To stretch their pensions, Japan's retiring baby boomers -- and even younger people who want to escape the urban rat race -- have been exploring retirement in the countryside. But monthly magazine Jitsuwa Bunka Tabuu (August) warns that the promise of idyllic pastoral living is a pipe dream. And the pipes are cracked. Literally.
In May, an advisory group to Japan's Ministry of Finance issued a request to residents near the Sea of Japan that went, "Snow removal is costly, so during winter, won't you please move to the flatlands?"
It was essentially asking people to leave their homes vacant during the winter months, and as an incentive to do so, was reportedly pondering offering the residents financial assistance.
In a nutshell, the national government was clearly in the process of making moves to abandon rural areas.
According to data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, some 647 of Japan's towns and villages have been designated as "depopulated areas." Collectively, these now account for some 60% of the nation's land area, and rather than make efforts to revitalize these locales, government policy appears to be inclined to simply abandon them.
In the year 2000, people from rural communities moving to the nation's three major urban areas numbered around 50,000; by 2016, that figure had risen to 1.7 million. Last year, JR Hokkaido closed 18 of its stations due to low passenger demand. JR West is also hurting for revenues. Collectively these signify the beginning of the end for the nation's rural railway lines.
A shift from trains to buses, however, raises another problem. Some 40% of vehicular bridges in Japan are reaching age 50, and local governments, with no budget to repair or demolish them, are forced to just ban their use, effectively cutting off the districts they serve, along with the small supermarkets and other businesses that serve the residents.
With the bridges gone, people are also unable to commute to nearby jobs, further putting pressure on them to relocate.
According to other data, by 2025, about half the operators of businesses age 70 or older are having difficulty to find successors, this despite the fact that they are operating profitably.
According to the Financial Service Ministry, of 106 banks based in rural cities and towns in 2019, 54 were operating in the red, and of these, 23 had reported deficits in five straight fiscal periods.
Coupled with the aging population and lower birth rate, the decline of commercial businesses, companies and the banking sector spells looming economic collapse.
As for the quality of rural medical treatment -- don't ask. Almost no locales are able to offer 24-hour care, and even at normal working hours on weekdays the hospitals are severely limited in their services. Getting an ambulance at night or on weekends is an exercise in futility; if one comes at all, the waiting time is likely to be an hour or more. The elderly who have the financial means to afford medical care move to the cities, further depleting the population.
Towns and villages are becoming depleted of people so rapidly that three years ago, one district lacked enough people to warrant an assembly representative even after eight communities merged. Four years ago in the same area, four communities had enough people for a representative; eight years ago it was three communities. Not that many people want the job; at a monthly salary of 150,000 yen, local assembly members wages are so low, they are forced to moonlight at outside jobs.
Jitsuwa Bunka Tabuu's advice to rural residents: don't leave the countryside; you're probably better off leaving the country.© Japan Today