The vanishing villages of rural Japan

Izaac Smith

Society and culture, Economics | East Asia

2 September 2014

Izaac Smith shares a particularly unique experience traveling in Japan’s Akita prefecture.

In February this year I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to do something very few people have ever had the chance to do.

I helped set a mountain on fire.

Well, that’s not quite true. I helped some citizens of a local village light a lot of makeshift candles placed on a mountain such that they formed a shape that looked like a mythical creature known in Japan as a “Kirin” – a mythical animal whose appearance is said to be an omen of fortune and prosperity.

I did this when I was staying with a host family in small village called Shiraiwa (白岩). Situated in Akita prefecture in the north of Japan and with a small population of just 670 people, Shiraiwa is well known for the large amount of snowfall that covers the land every year.

Every year a few community leaders get together and hold a festival called the Shiraiwa Light Festival (白岩燈火祭), where people from Shiraiwa village come together to eat, drink, dance, play games, watch fireworks and last, but not least, see the mountain come alight.

Battling with the treacherous terrain of the mountain, Shiraiwa did not fail to live up to its snow-covered reputation. My fellow ANU students and I worked laboriously to place the candles across the mountain, but our struggles however did not match those of the 30 or so middle-aged men who willed their bodies to complete the same task in the snow-covered landscape. While for me on a shallow, personal level participating in this festival was a fantastic way to see some local Japanese culture, for these men it was about revitalizing their village, and instilling pride of Shiraiwa in the children and youth of this small community.

This might seem like an odd thing to say in a country where huge importance is placed on family, parents and the elderly, but Shiraiwa is plagued by a serious issue; its meagre population is ever shrinking, and if current trends continue it will cease to exist within the next fifty years.

Sadly, Shiraiwa is not atypical, in that it is not the only rural village fighting for survival. Country villages all across Japan face the same problem as a result of the countries ageing population.

You’ve probably heard this all before – a declining economy, a shrinking population, and increasingly conservative political movements are all real and present consequences of Japan’s ageing population and low birth rate.

But in particular, all across Japan office workers and factory workers alike are working longer, having realized that when they retire the next generation of workers will likely be too few to support a proper pension.

The other side of this is, of course, youth unemployment is on the rise. Young people are struggling to find work due to the number of potential retirees deciding not to retire. While this in itself is an issue, it has an unexpected secondary effect – a rapidly ageing population in the country.

As the unemployed youth become desperate for work and a better quality of life themselves, they move to the city – places like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya – in search of work. In doing so, they move away from villages such as Shiraiwa, accelerating the already rapidly shrinking population and ageing of these communities.

In the long term, this means that villages such as Shiraiwa will simply cease to exist – a fact that is rarely mentioned in the political discourse regarding Japan’s future.

This is a serious issue. Coupled with the disappearance of small towns all across Japan is the disappearance of local languages and traditions, which in turn is lessening the richness and diversity of culture within Japan.

To Shiraiwa’s credit, it is full of a number of concerned individuals who wish to see their village live long into the future. The Shiraiwa Light Festival is an attempt at persuading the youths to stay and live in Shiraiwa, to have families there, and to ensure its continued survival.

If all it took for a village to survive was pride, I have no doubt that Shiraiwa would live on until the dusk of modern civilization.

But sadly, the ageing population is an all-too-powerful force, and as these villages disappear so too will the opportunities to experience local culture. As politicians and public commentators debate over how to face the economic challenges of Japan’s ageing population, villages such as Shiraiwa are engaged in the much more immediate battle for their continued existence. Japan has long, rich and diverse history with a strong emphasis on community, but if current trends continue then this tradition may soon be a thing of the past.

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