Living in Rural Areas in Japan - and their Demographic and Economic Challenges
Rural Japan is often overlooked by tourists and people working in Japan alike, usually in favor of larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Life in the Japanese countryside has its own unique appeal, however, and is very different from urban areas in the country.
Known to locals and expats as the inaka, the countryside has a relaxed pace, warm people, and lower cost of living. It also has beautiful scenery, and is an excellent place to take a vacation or go backpacking. But it also has challenges like aging populations and fewer jobs.
That of course is true for anywhere in the world, but the Japanese countryside has its own unique traits, pace of life, and values that are less commonly seen in other parts of the island nation.
Most foreigners experience the countryside through various English teaching programs, in particular the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), which is well known for having rural placements.
I myself lived in a small town in rural Kyushu for two years, which was how I got to experience the inaka firsthand.
The Graying Demographics are All Too Real
Depopulation was a major problem in the small Japanese town in which I lived. I was part of JET for two years, and my placement was in one of the most rural areas in the entire country.
Japan's demographic crisis is something you might not notice if you're in the major cities. But head to anywhere else and you'll notice it almost right away. Even a lot of mid-sized cities in Japan will not have nearly the same youthful population as the largest cities in the country.
In the Japanese countryside, it's even worse. In my rural placement it was rare to see anyone between the ages of 18 and 40. There were nearly three times as many senior citizens as 20 year olds - most young people moved out to attend University, and few returned. The downtown area of the biggest city in my prefecture had an overabundance of elderly people - and this was supposed to be the most urban and exciting area in the entire region.
Senior citizens outnumbering younger people can make your social life a bit difficult if you are a 20-something coming to Japan to teach English - it took a while to start making friends my own age.
However, it can still provide good opportunities for international exchange. Part of my job in the small town I lived in, for example, involved giving presentations about foreign cultures to senior citizens' groups in the city. (In fact, while other groups could request presentations from me, I only ever received them from elderly groups - another telltale sign of my city's demographics). They were often provincial in their thinking but still curious and eager to learn about the outside world.
That Doesn't Mean No One is Having Kids
On the contrary, my countryside town in particular was known as an excellent place to have kids, and while it may not be the case for the rest of Japan, where I lived had plenty of children even if they were vastly outnumbered by senior citizens.
Japan in general is a very conservative society, and this is even truer for its rural areas. Many Japanese people in major cities put off marriage until their 30s; in my town it was rare to see an unmarried woman past 25 years of age.
Locals tended to marry and have children very young; some of my coworkers in their 30s were already married for 7 or 8 years by the time I met them. Seeing Japanese families at my favorite local spots, like cafes and sushi restaurants, who already had 2 or 3 kids in tow was not uncommon.
Rural Japan is Very Economically Depressed and Has Fewer Jobs
There are several reasons for the severe economic hardships faced by many rural regions in the country. The aforementioned demographics crisis is certainly one of them - but why is it that so many young people are leaving in such high numbers? The answer lies in the lack of opportunities - there are relatively few places to go to college or start a career. Where I lived had two proper colleges in the entire prefecture, with a handful of technical and agricultural schools, and very few if any major companies. Most of the young people who stay behind are in working class professions. (Interestingly enough, most of the college educated folks I knew were older, which makes sense - they came from a time without such challenges, and thus would be able to start careers in their hometowns).
This is reflected in the architecture and infrastructure - very few trains were available, and the buildings in my prefecture were noticeably old and worn, giving even the most urban areas a decidedly dystopian feel. Aside from a few local tourist spots and hangouts, there was remarkably little in the way of leisure or entertainment.
It's Still Worth Seeing
Most people will never get to see a Japan outside of the major urban areas. It's understandable in a sense - why spend the time and money on something that might not be much of a tourist experience?
And if you have the opportunity to live in work and Japan, most people will opt for the bigger cities for better educational and career opportunities, not to mention the more exciting social life.
But for those few who get the opportunity - again, usually through a teaching program like JET - it's worth trying even for just a short time. And even then, there are some rural areas in Japan - such as Shikoku and southern Kyushu - that have excellent tourist spots.
I myself could never live in the Japanese countryside long term, but I am thankful for the experiences my time on JET gave me, even with all its frustrations. You will gain a new level of insight and empathy for a foreign culture that you just can't in Japan's more cosmopolitan cities.