This community’s quarter century without a newborn shows the scale of Japan’s population crisis | CNN


When Kentaro Yokobori was born about seven years ago, he was the first newborn in Kawakami Village’s Sugyo district in 25 years. His birth was a miracle for many villagers.

Well-wishers visited her parents Miho and Hirohito for more than a week – almost all of them senior citizens, some of whom could barely walk.

“The elders were very happy to see. [Kentaro]And an old woman who had difficulty climbing stairs came to me with her cane, holding my baby in her arms. All the old people took turns holding my baby,” Mihu recalled.

During that quarter-century without the newborn, the village’s population shrank 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 destroyed, some overrun by wildlife.

Kawakami is one of countless small rural towns and villages that have been forgotten and neglected as young Japanese head for the cities. Over 90% of Japanese now live in urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – all connected to it. of Japan Always on time Shinkansen bullet train.

This has left rural areas and industries such as agriculture, forestry, and farming facing severe labor shortages that are likely to worsen in the coming years as the workforce ages. By 2022, the number of people working in agriculture and forestry has fallen from 2.25 million 10 years ago to 1.9 million.

Yet Kawakami’s death is symptomatic of a problem that goes far beyond the Japanese countryside.

The problem for Japan is this: people in the cities don’t even have children.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a recent press conference that “time to create is running out,” a slogan that has so far failed to impress the city where the majority of the Japanese people live.

Amid a deluge of troubling demographic data, he warned earlier this year that the country is “on the brink of not being able to sustain social functions.”

The country had 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number on record and barely more than half the 1.5 million births it registered in 1982. Dropped to 1.3. – Far below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Deaths have outstripped births for more than a decade.

And in the absence of meaningful immigration – foreigners made up just 2.2 percent of the population in 2021, according to the Japanese government. 13.6% in the United States – Some fear that the country is heading toward a tipping point, when the number of women of childbearing age drops so low that there is no way to stop the population decline.

All of this has left leaders in the world’s third-largest economy with the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for a ballooning elderly population even as the workforce shrinks. has been

Contrasted are busy urban lifestyles and long working hours that leave little time for Japanese to start a family, and rising living costs that mean having a child is too expensive for many young people. . Then there are cultural taboos about fertility and patriarchal norms that work against mothers returning to work.

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

“(People see this topic) as a bit embarrassing. Think about your body and think about (what happens) after fertility. It’s very important. So, it’s not embarrassing.”

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 roles – if they re-enter the workforce at all. In 2021, 39% of female workers were in part-time employment, compared to 15% of men, according to the OECD.

Tokyo is hoping to address some of these issues, so that today’s working women become tomorrow’s working mothers. 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” of thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses. For singles? A state-sponsored dating service powered by artificial intelligence.

Kaoru Harumashi works on pine wood to make barrels.

Whether such initiatives 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 of what could happen if population decline is not reversed.

Along with its declining population, many of its traditional crafts and ways of life are also threatened with extinction.

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

“He calls me grandpa, but if a real grandpa lived here, he wouldn’t call me grandpa,” she said. “My grandson lives in Kyoto and I don’t get to see him often. I probably feel more affection for Kentaro, who I see often, even though we’re not related by blood.

Both of Harumashi’s sons left the village years ago, as do many young villagers in Japan.

“If children don’t choose to live in the village, they will move to the city,” he said.

When Yokobori moved to Kawakami Village nearly a decade ago, he had no idea that most of the residents were past retirement age. Over the years, they’ve seen old friends leave 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 so,” Mayho said.

“The more people I know, I mean the older people, the more sad I feel to say goodbye to them. Life is actually going on with or without the village,” he said. At the same time, it is very sad to see the surrounding, local people diminishing.”

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

If that sounds depressing, that’s probably because Japan’s fight to raise the birth rate in recent years has given few reasons for optimism.

Still, a small glimmer of hope can be discerned in the story of Euchoborus. 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 – bucking a decades-old trend in which young Japanese urban The 24/7 convenience of life was becoming increasingly bold.

Some recent surveys suggest that more young people like him are considering the appeal of country living, lured by the low cost of living, clean air, and low-stress lifestyle that many families consider essential. A survey of Tokyo area residents found that 34% of respondents expressed interest in moving to a rural area, up from 25.1% in 2019.

If they still lived in the city, it would have been much more difficult – financially and personally – to start a family, the Yokoboris say.

Their decision to move was prompted by a Japanese national tragedy twelve years earlier. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake shook the ground violently across much of the country for several minutes, triggering a 10-story building-high tsunami that devastated large swaths of the East Coast. and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. .

Miho was an office worker in Tokyo at the time. He remembers that daily life in Japan’s largest city was falling apart.

“Everybody was panicking, 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 stopped, so You couldn’t use it. I felt so weak,” she recalled.

The tragedy was a wake-up call for Miho and Hirohito, who was working as a graphic designer at the time.

“The things I was relying on suddenly felt unreliable, and I felt like I was living in a really unstable place. I felt like I had to secure that place myself,” ‘ he said.

The couple found the place in Nara Prefecture, Japan’s most remote region. It’s a land of majestic mountains and small towns, with winding roads tucked under pine trees towering above most of the buildings.

They quit their jobs in the city and move to a simple mountain home, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned the art of woodworking and specialized in making cedar barrels for Japanese wineries. She is a full-time homemaker. 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 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?

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