End of the road for Japanese village
By Norimitsu Onishi
OGAMA, Japan - This mountain village on the west coast, withered to eight aging
residents, concluded recently that it could no longer go on. So, after months
of anguish, the villagers settled on a drastic solution: selling all of Ogama
to an industrial-waste company from Tokyo, which will turn it into a landfill.
With the proceeds, the villagers plan to pack up everything, including their
family graves, and move in the next few years to yet-uncertain destinations,
most likely becoming the first community in Japan to cease to exist
"I'm sure we're the first ones to have made such a proposal," said
Kazuo Miyasaka, 64, the village leader. "It's because there's no future for us
On a hill overlooking a field of overgrown bushes, surrounded by the sounds of
a running stream and a bush warbler, Miyasaka pointed below with his right
index finger. "I never imagined it would come to this. I mean, those all used
to be rice fields."
Ogama's decision, though extreme, points to a larger problem besetting Japan,
which has one of the world's fastest-graying societies and whose population
began declining last year for the first time. As rural Japan becomes
increasingly depopulated, many villages and hamlets such as Ogama, along with
their traditions and histories, risk vanishing.
Japan is dotted with so many such communities that academics have coined a term
- "villages that have reached their limits" - to describe those with
populations that are more than half elderly. Of 140 villages in Monzen, the
municipality that includes Ogama, 40% have fewer than 10 households, inhabited
mostly by the elderly.
Rural Japan has never recovered from its long recession, unlike urban areas.
Many of its commercial main streets have been reduced to what the Japanese call
"shuttered streets", and few rural areas have found economic alternatives to
the huge public-works projects that the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party
kept doling out.
During his five years in office, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has reduced
public-works spending that yielded money and jobs to local construction
companies. He cut subsidies and tax redistribution to local governments,
instead giving them the power to collect taxes directly. But rural officials
argue that with a decreasing population and few businesses, there are few taxes
In keeping with a nationwide movement to combine financially squeezed
municipalities, Monzen merged with nearby Wajima city in February. In 2000,
revenue from the national government to the two municipalities totaled US$114
million, accounting for 50% of their overall revenue; in 2005, money from Tokyo
fell to $90 million, or 44% of revenue.
Fumiaki Kaji, mayor of the merged municipality, said recent changes amounted to
a "simple logic of telling the countryside that it should die".
Ogama lies in a valley in a mountain facing the sea, reached by a single-lane
road that winds its way through a deep green forest where foxes and raccoon
dogs - forest-dwellers that, in Japanese myth, trick human beings by shifting
their shapes - are spotted regularly. The road ends here.
Bunzo Mizushiri, 81, a historian in Wajima, said Ogama (which means "big pot")
was the place where monks cleansed themselves before going up Takatsume, a
After World War II, there were about 30 households here, each with eight or
nine people. Today, three couples live in one corner of the village, and two
women live alone in another corner. A small hill rises in the center, atop
which stands a Shinto shrine whose gate was partly felled by an earthquake
Small streams flow from the surrounding mountains, keeping the ground here
moist and covered with patches of moss. The expanding forest has begun
reclaiming once-cultivated land, hiding the ruins of abandoned houses, and
blocking the sunlight.
"Our house is still standing, thankfully," said Harue Miyasaka, the village
leader's wife and, at 61, Ogama's youngest inhabitant. "But when you look at
the houses collapsing one after another, you understand what's ahead for your
"We're at a dead end here," she said in front of her house, where the
single-lane road reaches its end. "Our children haven't come back, so there's
no further growth. We'll just keep getting older."
Her husband first proposed the idea of selling the village. After retiring as a
seaman two decades ago and setting up a roof-waterproofing business, Kazuo
Miyasaka said he foresaw Ogama's shrinking future. So about 15 years ago he
began pursuing several possibilities, including turning the area into a golf
course. None of the ideas went anywhere until he approached Takeei, a Tokyo
industrial-waste company, a couple of years ago. Takeei was interested.
Miyasaka summoned the entire village - he became its permanent chief three
years ago after Ogama's two other men could no longer take turns as leader
because of poor health - and told his neighbors about the offer.
"If young people came back, these villages could go on," said Kenichi
Taniguchi, 76. "But that's not happening. They're all dying out."
Norimitsu Onishi is the Northeast Asia correspondent for the New York