E VER SINCE 1495 residents of Gojome, a town in northern Japan, have gathered for a morning market. On a recent weekday, along a street of closed shops with almost no people, elderly sellers lay out their autumnal wares: mushrooms and chestnuts, okra, aubergines and pears. It was not always so empty, sighs Ogawa Kosei, who runs a bookshop on the street. He points to pictures his father took that show the scene packed with shoppers.
The population of Gojome has shrunk by half since 1990. More than half its residents are over 65, making it one of the oldest towns in Akita, the oldest prefecture in Japan, which is in turn the world's oldest country. Yet Gojome is less an outlier than a portent. According to the UN , every country is experiencing growth in the size and proportion of its elderly population; by 2050 one in six people in the world will be over 65, up from one in eleven in 2019. The UN also projects that 55 countries, including China, will see their populations decline between now and 2050.
Demographic change has two drivers often lumped together: rising longevity and a falling birth rate. Their convergence demands "a new map of life", says Akiyama Hiroko, founder of the University of Tokyo's Institute of Gerontology. Infrastructure created when the population was younger and the demographic pyramid sturdier must be redesigned, from health care to housing to transport. The new reality demands a "completely different way of thinking", says Kashiwa Kazuyori, head of Gojome's town-planning department. When he started work in the 1970s, the focus was on growth. Now it is about managing decline.
Part of the challenge is that demographic change affects everyone differently. Two towns or regions may look similar from a distance, but have distinct historical, cultural and environmental conditions; two individuals may be the same age, make the same money and live on the same street, yet have different mental and physical health. "We often miss the context," says Kudo Shogo of Akita International University. He is one of scores of young outsiders who have been welcomed to Gojome, which was a trading hub at the crossroads of farm districts. Comparable farm-focused neighbours have been less open to incomers.
That makes designing national policy difficult. "There's not a one-size-fits-all model," says Iio Jun, a political scientist at GRIPS . While the national government is responsible for finance, including pensions, the new map of life is best drawn from the ground up. Many ideas come from listening to citizens, says Ms Akiyama. "They know what the issues are—and many times they know how to solve them."
One issue is how ageing is discussed: as a problem or a burden. "Older people feel they're not needed by society," laments Hatakeyama Junko, the 70-year-old head of Akita Partnership, a non-profit that manages a community centre. Longevity is not itself a problem—it should be celebrated. The problems arise when people live long but unhealthy, lonely, or dependent lives. The goal in Japan has shifted from increasing life expectancy to enhancing the "healthy, autonomous life expectancy", says Ms Akiyama.
This means finding ways for old people to keep working. Nearly half of 65- to 69-year-olds and a third of 70- to 74-year-olds have jobs. Japan's gerontological society has called for reclassifying those aged 65-74 as "pre-old". Ms Akiyama speaks of creating "workplaces for the second life". But the work of the second life will differ from that of the first; its contribution may not be easily captured in growth statistics. "We have to seek well-being, not only economic productivity," Ms Akiyama says. Experiments abound, from municipalities that train retirees to be farmers, to firms that encourage older employees to launch startups. The elderly "want dignity and respect", says Matsuyama Daiko of the Taizo-in temple in Kyoto, which has a "second-life programme" that offers courses for retirees to retrain as priests.
The other key is staying healthy, physically and mentally. Wiser municipalities focus on preventive care. At the Kadokawa Care Centre, a sleek facility in a former school in Toyama, north-west of Tokyo, septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians splash through a swimming pool and pump away at exercise machines. "If not for this place, I'd be in a nursing home," gushes Kyoda Taketoshi, an 82-year-old. The socialisation is no less important. "It cost a lot to build this place, but it was worth it," says Saito Yoneaki, 80, before skipping off to join friends in the sauna. Although Japan's healthy life expectancy trails overall life expectancy by eight to 12 years, the gap fell slightly between 2010 and 2016.
The birth rate is harder to change. It fell to 1.34 in 2020, far below the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. Even if Japan could raise it, rural areas would still struggle. One study reckons more than half of Japan's 1,700 municipalities could vanish by 2040, as young people, especially women, leave. Yet though a return to growth is unlikely in most regions, there is an alternative to outright disappearance: a critical core of newcomers. Even a handful of transplants can revitalise an ageing town without replacing the population entirely, notes Mr Iio.
Gojome is a good example. Although the population has been shrinking, "a new wind is blowing in the town", says Watanabe Hikobe, its mayor. Over the past decade a small group of young outsiders has arrived, drawn by visions of a slow, bucolic life, and the chance to try new models of untethered work and communal living. Yanagisawa Ryu, a 34-year-old with a computer-science degree from Japan's leading university, ditched his job in Tokyo and became a "social entrepreneur". He oversees Babame Base, a business hub in an empty school in Gojome that hosts a graphic-design studio, an ecotourism outfit, a local doctor and a firm that trains farmers to use drones, among others.
Such " urban migrants " are still a relative rarity. Mr Yanagisawa admits his university friends find his lifestyle choices "weird". But in many ways, they are the vanguard. "Rather than trying to recreate the past, we have to think: what kind of community, what kind of town do we want now?" says Mr Kudo. They are not the only outsiders moving in. ■
Japan On the front line
- A country that is on the front line
- Why Japan needs more forceful defence
- Japan has a chequered record on climate change
- The big city that is also pleasant to live in
- An ageing country shows others how to manage
- Japan's economy is stronger than many realise
- Letting more migrants in by stealth
- The future could be brighter
This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline “The old country”
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