Japan

Welcome To The Japanese City Slowly Dying Away

In Suo-Oshima, nearly half the residents are over the age of 65. Increasingly, the city's destiny looks to be a sign of what's to come across a Japan that is aging far too fast.

"More than a quarter of the Japanese population will soon be over 65."
"More than a quarter of the Japanese population will soon be over 65."
Philippe Mesmer

SUO-OSHIMA — Tourists come to Suo-Oshima, a Japanese island city in the southern Yamaguchi Prefecture, to taste the local Mikans citrus fruit and swim in the turquoise waters of the Seto Inland Sea.

But after crossing the only bridge that leads to Suo-Oshima, you may also notice the public signs notifying locals of a recent death. This town has a population of 18,000, of which 48.5% are over 65 years old — a record in Japan. In 2013, the town registered 470 deaths compared to just 70 births.

“In 1948, when I was born, there were 64,800 residents,” mayor Takumi Shiiki remembers.

The figures from the latest national census confirm that the population has never grown in this city since World War II. The overall decline of the region, which was infamous as a pirate hideout in the 16th century, is mainly due to a lack of economic dynamism.

Besides a dwindling fishing and farming economy, there are hardly any prospects here. From the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912), a chunk of the population emigrated, particularly to Hawaii.

“If you want to work here, you have to work for the government or be hired by the agricultural cooperative,” a young local says. Those who leave for Osaka, Fukuoka or Tokyo for their studies never come back.

The problems of an aging public

The situation in Suo-Oshima illustrates, more than anywhere else in Japan, the problem of the country's aging population. The latest demographic statistics, released on January 1, show that more than a quarter of the Japanese population will soon be over 65. By 2060, the proportion is set to reach 40%.

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A traditional home in Suo-Oshima (Wikipedia)

For Shizuo Niiyama, head of the Hakuseiji temple on Okikamuro, the second island of Suo-Oshima, “the town has become an example.” The demographic decline can be measured by the number of abandoned houses. By walking along both islands, strolling around in their coastal villages, the visitor is sure to see old, crumbling buildings and stores that have shut down. Some houses have already collapsed and are disappearing underneath wild grass.

Ageing has a cost. On a national level, social security represents 31.8% of the 2014 budget, one of the only expenditures that can be increased. In Suo-Oshima, the total amount given to the elderly — including social welfare payments — amounts to 9.2 billion yen (65 million euros) per year.

The town has three public hospitals and 76 geriatric facilities — retirement homes, day care and rehabilitation centers. This sector employs 1,350 people. “It seems like a lot, but actually, we need more beds, doctors and nurses,” Mitsuo Tani of the local social aid association explains.

The situation is made even more difficult with the relative poverty of the population. “There are many retired people who used to work in the farming or fishing industries,” Tani continues. “They receive the basic pension, between 50,000 and 60,000 yen (353-464 euros) each month.” They could apply to the local welfare but, “out of pride or because they sometimes have savings, they refuse to do it.”

Just because the services are available doesn’t mean that everyone attends, especially the daycare centers for lonely people, like the Honobonoen Center, beside the city hall. “We have 16 members, but some don’t come every day,” director Shozo Kobayashi explains. Members pay 15,000 yen (105 euros) for 14 days. The rest is taken care of by social security.

Youth exodus

On January 8, there were 7 people at the Honobonoen center. Haruyo Hara, 97, returned from Osaka where she has spent most of her life. “I was surprised not to see any children around. I’m afraid that one day, there won’t be anyone left. People leave and we don’t see them again," says Saburo Nakamoto, who used to work for the postal services.

Here, the youngest seniors take care of their elders. The mayor’s wife, 64, is in charge of a group of volunteers who go shopping and watch over 25 homes for her neighborhood’s elderly people.

M. Ebisuzaki, 75, was born on the Okikamuro Island and worked in a cement factory in Tokuyama. When he retired, he decided to come back. “I wanted to grow vegetables and read books.” But instead of that, “I’m part of the volunteer firefighters and provide guided tours for tourists. I’m overwhelmed.” Another local man in his seventies, is drying out seaweed on a low wall of the fishing harbor. He also claims not to have any spare time. He returned here for his retirement because “it’s here that his ancestors are.” He also adds that "everyone helps each other" here.

In order to become more dynamic the town is looking for solutions, especially by developing tourism, which currently brings over 900,000 visitors per year. It is also trying to draw in new residents. Hikaru Yashiki, who was born on the island, was sent to Tokyo on January 11 and 12 to take part in a trade show promoting Japanese cities. “For 10,000 yen (70 euros) per week, you can spend up to 4 weeks in a Suo-Oshima home. A good way to get a taste of life here," he says.

The city hall has hired a financial adviser who helps interested people to plan their settling-in. Some make the move, but they’re still not enough to stop the current decline.

“If Suo-Oshima disappears, it means the whole of Japan could disappear one day,” Shizuo Niiyama, a monk, warns. “The government must react,” he adds.

But, authorities are not doing much, especially not for the declining birth rates. And Japan remains hostile to immigration, except when it comes to compensating immediate and specific needs. To deal with the short-handed workforce, the government is counting on the employment of women and elderly people, even considering using robots.

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