At the point when Kentaro Yokobori was conceived very nearly a long time back, he was the principal infant in the Sogio region of Kawakami town in 25 years. Many of the villagers considered his birth to be a miracle.
His parents, Miho and Hirohito, were visited by well-wishers for more than a week. Nearly all of the visitors were elderly, with some even unable to walk.
“The older individuals were extremely glad to see [Kentaro], and an old woman who experienced issues climbing the steps, with her stick, came to me to embrace my child. Miho recalled, “Everyone took turns holding my baby.”
The village’s population decreased by more than half during that quarter century without a childbirth, from 6,000 40 years earlier to 1,150 today, as younger residents left and older residents passed away. Wildlife had taken over some of the abandoned homes.
Kawakami is just one of many small rural towns and villages that younger Japanese are leaving for the cities. More than 90% of Japanese people now live in urban areas like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, which are all connected by Japan’s bullet trains that always arrive on time.
As a result, rural areas and industries such as agriculture, forestry, and farming now face a severe labor shortage that is likely to worsen as the workforce gets older. From 2.25 million in 2010, the number of people employed in agriculture and forestry had decreased to 1.9 million by 2022.
However, the demise of Kawakami is indicative of a problem that extends far beyond the rural areas of Japan.
For Japan, the issue is: Additionally, people in the cities are not having children.
‘Time is running out to procreate’
In a recent press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated, “Time is running out to procreate,” a slogan that appears to have failed to inspire the majority of Japanese who live in cities.
He warned earlier this year that the country was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions” amid a flood of troubling demographic data.
799,728 births were recorded in 2022, which is the lowest number ever recorded and barely more than half of the 1.5 million births that were recorded in 1982. Its fertility rate, which is the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years, has dropped to 1.3, which is far below the 2.1 needed to keep the population stable. For more than a decade, births have outpaced deaths.
Some also worry that the country is on its way to the point of no return, when the number of women of childbearing age reaches a critical low from which there is no way to reverse the trend of population decline, despite the fact that the Japanese government estimates that foreigners will only make up 2.2% of the population in 2021, compared to 13.6% in the United States. This is because there has not been any significant immigration into the country.
Because of all of this, the leaders of the third-largest economy in the world now face the unenviable challenge of trying to pay for pensions and health care for a growing number of elderly people while the workforce is shrinking.
The Japanese’s busy urban lifestyles and long working hours make it hard for them to start families, and the rising cost of living means that many young people can’t afford to have children. Then there are patriarchal norms that discourage mothers from returning to work and cultural taboos regarding discussing fertility.
According to Grace Sugiyama Clinic director Yuka Okada, cultural barriers often prevented women from discussing their fertility.
People consider the subject to be somewhat embarrassing. Think about your body and what happens after you get pregnant. It matters a lot. Therefore, it is not humiliating.
After giving birth, Okada is one of the few working mothers in Japan who maintains a highly successful career. If they ever reenter the workforce at all, many of Japan’s highly educated women are restricted to part-time or retail positions. The OECD estimates that 39% of women workers will be working part-time in 2021, compared to 15% of men.
In order for working women today to become working mothers tomorrow, Tokyo hopes to address some of these issues. Egg freezing is now being subsidized by the metropolitan government so that women who decide to have children later in life have a better chance of having a healthy pregnancy.
Unexperienced parents in Japan as of now get a “child reward” of thousands of dollars to take care of clinical expenses. Singles only? an AI-powered dating service sponsored by the government.
A precautionary tale
Whether such measures can reverse the situation, in metropolitan or country regions, is not yet clear. However, Kawakami village in the countryside serves as a cautionary tale of what might occur if demographic declines are not reversed.
Many of its traditional crafts and ways of life are at risk of disappearing along with its declining population.
Kaoru Harumashi, a 70-year-old resident of Kawakami village who had lived there all his life, was one of the villagers who took turns holding the young Kentaro. The youngster has developed a close bond with the skilled woodworker as a result of his instruction in carving cedar from the nearby forests.
“He calls me granddad, however in the event that a genuine granddad lived here, he wouldn’t call me granddad,” he said. ” I rarely get to see my grandson, who lives in Kyoto. Even though we are not blood relatives, Kentaro, whom I see more often, probably has more of my affection.
As many young people in Japan’s rural areas do, both of Harumashi’s sons left the village many years ago.
He stated, “The children will go to the city if the children do not choose to continue living in the village.”
When the Yokoboris moved to Kawakami village about a decade ago, they had no idea that the majority of the people there were well past the age of retirement. Throughout the long term, they’ve watched more seasoned companions die and long-term local area customs drop off the radar.
Miho stated, “It is becoming impossible to maintain villages, communities, festivals, and other ward organizations because there are not enough people.”
“The more I get to know people, especially the elderly, the more sad I become about having to say goodbye to them. She stated, “Life is actually going on regardless of the village.” At the same time, it is very sad to see the locals who live nearby disappearing.
Back to the countryside
Assuming that sounds discouraging, maybe this is on the grounds that as of late, Japan’s fight to help the birthrate has given not many explanations behind positive thinking.
Nonetheless, the Yokobori narrative may contain a sliver of hope. Kentaro’s birth was unusual not only because the village had waited so long, but also because his parents had moved from the city to the countryside, bucking a decades-old trend in which young Japanese people increasingly prefer the 24/7 convenience of city life.
According to some recent surveys, a growing number of young people who are similar to them are considering the appeals of country life because of the low cost of living, clean air, and low stress lifestyles that many people believe are essential for starting families. 34% of Tokyo residents, up from 25% in 2019, said they would like to move to a rural area, according to a study. As many as 44.9% of people in their 20s expressed an interest.
The Yokoboris claim that if they had remained in the city, starting a family would have been significantly more challenging for them personally and financially.
Twelve years ago, a national tragedy in Japan prompted them to make the decision to relocate. On March 11, 2011, a large portion of the nation was shaken violently for several minutes by an earthquake. This triggered tsunami waves taller than a 10-story building, which devastate large swaths of the east coast and cause the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to melt down.
At the time, Miho worked in a Tokyo office. She recalls feeling helpless as the largest city in Japan fell apart.
“I’ve never been in a war, but everyone was in a state of panic, so it was like a war. It was similar to not being able to buy water despite having money. You were unable to use any of the closed public transportation options. She recalled how weak she felt.
The misfortune was a snapshot of enlivening for Miho and Hirohito, who was filling in as a visual originator at that point.
“Suddenly, the things I had been relying on felt unreliable, and I felt as though I was actually living in a very unstable environment. He stated, “I felt like I had to find such a place on my own.”
In Nara prefecture, one of Japan’s most remote areas, the couple discovered that location. It is a place that is known for glorious mountains and small municipalities, concealed along twisting streets underneath transcending cedar trees taller than the greater part of the structures.
They quit their city jobs and moved to a simple mountain house, where they run a small bed and breakfast. He learned how to work with wood and now makes cedar barrels for Japanese sake breweries. She stays at home full-time. They take care of Kentaro, who is about to enter the first grade, chop wood, grow vegetables, and raise chickens.
For both Kawakami Village and the rest of Japan, the big question is: Is Kentaro’s birth a miraculous birth in a dying way of life or a sign of better times to come?