in Sogio Ward, in the Japanese village of Kawakami, in 25 years. His birth was like a miracle for many villagers.

Well-wishers visited their parents Miho and Hirohito for over a week — nearly all elderly, including some who could barely walk.

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“The elderly were very happy to see Kentaro, and an elderly lady who had difficulty walking up the stairs, with her cane, came to me to hold my baby in her arms. All the seniors took turns holding my baby,” recalled Miho.

During that quarter century without a newborn, the village’s population has shrunk by more than half to just 1,150 – down from 6,000 40 years ago – as younger residents left and older residents died. Many houses were abandoned, some overrun by wildlife.

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Kawakami is just one of countless small rural towns and villages that have been forgotten and neglected as younger Japanese people flock to the cities. More than 90% of Japanese now live in urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – all connected by Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains, which are always on time.

This has left rural areas and industries such as agriculture, forestry and livestock facing critical labor shortages that are likely to worsen in coming years as the workforce ages. In 2022, the number of people working in agriculture and forestry fell to 1.9 million from 2.25 million 10 years earlier.

However, Kawakami’s disappearance is emblematic of a problem that goes far beyond rural Japan.

The problem for Japan is, people in cities aren’t having kids either.

“Time is running out to breed”

“Time to breed is running out,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a recent press conference, a slogan that so far seems to have failed to inspire most of the Japanese public living in the city.

Amidst a barrage of disconcerting demographics, he warned earlier this year that the country was “on the verge of not being able to maintain social functions”.

The country had 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number ever recorded and just over half of the 1.5 million births recorded in 1982. Its fertility rate – the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years – has dropped to 1.3 – far below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Deaths outpaced births by more than a decade.

And in the absence of significant immigration — foreigners made up just 2.2% of the population in 2021, according to the Japanese government, compared with 13.6% in the United States — some fear the country is heading for a point of no return when the number of women of reproductive age reaches a critical point beyond which there is no way to reverse the downward trend in the population.

All of this has left the leaders of the world’s third-largest economy facing the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for an ever-increasing elderly population, even as the workforce shrinks.

Against them are the hectic urban lifestyles and long working hours that leave little time for Japanese people to start a family, and the rising cost of living that means having a baby is simply too expensive for many young people.

Then there are the cultural taboos surrounding talking about fertility and the patriarchal norms that work against mothers going back to work.

Dr Yuka Okada, director of the Grace Sugiyama Clinic in Tokyo, said cultural barriers meant that talking about a woman’s fertility was often off-limits.

“(People see the matter as) a little embarrassing. Think about your body and think about what happens after fertility. It’s very important. So it’s not embarrassing at all.”

Okada is one of the rare working mothers in Japan who has a highly successful career after giving birth. Many of Japan’s highly educated women are relegated to part-time or retail jobs – if they ever re-enter the workforce.

In 2021, 39% of female workers worked part-time, compared to 15% of men, according to the OECD.

Tokyo hopes to address some of these issues, so that working women of today will become working mothers of tomorrow. The metropolitan government is starting to subsidize egg freezing so that women have a better chance of a successful pregnancy if they decide to have a baby later in life.

New parents in Japan already receive a “baby bonus” worth thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses. For singles? A state-sponsored dating service powered by Artificial Intelligence.

A cautionary tale

Whether such measures can turn the tide, in urban or rural areas, remains to be seen. But back in the countryside, the village of Kawakami offers a cautionary tale about what might happen if population decline is not reversed.

Along with its declining population, many of its traditional crafts and ways of life are in danger of disappearing.

Among the villagers who took turns holding young Kentaro was Kaoru Harumashi, a lifelong resident of Kawakami Village in his 70s. The master carpenter formed a close bond with the boy, teaching him how to carve the local cedar from the surrounding forests.

“He calls me grandpa, but if a real grandpa lived here, he wouldn’t call me grandpa,” he said.

“My grandson lives in Kyoto and I don’t see him very often. I probably feel a stronger affection for Kentaro, whom I see more often even though we are not blood related.”

Harumashi’s two sons moved away from the village years ago, like many other young rural residents in Japan.

“If the children don’t choose to continue living in the village, they will go to the city,” he said.

When the Yokoboris moved to Kawakami Village about a decade ago, they had no idea that most residents were past retirement age. Over the years, they’ve seen older friends pass away and long-standing community traditions fall by the wayside.

“There are not enough people to maintain villages, communities, festivals and other ward organizations, and it is becoming impossible to do that,” said Miho.

“The more I get to know people, I mean the elderly, the more I feel sad about having to say goodbye to them. Life is really happening with or without the village,” she said. “At the same time, it is very sad to see the surrounding local population dwindling.”

back to the field

If that sounds depressing, perhaps that’s because Japan’s battle to raise the birth rate in recent years has given little cause for optimism.

Still, a small ray of hope can be discerned in the Yokobori story. Kentaro’s birth was unusual not just because the village had waited so long, but because his parents had moved from the city to the countryside – bucking the decades-long trend of young people getting fatter for 24/7 convenience. Japanese city life week.

Some recent research suggests that more young people like themselves are considering the appeal of country living, attracted by the low cost of living, clean air and low-stress lifestyles that many see as vital to having a family.

A study of Tokyo-area residents found that 34% of respondents expressed an interest in moving to a rural area, up from 25.1% in 2019. Among those in their 20s, up to 44.9% expressed an interest.

The Yokoboris say that starting a family would have been much more difficult – financially and personally – if they still lived in the city.

The decision to move was triggered by a Japanese national tragedy twelve years ago. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake violently shook the ground for several minutes across much of the country, triggering tsunami waves taller than a 10-story building that devastated large areas of the East Coast and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi.

Miho worked in an office in Tokyo at the time. She remembers feeling helpless when daily life in Japan’s biggest city fell apart.

“Everyone was in a panic, so it was like a war, although I’ve never experienced a war. It was like having money but not being able to buy water. All transport was closed so you couldn’t use it. I felt really weak,” she recalled.

The tragedy was a moment of awakening for Miho and Hirohito, who at the time was working as a graphic designer.

“The things I trusted suddenly seemed unreliable, and I felt like I was actually living in a very unstable place. I felt like I had to secure this spot myself,” he said.

The couple found that place in one of the most remote areas in Japan, Nara prefecture. It is a land of majestic mountains and tiny townships, hidden along winding roads under towering cedars taller than most buildings.

They quit their jobs in the city and moved to a simple house on the mountain, where they run a small inn. He learned the art of woodworking and specialized in the production of cedar barrels for Japanese sake breweries. She is a full-time housewife. They raise chickens, plant vegetables, cut firewood and take care of Kentaro, who is about to enter first grade.

The big question, both for the village of Kawakami and the rest of Japan: Is Kentaro’s birth a sign of better times to come – or a miraculous birth into a dying way of life.

Source: CNN Brasil

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