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The Decline of Rural Japan

Posted by Elnu on

This is an assignment for my English Composition II class.

Throughout Japan, there have been increasing numbers of abandoned houses, or 空き家 akiya. According to a government count, across Japan there are over eight million vacant homes,[1] and that number is only increasing. Nationally, Japan has a vacancy rate of over 14%, one of the highest in the world.[2] What are the root causes of this issue, and what are its effects?

Root causes

One of the most apparent causes for the number of abandoned houses is Japan’s aging and shrinking population. Japan has the highest proportion of seniors in the world[3] at a quarter, and it is increasing, being projected to hit a third of the population by 2050.[4] Despite the overall decline in population, major metropolitan centers such as Tokyo are growing due to internal migration from more rural areas.

What this means is that people are leaving their older relatives behind at their family homes in the countryside to move to the city, and when those relatives pass away there is nobody left to take care of them. Because of depopulation and lack of interest in rural areas, the value of the property is very low, so not wanting to pay property tax, the family refuses to inherit the property and it goes into public domain. One example of such a house is documented in this video on the YouTube channel Bitsii in inaka (田舎 inaka means countryside). The previous owner, an old woman named Yumi-san, passed away years prior, and the house went vacant.

Why are younger generations from more rural areas moving to the city and never coming back? A big factor is the job and education opportunities available in larger cities. For example, during and after the post-war American occupation in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a migration of people from rural areas to cities in search for jobs and education, and although this has slowed down, there remain vastly more opportunities in cities than in the countryside.[5]

In addition, regarding housing there is a strong preference for new houses. 87% of housing sales are new constructions, over double that compared to only 11-34% in Western countries. Furthermore, every year Japan has three times the number of houses built per capita compared to the US, and those houses are demolished on average every 30 years.[6] In fact, Japan’s housing problems in many regards are the opposite of those in the US: along with high housing prices the US is actually running out of houses,[7] in contrast to Japan’s abundance of vacant properties.

Putting akiya in the context of this, it makes a lot of sense why young people aren’t staying in the rural areas where they grew up in. The young generation want new houses, and there is much more money being poured into new construction in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka than out in the countryside, so people end up migrating there.

In the opposite direction

Figure 1: Terminus of National Route 1, 2, 25 and 176 in Osaka by Puchi-masashi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 1: Terminus of National Route 1, 2, 25 and 176 in Osaka by Puchi-masashi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

However, it’s not as clear-cut as people only wanting to move from the countryside into the city: things are changing. Among other factors, the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine has made city dwellers want to leave the city: in a 2020 survey, over half of 10,000 urban Japanese surveyed said that they wanted to eventually leave the city, compared to only 23% before the pandemic in 2018, with more than half stating that the “rich natural environment” was their primary source of appeal. Due to the pandemic, many companies have switched to being online, and haven’t switched back to traditional work even as things are starting to get closer to normal. This gives a lot more freedom for people to migrate from the city to the countryside, as they are not constrained by their work.

Besides the environment, community is another aspect of why people might want to move to the countryside. Iwamura, who was interviewed by the South China Morning Post, said that she wanted to move back to countryside where she grew up because the city didn’t have the same sense of community. ‘“One of my friends has been forced to stay at home with her three young children recently because of the coronavirus crisis, and she was very upset because she had a letter from one of her neighbours saying her kids were too noisy and that she should make them be quiet.” That sort of un-neighbourly behaviour would be unthinkable in the small town where her mother lives in Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, Iwamura said.’[8]

Even with a “rich natural environment” and a sense of community, the countryside still struggles with a lack of opportunities. That hasn’t stopped Uchiyama, who grew up in the Tokyo area, from moving to rural mountainous Wakayama prefecture, renovating a vacant akiya, and creating his own opportunities in a place with otherwise a lack of people. From their renovated home, he runs a family business with an organic farm, cafe, and guest house.[2]

Uchiyama isn’t alone — after working at an IT job in Tokyo for a decade, Takuya Furubayashi moved to a rural part of Niigata prefecture and started a business selling foraged wild vegetables.[9]

With government incentives encouraging people to move to more rural parts of Japan,[2] entrepreneurs like Uchiyama and Furubayashi are setting an example that it’s not only possible to move to the countryside from the city, but it’s possible to thrive.


Figure 2: Photo of delapidated buildings in Yubari, Hokkaido by Brett Patman via Daily Mail

Figure 2: Photo of delapidated buildings in Yubari, Hokkaido by Brett Patman via Daily Mail

While doing the research for this, one really interesting thing a stumbled across is in an article in The Atlantic,[10] it mentioned the town of Yubari, up in Hokkaido, which had a population decline of 90% from 1960 to 2014, even declaring bankruptcy in 2007. This seemed unusually extreme, so I looked into it more.

