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Japan's village with the oldest population is wooing young residents to survive

Nanmoku, Japan, is about 70 miles northwest of the capital city, Tokyo. The village has the most aged population in Japan, with two-thirds of residents over age 65.
Anthony Kuhn
/
NPR
Nanmoku, Japan, is about 70 miles northwest of the capital city, Tokyo. The village has the most aged population in Japan, with two-thirds of residents over age 65.

NANMOKU, Japan — This village sits along a river running through the mountains, surrounded by forests of cedar and bamboo. The once-thriving hamlet was known for itssilk, timber and a starchy root called konjac.

Today, it is Japan's most aged village, with two-thirds of residents over age 65. Many of the settlement's buildings are dilapidated or abandoned, and there's little new construction.

Nanmoku's population has fallen from 11,000 in 1955 to about 1,500 today, according to official town hall figures. At that rate of decline, nobody could be left in a little over a decade.

The village is on the leading edge of Japan's rural depopulation, a trend other nations in Asia and Europe are experiencing. The number of Japanese over age 100 is at a record high, and new births are at a record low, according to official statistics.

But some residents are working to halt Nanmoku's depopulation. They are trying to attract enterprising young people to reinvigorate the village.

Satomi Oigawa (left) and village resident Tomiko Kanbe talk on a hillside outside the village center. Kanbe helps attract and mentor enterprising young people.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Satomi Oigawa (left) and village resident Tomiko Kanbe talk on a hillside outside the village center. Kanbe helps attract and mentor enterprising young people.

Satomi Oigawa, 24, is one of them. She arrived in Nanmoku a year ago, after graduating from college in Tokyo. Nanmoku is about 70 miles northwest of the capital city.

"I felt like my relations with people in Tokyo were too shallow and broad, so from a young age, I really wanted to live in the countryside," she explains.

She is working for the village government, matching abandoned homes with potential new residents.

Carrying a bag of keys to the empty buildings, she shows visitors a former konjac starch factory, where tools and machinery are strewn around, covered in dust.

"Everything about this house is part of the village's history," she says, referring to the former factory and the owner's adjacent residence. "I'm very happy to see people who want to move here connect with the village residents' memories."

Learning about the village's history is an important part of Oigawa's integration into village life. But the history is not always what she expects.

As Oigawa comes out of the starch factory, a neighbor tells her that the factory's former owner disappeared several years ago and that his body was found by police in a water tank, where he was dead from an apparent accident.

"I was really surprised," she says. "It was a story that even the [new] owner hadn't talked about, so hearing the real voices of the neighbors was quite something!"

Discovering Nanmoku's value and vitality

Oigawa later visits a former silk workshop, which she introduced to entrepreneur Mana Kobayashi. Kobayashi is working with a craftsman, installing burnt cedar flooring and paper-covered windows, and plans to turn the place into an Airbnb.

"This is mottainai," Oigawa explains.

Mottainai is a Japanese philosophical concept that says that we should waste nothing and get every bit of value out of what we have, whether it's time, space, things or people.

Underneath the village's weather-beaten exterior, there's an undercurrent of genki, the Japanese term for vitality or vigor.

It comes from both enterprising newcomers like Oigawa and from tenacious elderly residents like Hachiro Koganezawa.

Oigawa drives up a mountainside to visit Koganezawa, who puts some freshly picked cucumbers and peppers into a bag for her.

At age 90, he is still farming flowers and vegetables.

Hachiro Koganezawa, 90, farms flowers and vegetables on a plot of land outside the village center.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Hachiro Koganezawa, 90, farms flowers and vegetables on a plot of land outside the village center.

"Because of the farmer's spirit, we don't retire," he says. "That spirit, that we work until we die, has been planted in us for generations."

Koganezawa says that people in Nanmoku are materially better off than in his childhood days, when his family had no bicycles or radios. But while life in the village has become more convenient, fewer people are around to live it.

"There's now a road that goes up the mountain," he says, pointing up the hill. "But there's nobody there to farm it."

Caring for the old, luring the young

A survey conducted in 2018 found that Nanmoku's elderly walk faster, grip stronger and suffer less dementia than seniors in other parts of Japan.

But if it's to remain on the map, the village must attract more young people and increase the birthrate.

Nanmoku village housing coordinator Satomi Oigawa (right) meets with a village resident (left) and staffer (center) at a village community center for senior citizens. The center offers, among other things, exercise equipment, computerized cognition tests and live TV broadcasts of village assembly meetings.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Nanmoku village housing coordinator Satomi Oigawa (right) meets with a village resident (left) and staffer (center) at a village community center for senior citizens. The center offers, among other things, exercise equipment, computerized cognition tests and live TV broadcasts of village assembly meetings.

Mayor Saijo Hasegawa has seen some years where not a single baby was born in the village.

Central and Nanmoku village governments offer financial incentives to lure young residents. But there are few jobs for them to do.

The village will open a new elementary and junior high school in April, just to attract new families, but it's unclear what will happen if nobody comes.

Despite that, Hasegawa aims to stabilize the village's population in 15 to 20 years' time.

"By then, the village's population is expected to be around 800, about half its current size. We think we can manage to keep it at that level from then on."

Peter Matanle, a Japan expert at the University of Sheffield, in England, says some villages like Nanmoku may thrive and even grow. But he says they'll be bucking an overwhelming trend.

"Japan is currently losing 600,000 to 700,000 people annually, and that's going to increase to more than a million by the 2030s," Matanle says. "Under that situation, how do settlements maintain their populations, let alone increase their populations?"

Matanle says that many young Japanese have done brilliantly at injecting new ideas and life into aging villages.

Then again, he notes, many others have retreated to the cities after their businesses went bust, or they just found life in the countryside too hard and lonely.

A challenging present and uncertain future

Yuta Sato came to Nanmoku five years ago for its natural beauty and because he couldn't find a good job just out of college. But he says it's not easy to raise children in this village.

Even though there are some schools, his child wouldn't be able to meet children of the same age.

"There are no kids in this village that are the same age as my daughter," he observes. "So when she goes to school, she will have no classmates."

Sato, 29, has started an Uber Eats-style delivery service, but there aren't many restaurants around to make the food. The nearest hospital, he says, is an hour's drive away.

Sato adds that he has been disappointed to learn that not all of Nanmoku's residents welcome newcomers like himself.

"Some people say that instead of throwing money around to attract immigrants, they should spend it on people already living in the village," he says.

Sato says he came to Nanmoku in hopes of finding a job he could stick with for the next 40 or so years.

But he is not optimistic that, by that time, the village of Nanmoku will still exist.


Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo and Nanmoku, Japan.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.