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


When Kentaro Yokobori was born nearly seven years ago, he was the first newborn in the Sugyo District of Kawakami Village in 25 years. His birth was something of a miracle for many of the villagers.

Well-wishers have visited his parents, Miho and Hirohito, for over a week—almost all of them elderly, including some who can barely walk.

The elders were very happy to see them [Kentaro]And an elderly lady who was having trouble climbing stairs came up to me with her cane, holding my baby in her arms. Miho remembers that all the elders took turns holding my child.

During the quarter century in which there was no newborn, the village’s 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 have been abandoned, some of them overrun by wildlife.

Kawakami is just one of countless small rural towns and villages that were forgotten and neglected as young Japanese chiefs moved to the cities. More than 90% of Japanese people now live in metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – all of which are connected Japan Shinkansen bullet trains are always on time.

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

However, Kawakami’s demise is emblematic of a problem that extends far beyond rural Japan.

The problem with Japan is that people in cities don’t have children either.

“Time is running out for procreation,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a recent press conference, a slogan that so far seems to have not inspired the majority of the city’s residents of the Japanese public.

Amid an avalanche of troubling demographic data, he warned earlier this year that the country was “on the brink of being unable to maintain social functions.”

The country saw 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number on record and just over half of the 1.5 million births recorded in 1982. Its fertility rate — the average number of children born to women during their childbearing years — dropped to 1.3 Much less than the 2.1 required to keep the population stable. 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 that the country is hurtling toward a point of no return, when the number of women of childbearing age reaches such a critical low that there is no way to reverse the population decline.

All of this has left the leaders of the world’s third-largest economy facing the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for a large number of elderly people even as the workforce shrinks.

Faced with this, there are the busy urban lifestyles and long working hours that leave little time for Japanese to start families, and the high cost of living that means having a baby is too expensive for many young people. Then there are the cultural taboos surrounding fertility talk and the patriarchal norms that work against mothers returning to work.

Dr. Yuka Okada, 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 it as) a little embarrassing. Think about your body and think about (what happens) after fertility. It’s very important. So, it’s not that embarrassing.”

Okada is one of the rare working mothers in Japan who has a very successful career after giving birth. Many highly educated Japanese women are relegated to part-time or retail jobs – if they ever return to the labor market. In 2021, 39% of female workers were working part-time, compared to 15% of men, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Tokyo hopes to address some of these problems, so that the working women of today can be the working mothers of tomorrow. The D.C. government has begun to support egg freezing, so that women have a better chance of conceiving a child later in life.

New parents in Japan are already getting a “baby bonus” of thousands of dollars to cover medical costs. for bachelors? A state-sponsored dating service powered by artificial intelligence.

Kaoru Harumashi works on cedar wood to make a barrel.

It remains to be seen whether such measures can turn the tide, in urban or rural areas. But back in the countryside, Kawakami Village offers a cautionary tale of what might happen if the demographic decline is not reversed.

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

Among the villagers who take turns carrying little Kentaro is Kaoru Harumashi, who has lived his whole life in Kawakami Village and is in his seventies. The master woodworker formed a close bond with the boy, teaching him how to carve the local cedar from the surrounding forests.

He said: “Call me grandfather, but if a real grandfather lived here, he wouldn’t call me grandfather.” “My grandson lives in Kyoto and I don’t get to see him often. I probably feel stronger sympathy for Kintaro, whom I see often, even though we are not related by blood.”

Harumachi’s two sons moved away from the village years ago, like many other young rural residents of Japan.

“If the children don’t choose to continue living in the village, they will go to the city,” he said.

When the Yokopuris moved to Kawakami Village about a decade ago, they had no idea that most of the residents were past retirement age. Over the years, they watch the older friends die and the community’s old traditions fall by the wayside.

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

“The more I get to know people, I mean the old people, the sadder I feel that I have to say goodbye to them. Life actually goes on with or without the village,” she said. “At the same time, it’s sad to see the local population dwindling.”

Kaoru Harumachi has been a villager all his life.  Kentaro calls him his grandfather.

If this sounds depressing, it is probably because in recent years Japan’s battle to increase the birth rate has given it few reasons for optimism.

However, a small glimmer of hope may appear in Yokouporis’ story. Kentaro’s birth was unusual, not only because the village had been waiting so long, but because his parents had moved to the countryside from the city — bucking a decades-old trend in which young people were increasingly filling up with the 24/7 comfort of Japanese city life.

Some recent surveys suggest that more young people like them are considering the appeals of rural life, due to the lower cost of living, clean air, and low-stress lifestyles that many consider vital to starting families. One study of Tokyo-area residents found that 34% of respondents expressed interest in moving to a rural area, up from 25.1% in 2019. Among those in their 20s, 44.9% expressed interest.

The Yokoporis say starting a family would have been more difficult – financially and personally – if they were still living in the city.

Their decision to move was brought about by a Japanese national tragedy twelve years earlier. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake violently shook the ground for several minutes across much of the country, triggering tsunamis taller than a 10-storey building that devastated swathes of the east coast and caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to collapse. .

Miho was working in an office in Tokyo at the time. She remembers feeling helpless as daily life collapsed in Japan’s largest city.

“Everyone was in a panic, so it was like a war, even though I had never seen a war before. It was like having money but not being able to buy water. All transportation was shut down, so you couldn’t use it. I felt very vulnerable.” “.

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

“Suddenly the things I was relying on felt unreliable, and I felt like I was already living in a very precarious place. I felt the need to secure this place for myself.”

The couple found this place in one of the most remote parts of Japan, Nara Prefecture. It is a land of majestic mountains and small towns, tucked away along winding roads under towering cedar trees that are taller than most buildings.

They quit their jobs in the city and move into a simple mountain home, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned the art of carpentry and specialized in producing cedar barrels for Japanese 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, for both Kawakami Village and the rest of Japan: Is Kentaro’s birth a sign of better times to come–or a miraculous rebirth in a dying way of life.

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