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Young Japanese people work to revive a vanishing village

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Villages across Japan's countryside are facing extinction as the population ages and shrinks. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Japan's most aged village, where most residents are over age 65. He reports on the village's efforts to attract young people to reinvigorate it.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: About 70 miles northwest of Tokyo, a river runs through mountains with forests of cedar and bamboo. A winding road parallels the stream and passes through the village of Nanmoku. The road brought 24-year-old Satomi Oigawa here from Tokyo a year ago after she graduated from college.

SATOMI OIGAWA: (Through interpreter) I wanted to be self-sufficient, and they value interaction with other people. I felt like my relations with people in Tokyo were too shallow and broad. So from a young age, I really wanted to live in the countryside.

KUHN: Most Japanese, though, are moving the other way. The population here has shrunk from 11,000 in 1955 to about 1,500 today. At that rate of decline, there could be nobody left in just over a decade. The village is on the cutting edge of Japan's rural depopulation, a trend other nations in Asia and Europe are following. The number of Japanese over the age of 100 is at a record high. New births are at a record low. But where others see a dilapidated, declining village, Oigawa sees potential.

OIGAWA: (Through interpreter) This is mottainai.

KUHN: Mottainai is a Japanese philosophical concept that says we should waste nothing and get every bit of value out of what we have - whether it's time, space, things or people. Oigawa pursues this goal working for the village government, matching abandoned homes with potential new residents. She's found an entrepreneur to convert an old silk factory into an Airbnb, and she's looking for someone to take over an abandoned konjac starch factory and adjacent home.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS CLATTERING)

KUHN: The home's tatami mats are tidy but dusty. A clock on the wall is frozen at five minutes to 5.

OIGAWA: (Through interpreter) Everything about this house is part of the village's history. I'm very happy to see people who want to move here connect with the village residents' memories.

KUHN: Beneath Nanmoku's weather-beaten surface, there's an undercurrent of genki, the Japanese term for vigor or vitality. It comes from both enterprising newcomers like Oigawa and from tenacious elderly residents like Hachiro Koganezawa (ph). Oigawa drives up a steep mountainside to visit Koganezawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG CRINKLING)

OIGAWA: (Non-English language spoken).

HACHIRO KOGANEZAWA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: He picks some cucumbers and peppers and puts them in a bag for her. He's still farming flowers and vegetables at age 90.

KOGANEZAWA: (Through interpreter) Because of the farmer's spirit, we don't retire. That spirit - that we work until we die - has been planted in us for generations.

KUHN: Koganezawa says that life in Nanmoku has become more convenient, but there are fewer people around to live it.

KOGANEZAWA: (Through interpreter) There's now a road that goes up the mountain, but there's nobody there to farm it.

KUHN: A survey conducted in 2018 found that Nanmoku's elderly walk faster, grip stronger, and suffer less dementia than seniors in other parts of the country. But if it's to remain on the map, the village must attract more young people and increase the birthrate. Mayor Saijo Hasegawa has seen some years where not a single baby was born in the village. Central and Nanmoku village governments offer incentives to lure young residents, but there are few jobs for them to do. Despite that, Hasegawa aims to stabilize the village population in 15 to 20 years' time.

SAIJO HASEGAWA: (Through interpreter) By then, the village's population is expected to be around 800 - about half its current size. We believe we'll be able to keep it at that level from then on.

KUHN: Peter Matanle, a Japan expert at the University of Sheffield in England, says some villages like Nanmoku may thrive and even grow, but they'll be bucking an overwhelming trend.

PETER MATANLE: Japan is currently losing six, seven hundred thousand people annually, and that's going to increase to more than a million by the 2030s. Under that situation, how do settlements maintain their populations, let alone increase their populations?

KUHN: Matanle says that many young Japanese have done brilliantly at injecting new ideas and life into ageing villages. Then again, he notes, many others have retreated to the cities after their businesses went bust, or they just found life in the countryside too hard and lonely. Yuta Sato (ph) came to Nanmoku five years ago for its natural beauty and because he couldn't find a good job just out of college, but he says it's not easy to raise children in this village.

YUTA SATO: (Through interpreter) There are no kids in this village that are the same age as my daughter and that can be her classmates.

KUHN: Sato, 29, has started an Uber Eats-style delivery service, but there aren't many restaurants around to make the food. The nearest hospital is in another town, an hour's drive away. Sato adds that he's been disappointed to learn that not all of Nanmoku's residents welcome newcomers like himself.

SATO: (Through interpreter) Some people say that instead of throwing money around to attract immigrants, they should spend it on the people already living in the village.

KUHN: Sato says he came to Nanmoku in hopes of finding a job he could stick with for about 40 years. But he's not optimistic that, by that time, the village of Nanmoku will still exist.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Nanmoku Village, Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.