The quarter century with no newborns in this community shows the magnitude of Japan’s population crisis | CNN



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

Well-wishers visited his parents Miho and Hirohito for more than a week—most of them elderly, including some who could barely walk.

“The elderly were very happy to see [Kentaro], and an elderly lady who had difficulty climbing stairs, with her cane, came over to hold my baby in her arms. All the elders took turns holding my baby,” Miho recalls.

During that quarter-century with no newborns, the village population shrunk by more than half to just 1,150 – down from 6,000 as recently as 40 years ago – as younger residents left and older residents died. Many homes were abandoned, some overrun by wildlife.

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

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

Yet Kawakami’s demise is emblematic of a problem that goes far beyond rural Japan.

The problem for Japan is: people in the cities don’t have babies either.

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

Amid a deluge of disturbing demographic data, he warned earlier this year that the country was “on the verge of losing social functions.”

The country saw 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number ever recorded and barely more than half of the 1.5 million births it recorded in 1982. below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. The number of deaths has exceeded the number of births for more than a decade.

And in the absence of meaningful immigration – foreigners made up just 2.2% of the population in 2021, according to the Japanese government, compared to 13.6% in the United States – some fear the country is heading towards the point where no return is more possible. number of women of childbearing age is reaching a critical low point from which the trend of population decline cannot be reversed.

All this leaves the leaders of the world’s third-largest economy with the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for a booming elderly population, even as the workforce shrinks.

On the other hand, busy city life and long working hours mean that Japanese people have little time to start a family, and the rising cost of living makes having a baby simply too expensive for many young people. Then there are the cultural taboos around talking about fertility and patriarchal norms that work against mothers going back to work.

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

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

Okada is one of the few working mothers in Japan to have a very successful career after giving birth. Many of Japan’s highly educated women have been relegated to part-time or retail positions – if they ever re-enter the labor market. According to the OECD, by 2021, 39% of female workers will be in part-time employment, compared to 15% of men.

Tokyo hopes to address some of these issues so that today’s working women become working mothers tomorrow. The metropolitan government is beginning to subsidize egg freezing so that women are more likely to have a successful pregnancy if they decide to have a baby later in life.

New parents in Japan already receive a “baby bonus” of thousands of dollars to cover medical costs. For single people? A state-sponsored dating service powered by artificial intelligence.

Kaoru Harumashi works on cedar wood to make a barrel.

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 precautionary tale of what could happen if the demographic decline is not reversed.

Along with the declining population, many of the traditional crafts and ways of life are in danger of dying out.

Among the villagers who took turns holding young Kentaro was Kaoru Harumashi, a lifelong resident of Kawakami village in his seventies. The master woodworker has developed a close relationship with the boy and teaches 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 often. I probably feel a stronger affection for Kentaro, whom I see more often, even though we’re not related by blood.’

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

“If the children don’t choose to stay 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 of the residents were well past retirement age. Over the years, they have seen older friends pass away and old community traditions disappear.

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

“The more I get to know people, I mean the elderly, the more I am sad that I have to say goodbye to them. Life goes on as usual, with or without the village,” she said. “At the same time, it is very sad to see the surrounding, local people languish.”

Kaoru Harumashi is a lifelong villager.  Kentaro calls him Grandpa.

If that sounds depressing, perhaps it’s because Japan’s struggle to increase its birth rate in recent years has given little cause for optimism.

Yet in the story of the Yokoboris, a small glimmer of hope can still be perceived. Kentaro’s birth was unusual, not only because the village had waited so long, but also because his parents had moved from the city to the countryside – against the decades-old trend of young people increasingly opting for the 24/7 convenience of Japanese city life .

Some recent research suggests that more young people like them are considering the appeal of rural life, lured by the low cost of living, clean air and low-stress lifestyles that many consider essential to having a family. A survey of residents in the Tokyo area found that 34% of respondents expressed interest in moving to a rural area, up from 25.1% in 2019. Among those in their twenties, a whopping 44.9% expressed interest.

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

Their decision to move was prompted by a Japanese national tragedy twelve years ago. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake shook much of the country violently for several minutes, causing tsunami waves larger than a 10-story building, which devastated large parts of the east coast and caused a meltdown at the Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Daiichi. .

Miho was an office worker in Tokyo at the time. She remembers feeling helpless as everyday life fell apart in Japan’s largest city.

“Everyone panicked, 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 transportation was closed so you couldn’t use it. I felt very weak,” she recalls.

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

“The things I had been relying on suddenly felt unreliable and I felt like I was actually living in a very unstable place. I felt like I had to get a place like that on my own,” he said.

The couple found that spot in one of Japan’s most remote areas, Nara Prefecture. It is a land of majestic mountains and small villages, tucked away along winding roads under towering cedar trees taller than most buildings.

They quit their city jobs and moved into a humble mountain home, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned the art of woodworking and specialized in producing cedar barrels for Japanese sake breweries. She is a full-time housewife. They raise chickens, grow vegetables, chop wood and take care of Kentaro, who is about to enter first grade.

The big question, both for the village of Kawakami and for the rest of Japan, is Kentaro’s birth a sign of better times ahead – or a miracle birth into a dying way of life.

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