"As of March 1, our population numbered 590,130," sighs Rie Otsubo, a supervisor at the Tottori prefectural government's statistics department. "A lot of people tend to move away every March, but it's a fact that we've dropped below 600,000."
That, frets Weekly Playboy (May 3), puts Tottori's population at less than Funabashi City, a town on the outskirts of Tokyo.
What makes this demographic decline most painful is that so many of those bound for other places are in the 20 to 24 age segment.
"Tottori's a good place to raise children," says Masahiro Taniguchi, another prefectural employee. "For example, there's no wait for admission to nursery schools. We've got Japan's highest ratio of obstetricians to overall population and are second highest in pediatricians. And we put a lot of effort into education, so it's a good place to be through high school."
After that, though, prospects are dim. The lack of universities (there are only three, and 80% of the students at Tottori University hail from outside the prefecture) and few available jobs for graduates are the main reasons so many of its young people are leaving.
"We've tried holding orientations in Tokyo to attract people to move here, but they told us we were lousy at public relations," grimaces Taniguchi. We heard stuff like 'Tottori's completely out of it.'"
Prefectural worker Hajime Yoneyama has the particularly difficult job of stimulating the economy of inland mountainous regions.
"Actually our rate of population decline is less than neighboring Shimane Prefecture," he says. "But measures are needed to address the problem, particularly the loneliness and isolation of elderly people in mountain hamlets."
Tottori has received a trickle of urban workers, laid off from jobs at temp-help agencies, who are accepted as trainees in two-year agricultural and forestry training programs. Along with room and board, the interns receive a monthly stipend of 110,000 yen.
Naohiro Ikeda, a local farmer, instructs his interns on "everything they need to know about growing tomatoes."
"We've also been accepting trainees from abroad for quite some time," says Ikeda. "They're from China, the Philippines and Mongolia. It doesn't matter if they stay with us afterwards or not, but we're happy to have them as long as they work hard and take responsibility.
"But as bad as it is to face a falling population, I think people living in big cities have it worse," Ikeda adds. "At least we can feed ourselves. But even though our rural population drops and more people give up tilling the land, isn't it the city people who get to eat the food?"
Still, even rustics need to shop. In the town of Nichinan, situated in a mountainous inland region that borders on Hiroshima, Okayama and Shimane prefectures, Kyoji Adachi, president of Local Supermarket Aikyo, operates a small fleet of trucks that carry fresh foods and daily goods for sale in isolated mountain hamlets.
"The elderly people out in the hills are all lonely," he says. "The want to meet people, and talk to someone. And they want to see and touch the merchandise before they buy it. After the bus lines stopped running, I figured if they couldn't come to us for shopping, the only way was to go to them."
Adachi started up his business by taking over a failed agricultural cooperative, whose name he changed from Seikyo to Aikyo. At first, he says, it was 'taihen' (awful), but now he's grown to five outlets and three stores on wheels, plus a Lawson franchise.
Adachi is particularly pleased about being able to provide job opportunities for young people.
"This year, I hired two graduates out of high school, one boy and one girl," he smiles. "I want to create a place where younger people can work. Making the shop on wheels business a success and keeping life going in the mountains is a real challenge for me."
Little by little, with the determined spirit of men like Ikeda and Adachi, Weekly Playboy believes Tottori will definitely succeed in bringing people back.© Japan Today