Upon further research, it turned out that the causes of Yubari’s decline were a bit more complicated than simply people moving from the countryside to the city. Yubari was founded in 1943 as a coal town, and peaked at a population of 120,000 people in the 1690s. In 1981, 93 miners died in a methane explosion. As Japan and much of the world was transitioning away from coal power, the future of the town was shaky. The destiny of Yubari was sealed a few years later when a second explosion caused an additional 62 deaths, and the mines were closed permanently in 1990. Today, the town only has around 8,000 residents, a shell of its former prosperity. Today, it is estimated that today there are more people over 80 in Yubari than people under 40.[11]

Abandoned community building in Yubari

When exploring the town’s main street in Google Maps, it gave this feeling of a place that used to be bustling with life, but now is past its prime. The road is empty, with not a single other car in sight from the Google mapping van. On the left-hand side of the road there’s a large three-story building that looks like it might be a school at first glance. On the side of the building is written 宿泊施設ファミリースクール (宿泊施設 means “lodging facility,” and ファミリースクール is literally “family school”), and then in big letters ふれあい (connectedness or bonding). I’m not completely sure what the building is for, so I’m just guessing here, but perhaps it was some sort of community center for families, that also has accommodations? The building itself looks like it might have been originally built to be an elementary school.

Whatever its purpose was, most of the windows are shattered, the welcoming metal sign is now rusting away, and the stairs going up to the building are overgrown with weeds. It’s a reminder that the town isn’t as big as it once was, and probably never will be again. It’s one place of many that have gotten into a state of disrepair in rural areas across Japan, though with its unique circumstances it’s worse than most.

Japan’s industrialization

Figure 1: View from house in Ochiai Village, Iya Valley. Photo by Alex Kerr from his blog.

Figure 1: View from house in Ochiai Village, Iya Valley. Photo by Alex Kerr from his blog.

In the first chapter of Alex Kerr’s book Lost Japan,[12] he recounts his time looking through the abandoned akiya of the Iya Valley in the early 1970s. Iya is a secluded region in Tokushima prefecture, and has been historically isolated from the rest of Japan. As such, it’s a unique example of a place that at least when Kerr was visiting fifty years ago, still remained true to the traditional Japanese way of living, even more so than other rural areas. He recalls how many of the houses are left just as they were when people lived in them: belongings here and there, toothbrushes by the sink, and even remains of fried eggs on a pan on the stove top. Families would take almost nothing of their belongings before moving away to big cities such as Osaka. “What good were straw raincoats, bamboo baskets, and utensils for handling firewood going to be in Osaka? Everything that had been a feature of life in Iya for a thousand years had become irrelevant overnight. On entering one of these houses, it looked as though the residents had simply disappeared.”

In my reading, I’ve gotten the feeling that there’s a decidedly binary view on the traditional rural versus modern metropolitan lifestyle in Japan. They are two separate worlds, that feel like they’re fundamentally incomaptible. Why is this? In Europe’s cities, centuries-old houses are able to naturally fit into the modern urban landscape. My family in England are from a small town with only a couple thousand residents and many houses from 18th and 19th centuries, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a town from a different era.

They key difference between Europe and Japan in this regard is how they industrialized. In the West, the Industrial Revolution happened from the second half of the eighteenth century to the early half of the nineteenth century. Western countries are similar culturally, and acquired new technologies from each other. Because the technologies of the Industrial Revolution were invented in the West’s cultural context, transitioning to an industrial society, while it had its fair share of pains, was a natural progression from the previous status quo. In short, the Industrial Revolution didn’t create a divide in culture between pre-industrialization and post-industrialization ways of life in the West because it was a gradual change that took place over a century, and it was been driven internally.

However, the same could not be said for Japan. While the West was busy industrializing, Japan’s economy was stagnant.[13] During the Edo period from 1603 to 1868, Japan had an isolationist foreign policy 鎖国 sakoku, literally “locked country,” instated by the Tokugawa shogunate. During the Edo period, Japan had extremely limited contact with the outside world and everything stayed more or less the same. This period of isolation abruptly ended in 1853 when American Commodore Matthew Perry barged into Tokyo Bay with four warships as a show of power, intimidating Japan into opening up their economy for American imports from the new industrialized economy, ever-hungry for new markets.

The Meiji Revolution in 1868 overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and ended sakoku, ending isolationism and opening up Japan to foreign imports and ideas. Seeing how China and other countries in Asia were forced into submission by the West in this period (in fact, in China the period between 1839 to 1949 is referred to as the “century of humiliation”), the Meiji Restoration pushed for rapid industrialization and Westernization. As by this point the West had already industrialized, Japan was able to directly adopt new technologies in their more polished state, bypassing the trial-and-error phase of technological adoption. As a result, Japan became the fastest country in Asia to industrialize, doing what took Europe and the United States a century in only a few decades.

