BY: SINEAD MULHERN
A classroom is clean but bleak. Students slump in chairs. A mum teacher delivers no lesson. It’s not a lively scene, their insides are straw. Head to a bus stop, fruit stall or lonely corner in the nearly silent town of Nagoro, Japan and you’re bound to be greeted by another of these scarecrow figures. Stuffed and assembled by local Tsukimi Ayano, 65, these life-sized dolls commemorate those who have died or moved on from this borderline ghost town. One is modelled after a tea-drinking lady and close by is a sake connoisseur. Here, over 100 dolls outnumber living people three to one.
Breaths full of fresh mountain air, jagged deep green peaks and the draw of serene slow-paced living are not enough to attract Japanese folk to the country’s depleted mountain towns. Nagoro suffers from loneliness; where there used to be hundreds of families, now there are just 35 people pursuing their life in this village with one road. Rent might be around $200 but not even introverted skin-flints are migrating to set up shop. In Japan, over eight million homes are without an owner.
The country’s mountain and traditional farming communities are dwindling. Ayano’s stuffed dolls might be the accidental symbol of their decline. And they’ve spread to rest in spots across Shikoku, the neighbouring village which has a similar picture. The younger people have flocked to the country’s urban centres leaving behind the elders to keep watch on the farms. This is the lesser-seen image of economic success seen in the country. 2010 saw the migration of more and more young populations moving away from the mountains and into the rapidly-pulsing cities. The Greater Tokyo area is home to 37 million (though its downtown has still seen a drop in numbers), Osaka-Kobe hosts 11.5 million, and another 10 million call urban provincial capitals home. Meanwhile, places like Nagoro sit idle with unbalanced elderly populations and boarded up windows covering the houses and shops.
The emergence of more and more ghost towns in the country is a migration issue, but also one of declining birth rates. Around 10,000 villages have become sparse in numbers. By 2060, four in 10 Japanese will be over the age of 65. High costs of living are discouraging younger people from having more children. And the 2011 earthquake that killed 18,000 has only sped up the population shrinkage. The government hopes that the population won’t dip to below 100 million. Yet, immigration laws are still as firm as ever.
What’s a sleepy town to do? Attracting tech companies and tourists is one way to plump up the community. The town of Kamiyama is an example of an if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy. Residents there marketed the spot as an up-and-coming tech hub and now it is. Several companies have planted their roots, taking advantage of cheap rent and living like high-class workers—just the promise that beckoned them in the first place. It’s taking advantage of innovative business people that entices the young people to come home, slowly trickling a vibrant new energy into the stagnation.
As for Nagoro, tourists have taken a detour on their way through the curly mountain roads to take note of Ayano’s dolls, static in time, presenting an image that looks a lot like a portrait of the way life there used to be. If it weren’t for the scarecrows, Ayano thinks they wouldn’t even see Nagoro. Maybe this is a start.