Demographic crisis in Japan: this community has lived a quarter of a century without a newborn


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

For more than a week, well-wishers visited his parents Miho and Hirohito – almost all pensioners, including those who could barely walk.

“The elderly were very happy to see [Kentaro]and an old lady who was struggling up the stairs with a cane came up to me to hold my baby in her arms. All the older people took turns holding my baby,” Miho recalls.

In a quarter of a century without a newborn, the village’s population has shrunk by more than half to just 1,150 – down from 6,000 just 40 years ago – as the young residents leave and the elderly die. Many houses have been abandoned, some have been taken over by wildlife.

Kawakami is just one of countless small rural towns and villages that were forgotten and forgotten as young Japanese flocked to the cities. Over 90% of Japanese now live in urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, and they are all 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 worsen in the coming years as the workforce ages. By 2022, the number of people working in agriculture and forestry has dropped to 1.9 million from 2.25 million a decade earlier.

However, Kawakami’s passing symbolizes a problem that goes far beyond the Japanese village.

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

Yokobori family.

“Time to breed is running out,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a recent press conference, a slogan that doesn’t seem to have inspired most urban Japanese yet.

Amid a deluge of discouraging demographic data, he warned earlier this year that the country “is on the verge of being unable to sustain social functions.”

The country recorded 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest on record and just over half of the 1.5 million births registered in 1982. Fertility rate – the average number of children born to women of reproductive age – dropped to 1.3 – well below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. The death rate has outstripped the birth rate for more than a decade.

And in the absence of significant immigration – according to the Japanese government, foreigners made up only 2.2% of the population in 2021 compared to 13.6% in the US – some fear that the country is rapidly approaching the point of no return, when the number of women of childbearing age reaches a critical minimum, after which it is no longer possible to reverse the trend of population decline.

All of this has left the leaders of the world’s third-largest economy with the unenviable task of funding pensions and health care for a rapidly growing older population, even as the workforce shrinks.

They are confronted by busy urban lifestyles and long work hours that leave the Japanese with little time to start a family, as well as rising costs of living that are making childbirth too expensive for many young people. In addition, there are cultural taboos surrounding talk of fertility and patriarchal norms that prevent mothers from returning to work.

Dr. Yuka Okada, director of the Grace Sugiyama Clinic in Tokyo, says cultural barriers mean that talking about female fertility is often taboo.

“(People find this topic) a bit embarrassing. Think about your body and think about (what happens) after conception. It is very important. So don’t be ashamed.”

Okada is one of the few working mothers in Japan who has gone on to a very successful career since giving birth. Many of Japan’s highly educated women are forced to work part-time or work in retail, if they return to work at all. According to the OECD, in 2021, 39% of working women worked part-time, compared with 15% of men.

Tokyo hopes to solve some of these problems so that working women become working mothers tomorrow. The metropolitan government is starting to subsidize egg freezing to give women a better chance of having a successful pregnancy if they decide to have a baby later in life.

New parents in Japan are already receiving thousands of dollars in “children’s bonus” to cover medical expenses. For singles? A government-sponsored dating service powered by artificial intelligence.

Kaoru Harumashi works with cedar wood to make a barrel.

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

Along with the declining population, many traditional crafts and lifestyles are in danger of disappearing.

Among the villagers who took turns holding young Kentaro was Kaoru Harumashi, a lifelong resident of Kawakami Village at the age of 70. The woodworker formed 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,” he said. “My grandson lives in Kyoto and I don’t see him often. I probably have a stronger affection for Kentaro, whom I see more often, even though we are not related by blood.”

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

“If the children do not want to continue living in the countryside, they will go to the city,” he said.

When Yokobori moved to Kawakami Village about ten years ago, they had no idea that most of the residents were well past retirement age. Over the years, they have watched old friends pass away and long-standing community traditions fade into the background.

“There are not enough people to support villages, communities, festivals and other parish organizations, and this is becoming impossible,” Miho said.

“The more I get to know people, I mean older people, the more I get sad that I have to say goodbye to them. Life really goes on with or without the village,” she said. “At the same time, it’s very sad to see the people around, the locals, disappear.”

Kaoru Harumashi lives in the village all his life.  Kentaro calls him grandfather.

If this sounds depressing, it may be because in recent years Japan’s struggle to boost the birth rate has provided little cause for optimism.

However, there is a small ray of hope in Yokobori’s history. Kentaro’s birth was unusual, not only because the village had been waiting for him for such a long time, but also because his parents moved to the countryside from the city, contrary to the old trend that young people are becoming more and more plump for the convenience of Japanese city life 24 hours a day. 7 days a week.

Some recent polls show that more young people like them are considering the allure of rural life, enticed by the low cost of living, clean air and low stress that many see as vital to starting a family. One survey of Tokyo area residents found that 34% of respondents expressed an interest in moving to the countryside, up from 25.1% in 2019. Among 20-year-olds, 44.9% expressed interest.

Yokobori say that starting a family would be much more difficult – financially and personally – if they still lived in the city.

Their decision to move was prompted by the Japanese National Tragedy twelve years ago. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake shook the ground violently for several minutes across much of the country, triggering tsunami waves above a 10-story building that devastated vast swaths of the east coast and caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down. .

Miho was working as an office worker in Tokyo at the time. She remembers how helpless she felt when daily life in Japan’s largest city collapsed.

“Everyone was in a panic, so it was like a war, although I had never been to a war. It’s like having money but not being able to buy water. All transport was closed, so it was impossible to use it. I felt very weak,” she recalled.

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

“Things I relied on suddenly became unreliable and I felt like I was actually living in a very unstable place. I felt that I had to secure such a place for myself, ”he said.

The couple found this place in one of Japan’s most remote areas, Nara Prefecture. It is a land of majestic mountains and tiny towns hidden along winding roads under tall cedar trees that are taller than most buildings.

They quit their job in the city and moved to a simple house in the mountains, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned the art of woodworking and specializes in the production of cedar barrels for Japanese sake breweries. She is a complete housewife. They raise chickens, grow vegetables, chop wood, and take care of Kentaro, who is about to start first grade.

The big question for both the village of Kawakami and the rest of Japan is whether the birth of Kentaro is a sign of better times to come, or a miraculous birth into a dying lifestyle.