Japan’s industrialization looked very different than that of the West. It was very rapid due to Japan picking up technologies from other countries that were already coming to the end of their industrial revolutions, meaning the it was driven externally. Japan was adopting Western technology that was developed in a Western context, and this came at a cost, as Kerr mentions.

Japan’s industrialization and resulting Westernization created a deep cultural rift: that between the traditional and the Western. In Japanese, there are even two kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese orthography) used to describe this rift: 和 wa, “Japanese,” and 洋 , “Western.” There are many pairs of words describing the Japanese and Western version of things: 和服 wafuku for Japanese-style clothing and 洋服 yōfuku for Western-style clothing, 和室 washitsu for a Japanese-style room and 洋室 yōshitsu for a Western-style room, 和風 wafuu for Japanese style and 洋風 yōfuu for Western style.

I feel like as Japan industrialized and modernized, shiny new buildings and developments were more often in the Western style, as new technology was coming into Japan in a Western context. It’s a lot easier to take new Western technologies as-is rather than modify them to fit the traditional way of doing things. To make this worse, during the Meiji Restoration, the new government had a propaganda campaign pushing modernization, and along with it, Westernization.[13] This was compounded by the American occupation after the war, which restructured Japan’s government to be more aligned with that of the US.

All in all, I feel like the troubles of traditional countryside living really began with the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji restoration. Japan’s industrial revolution began the shift from Japan being primarily an agrarian society to being an urban one, and the way Japan industrialized made it difficult for traditional ways of living to integrate into a modern Japan.


With an aging population, one of the highest rates of urbanization on Earth at 90.7% as of 2010,[14], and waves of rural-to-urban migration, Japan has been left with many empty and abandoned properties in the countryside.

It’s commonly attributed simply to a shrinking population and migrations from the countryside to the city, but I feel like it’s a bit more complicated than that. From what I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that the beginnings of the problem go back all the way to the Meiji restoration. Western-style industrialization.

Although in many regards the current state of a lot of rural communities might seem irrecoverable, I feel like there’s a lot of hope in the coming decades for Japan’s rural communities to be revitalized. Due to the pandemic, more people in cities are considering going out to the countryside, and those who are making the move are creating new opportunities for economic and community development.

It will be interesting to see how the situation develops going forward.


J. Soble, “A sprawl of ghost homes in aging tokyo suburbs,” The new york times, 2015 [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/world/a-sprawl-of-abandoned-homes-in-tokyo-suburbs.html
L. Batarags and C. Teh, “Japan is trying to lure people into rural areas by selling $500 homes, but it’s not enough to fix the country’s ’ghost town’ problem,” Insider, 2021 [Online]. Available: https://www.insider.com/japan-ghost-towns-population-vacancy-rates-akiya-banks-2021-6
“Elderly citizens accounted for record 28.4% of japan’s population in 2018, data show,” The japan times, 2021 [Online]. Available: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/09/15/national/elderly-citizens-accounted-record-28-4-japans-population-2018-data-show/
“Aging in japan,” International longevity center japan [Online]. Available: http://www.ilcjapan.org/agingE/
R. E. Doland and R. L., Japan: a country study. 1992 [Online]. Available: http://archive.org/details/japancountrystud00dola
A. Townsend, “Why japan is crazy about housing,” Archdaily, 2013 [Online]. Available: https://www.archdaily.com/450212/why-japan-is-crazy-about-housing
H. Hoffower, “Millennial homeownership is causing the us to run out of houses,” Insider, 2021 [Online]. Available: https://www.businessinsider.com/millennial-homeownership-driving-housing-shortage-prices-new-builds-2021-4
J. R. C. M. Post, “1 in 2 urban japanese want to retire in the countryside, government poll reveals,” 2020 [Online]. Available: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3086513/1-2-urban-japanese-want-retire-countryside-government-poll-reveals
M. McIvor, “From tokyo it guy to niigata townie: A story of entrepreneurial impact in the country,” Globis insights, 2020 [Online]. Available: https://globisinsights.com/purpose/kokorozashi/tokyo-to-townie-entrepreneurial-impact-in-the-country/
A. Semuels, “Can anything stop rural decline?,” The atlantic, 2017 [Online]. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/08/japan-rural-decline/537375/
“Yubari,” Japan experience, 2018 [Online]. Available: https://www.japan-experience.com/plan-your-trip/to-know/japanese-history/yubari
A. Kerr, Lost japan. 1993.
“平成22年国勢調査最終報告書 人口の地域分布,” The ministry of internal affairs and communications statistics bureau. 2010 [Online]. Available: http://www.stat.go.jp/data/kokusei/2010/final/pdf/01-02.pdf