ESINCE 1,495 residents of Gojome, a town in northern Japan, gathered for a morning market. One recent weekday, along a street with closed and almost empty shops, elderly vendors display their autumn wares: mushrooms and chestnuts, okra, eggplants and pears. It wasn’t always so empty, sighs Ogawa Kosei, who runs a bookstore on the street. He shows pictures taken by his father which show the scene filled with customers.
Gojome’s population has halved since 1990. More than half of its residents are over the age of 65, making it one of the oldest towns in Akita, the oldest prefecture in Japan, which is in its own right. tour the oldest country in the world. Still, Gojome is less of an outlier than an omen. According to UN, each 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. UN also predicts that 55 countries, including China, will see their populations decline by 2050.
Demographic change has two drivers that are often grouped together: increasing longevity and a falling birth rate. Their convergence requires “a new map of life,” explains Akiyama Hiroko, founder of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Tokyo. The infrastructure created when the population was younger and the population pyramid more solid must be rethought, from health to housing to transport. The new reality demands a “completely different way of thinking,” says Kashiwa Kazuyori, head of Gojome’s planning department. When he started working in the 1970s, the focus was on growth. Now it is a matter of managing the decline.
Part of the challenge is that demographic change affects everyone differently. Two cities or regions may look alike from afar, but have distinct historical, cultural and environmental conditions; two people can be the same age, earn the same money, and live on the same street, but have different mental and physical health. “Context is often lacking,” says Kudo Shogo of Akita International University. He is one of dozens of young foreigners who have been welcomed to Gojome, which was a trade hub at the crossroads of agricultural districts. Comparable agriculture-focused neighbors have been less open to newcomers.
This makes it difficult to design a national policy. “There is no single model,” says Iio Jun, political scientist at HANDLES. While the national government is responsible for finances, including pensions, the new life map is best drawn from scratch. A lot of ideas come from listening to citizens, says Ms. Akiyama. “They know what the problems are and often they know how to solve them. “
One question is how aging is discussed: as a problem or a burden. “Older people feel that society doesn’t need them,” says Hatakeyama Junko, 70, head of Akita Partnership, a non-profit organization that runs a community center. Longevity in itself is not a problem, it should be celebrated. Problems arise when people lead long but unhealthy, lonely or dependent lives. The goal in Japan has shifted from increasing life expectancy to improving “healthy and independent life expectancy,” says Akiyama.
It means finding ways for older people to continue working. Almost half of the 65-69 age group and a third of the 70-74 age group are employed. The Japanese Gerontological Society has called for reclassifying people aged 65 to 74 as “pre-old.” Ms. Akiyama talks about creating “second life workplaces”. But the work of the second life will be different from that of the first; its contribution may not be easily captured in growth statistics. “We need to strive for well-being, not just economic productivity,” says Akiyama. Experiences abound, from municipalities that train retirees to become farmers, to businesses that encourage older employees to launch startups. The elderly “want dignity and respect,” says Matsuyama Daiko of Taizo-in temple in Kyoto, which has a “second life program” that offers courses for retirees to become priests.
The other key is to stay healthy, physically and mentally. Wiser municipalities focus on preventive care. At the stylish Kadokawa Care Center, a former school in Toyama, northwest Tokyo, 70s, 80s and 90s splash about in a pool and soar on exercise machines. “Without this place, I would be in a retirement home,” exclaims Kyoda Taketoshi, 82. Socialization is no less important. “It was expensive to build this place, but it was worth it,” says Saito Yoneaki, 80, before jumping to join friends in the sauna. Although healthy life expectancy in Japan is eight to 12 years less than overall life expectancy, the gap narrowed slightly between 2010 and 2016.
The birth rate is more difficult to change. It fell to 1.34 in 2020, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Even if Japan could increase it, rural areas would still struggle. One study estimates that more than half of Japan’s 1,700 municipalities could disappear by 2040, as young people, especially women, leave. Yet while 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 revitalize an aging city without fully replacing the population, notes Iio.
Gojome is a good example. Although the population is decreasing, “a new wind is blowing in the city”, explains Watanabe Hikobe, its mayor. Over the past decade, a small group of young foreigners have arrived, drawn by visions of a slow, bucolic life, and the chance to try out new models of loose work and community living. Yanagisawa Ryu, 34, a computer science graduate from Japan’s leading university, quit his job in Tokyo and became a “social entrepreneur”. He oversees Babame Base, a business center in an empty school in Gojome that is home to a graphic design studio, an ecotourism business, a local doctor, and a business that trains farmers in the use of drones, among others.
Such “urban migrants” are still a relative rarity. Mr. Yanagisawa admits his college friends find his lifestyle choices “weird.” But in many ways, they are the vanguard. “Rather than trying to recreate the past, we need to think about: what kind of community, what kind of city do we want now? Mr. Kudo said. They are not the only foreigners to settle. ■
This article appeared in the Special Feature section of the print edition under the title “Le vieux pays”