Problems of Emptying Countryside in Northern Japan (miniseries part 1)

24 touko

(In Finnish) Julkaisen blogissa kirjoittamani esseen Japanin maaseudun autioitumisesta. Koska juttu oli kirjoitettu englanniksi, ja on aika pitkä, en viitsi kääntää sitä suomeksi. Tekstin pituuden takia jaan jutun osiin ja julkaisen ne tästä eteenpäin aika ajoin. Ja koska olen kauhea laiskamato, tekstissä olevien viittausten lista tulee sitten viimeiseen osaan. Toivottavasti artikkeli on kiinnostava kaikille englannin kieltä taitaville.

This article was written for an university project and I will also publish it in parts in the blog (part 2, part 3), part 4. The references will be listed in the last part of the miniseries.

The purpose of this thesis is to give an overview of the demographic challenges faced by the rural communities in northern Japan. The population of Japan is projected to degrease at alarming rate, while internal migration to metropolitan Tokyo and Osaka continues. The reasons for both of these phenomena are ingrained in the economy and society of Japan. Extensive overhaul is not expected on the short term, but incremental changes may slow down or even reverse the ongoing decline of the Japanese countryside.

1. Introduction

The occasional visitor to Japan may get a flawed impression that the country is wholly prosperous without major problems. After all, the typical tourists visit the main cities and successful tourist spots with their immaculate cleanliness and hospitability. Thus, they don’t see the decaying and declining countryside that poses one of the many problems under the shiny surface of Japanese society. Japan’s non-metropolitan areas are the most at risk, due to the ongoing decline in population and demographic change (Murakami et al., 2009; Uwasu et al., 2015). The trend is not new, because migration from the countryside to the cities started as early as the Meiji era. Until the modern times, higher fertility rate prevented significant loss of population in the rural areas, but the problem has been escalating as fewer and fewer children are born in today’s Japan. The out-migration has the biggest effect on small towns and villages in hilly and mountainous areas (Feldhoff, 2013). Because of abundance of these geological features in northern Japan and very small amount of local urban centers, the flight of rural population is especially felt in the northern parts of Japan. For example, in Hokkaido the local capital city of Sapporo holds over 30% of the total population while only 20% live in rural areas with 80% of the prefectural land area (Murakami et al., 2009). Recently, the migration from the Tohoku area was quickened even further by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. Even with viable solutions to the rural exodus, the current dismal state of Japanese public economy makes it difficult to proceed with fundamental long-term plans (Rausch, 2015).

1.1. Purpose of the thesis

This thesis tries to elucidate the extent of emptying countryside and reasons for this phenomena. As my extended family has roots in rural Tohoku area, the subject and possible solutions are of high interest. The possibility of settling down in the Japan, makes this problem personally interesting. Through this thesis, I wanted to understand the topic better and possibly make more informed choices later in life in regards of housing for my family in Japan. Furthermore, elucidating the problems would help the general populace in the affected areas greatly in weighing their options for the future. Actions to reverse the trend and mitigate the problems, which have been placed already or are being planned, are reviewed and analyzed.

2. Background
2.1. Historical and future population trends

The population of Japan has been increasing steadily since the second world war reaching 127 million in 2015 (UN, 2015). After the current peak, the population is estimated to decline to 1950 levels by the year 2100 (Figure 1). Similar estimates are projected by National Institute of Population and Social Security Research with prediction of 86.7 million people in 2060 (Smil, 2007; Menju, 2014; Kato, 2014). They also predict that the percentage of population with age of 65 and above will increase from 23% in 2010 to 40% in 2060. Japan is said to face the most drastic reduction in the working-age population among the developed countries in the near future (Anderson et al., 2014). This shift in demographic structure only increases the nationwide population decline. In addition to the population shift, several economic changes in Japan and in the world have negatively affected the livelihood in the countryside (Uwasu et al., 2015).

2.2. Current situation
The total fertility rate, as indicated by the number of babies a woman has in her lifetime, in Japan was 1.43 in 2013 (Kato, 2014). The fertility rate for stable population replacement is around 2.1, when immigration is considered to be zero (Searchinger et al., 2013). Japan is not unique country in regards of the low fertility. Several European countries, most notably Italy, have been struggling with low birth rates (Smil, 2007). Out of wedlock births are more uncommon in Japan compared to the most western countries. The average marrying age for women in Japan has risen from 24.2 years in 1970 to 29.3 in 2013, thus allowing less time to produce offspring (Kato, 2014). Immigration into Japan is and has been very small (foreign residents are 1.6% and 8.5% of the total population in Japan and Germany, respectively), thus the population is in sharp decline (Menju, 2014). There are multitude of other economic, societal and cultural reasons for the low fertility as well as the lack of immigration, but those are mostly beyond the scope of this paper (Menju, 2014).

The population decline affects all of Japan, but many municipalities outside the bigger cities are hit the hardest (Smil, 2007; NIPSSR, 2012). Many of these rural communities are on the brink of disappearance or have already practically vanished. According to The Japan Policy Council, 896 will vanish in the near future (Kato, 2014). This trend is particularly evident in Tohoku (north-east) and Kyushu (south-west). The decline in general fertility is one factor affecting this trend, but in general the rural areas actually have better fertility rates than the urban centers (Kato, 2014). So why is the countryside emptying and not the main cities? The reason lies with the internal movement of young populace from countryside to cities, which is accelerating the rural fleeing (Murakami et al., 2009). This is evident in predictions on the change in young female population in different prefectures (Nikkei News, 2017).

Circular causation causes ever accelerating shrinkage in small towns. The term in regards of smaller towns means that initial loss of population, even small amounts, causes loss in local economy, which in turn causes loss of jobs. Then even more people have to move out due these reasons and finally visible signs of de-urbanization start to show, that results in increasing cumulative emigration from the town (Feldhoff, 2013). In northern Japan, the population percentage of people over 65 years increased from 18% to 21.4% between 2000 and 2005 (Murakami et al., 2009). The change was even more drastic in small towns and villages. For example, in 2005 municipalities with populations 10000 – 50000 people had 25%, and with populations less than 5000 people had 30%, of this demographic respectively (Murakami et al., 2009). During the same time, the total population of the villages under 5000 people collectively lost about 7% of their population (Murakami et al, 2009).

Continue to the part 2.


2 vastausta to “Problems of Emptying Countryside in Northern Japan (miniseries part 1)”


  1. Problems of Emptying Countryside in Northern Japan (miniseries part 2) | Tatu @ nihon - 30.05.2017

    […] from the part 1. 3. Impact on society in Japan 3.1. Social impact on the populace The most visibly, the flight […]

  2. Autioituva maaseutu Japanissa | Tatu @ nihon - 11.07.2017

    […] Osa 1 – Osa 2 – Osa 3 – Osa […]


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