The Atlantic

Can Anything Stop Rural Decline?

Small towns across Japan are on the verge of collapse. Whether they can do so gracefully has consequences for societies around the globe.
Source: B.S.P.I. / Getty

TOCHIKUBO, Japan—The children had moved to the big city, never to return.

So their parents, both over 70, live out their days in this small town in the mountains, gazing at the rice paddies below, wondering what will become of the house they built, the garden they tended, the town they love.

“I don’t expect them to come back,” Kensaku Fueki, 73, told me, about his three daughters, all married and living in Tokyo. “It’s very tough to live on farming.”

For decades, young people have been fleeing this rural village, lured by the pull of Japan’s big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Tochikubo’s school now has eight children, and more than half of the town’s 170 people are over the age of 50. “Who will come here now?” said Fueki, who grew up in this village and remembers a time when many of the houses weren’t abandoned, when more people farmed the land and children roamed the streets.

This village is not an anomaly. Japan is slowly becoming something like one big city-state, with the majority of the population centered in an urban belt that runs through the clusterofTokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, all located relatively near each other,along the route of Japan’s bullet train. In 1950, 53 percent of Japan’s population lived in urban regions; by 2014, 93 percent of the population lives in urban regions.) It is mostly young people who move to the cities, and that means that as Japan’s population ages, the cities and towns outside the city-state are left to fade away. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs says that now, of Japan’s 65,000 or so communities have more than half of their population over the age of 65.

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