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October 7, 2015 / Karen Hill Anton

Depopulation shows its human face

Otani-san with children at local village summer festival

(January 25, 1996)

It’s more than a decade now since we left the mountain village where we lived for seven years, but it’s assumed we want to keep up with what’s happening there and in touch with our neighbors — all farmers without exception.

So my friend Motoyo calls from time to time to tell me what’s going on, what’s changed, which is never much. Mo-chan, as she is known to all, was born in the village, grew up there, went to the village school, married a man from the village, raised a family and lives there still.

The last time she called, it was to invite me to the Furusato Matsuri (hometown festival). The time before that it was to tell me two people from the village were in the hospital. Arai-san, our old neighbor, was recuperating from an illness, and Oi-san’s baby son was in the same hospital recovering from an operation for a congenital heart defect.

When I visited them Arai-san remarked how strange it seemed that the two of them, one quite old and the other very young, were in the same hospital at the same time. It did seem odd, but mostly, in that large hospital, those two people from a village that just manages to show up on local maps, seemed misplaced.

When Mo-chan called a few weeks ago and said: “I’m sorry to give you this sudden bad news, but I’m sure you would want to know: Arai-san passed away. Just yesterday. The funeral will be tomorrow.” She told me the otsuya (wake) had already been held, but if I could attend the funeral, to meet her at her house and we could walk together to Arai-san’s home.

I first wrote about Arai-san here in a column titled “Expressing individual tastes” (2.14.91) and then again when she visited me in “Enjoying old friends, new tea” (6.10.93) It was just a year ago that I saw her at her home and wrote about it in the column titled “For the love of Mo-chan and mochi” (12.8.94).

At that time, she said she was feeling much better but still wasn’t well enough to work in the fields as much as before. I remember she apologized because she “only” had a few daikon to give me. She smiled broadly when she said she and her husband had recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, adding they “didn’t do anything special.”

That day her husband came into the yard and seeing me said, “Ah, Anton-san. You don’t forget us.” And then, “There’s a question that’s been puzzling me. I’ve been thinking about that newfangled danchi (residential subdivision) where you moved to, and I’ve been trying to figure out how they get water up there on top of that hill. That’s a question that’s baffled me since they built that place. How do they get water?”

Darned if I know, I said, but I do know there is a water-processing plant, tanks and pipes, plumbing and stuff. Certainly not as straightforward as the water-gathering system in the village where there is nothing that could officially be called plumbing. There, water is collected in cisterns on the hill above the village, and piped into homes down lengths of split bamboo.

I wrote about Mr. Arai too in “Many hands make life work” (12.9.93). He was the one who had said, “Well, this boy can really sing,” speaking about John Denver the time he stayed in our home and gave an impromptu concert in the village.

Mr. Arai, who has enjoyed the status of being the eldest man in the village, will now go to live with his son’s family in town. I will never forget his expression after the funeral — he looked lost.

I have many fond memories of Mrs. Arai and when I think of her the first thing that comes to mind is her smile. And I think of her hands, seemingly impervious to the cold, washing vegetables outside in winter. She always had a good word to say, always something encouraging. A simple country woman, she had those qualities one would be happy to encounter anywhere — warmth, kindness, generosity.

When I first met her when we went to live in the village, my children were still babies — all her grandchildren were not yet born. She lived a long life, and when she died she was well into her eighth decade. But in that village, the oldest woman. the great-grandmother of the baby who was in the hospital, is approaching 100.

It seems so long ago, a memory now blurred by time, that I with my baby son bundled on my back, ate hot roasted sweet potatoes in Arai-san’s yard while we chatted about the upcoming kindergarten recital of my daughter Mie (who’s now preparing to enter college).

Twenty years is not a long time in the life of a country. Still, I feel melancholy sensing that a Japan I knew, remember and am attached to, is passing for all time. It’s a well-known fact that the rural areas are being “depopulated” — but that word has a meaning that gets caught in your throat when you know the people who populate the countryside.

Depopulation destroys the natural cycle of life the village once thrived on, causing it to lose the vibrancy of a community renewing itself.

As Mo-chan and I walked back to her house after the funeral we greeted Otani-san. I was reminded that she too, along with Arai-san and Oi-san donned kimono accompanied me to Mie’s recital.

“There are so few people in our village now,” Mo-chan said. “And of the few that are here, most are very old.”

Depopulation. This is what it is, I thought, overcome with sadness. This is what it feels like.

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POSTSCRIPT

Otani-san and Oi-san have now both died.

I don’t think there are any young families living and raising children in that village anymore. I know Mo-chan’s three daughters do not live there.

If anything, depopulation has spread. The ‘city’ nearest us is dying in front of our eyes. I remember when the shopping street had a shoe store, sporting goods, bookstore, hardware, drugstore, and much more. At one end of the shopping street you could buy taiyaki and at the other, the whiff of unagi kabayaki (charcoal grilled eel) was almost impossible to resist.

Now the shops that aren’t shuttered are kept open simply because people own the property — they cannot be said to be carrying on anything that could be called business.

The local government doesn’t appear to have a plan. Certainly it doesn’t have a vision for revitalizing the area, or they would surely have realized that offering the commercial area to people creating and selling handcrafts, for example, might be an idea. So often these artisans live on the margins, hardly earning enough to pursue their crafts. Offering them commercial space, at minimum or no cost, would help them maintain a livelihood, support traditional and dying crafts, while at the same time draw visitors to the area.

I recently read the national government is considering providing tax incentives to elderly people who relocate to the countryside, in an effort to “revitalize” the area. I don’t know — that seems counterintuitive to me. The inaka doesn’t need more elderly people, but young ones. It is them, with their energy, enthusiasm, and yes, vitality — that will bring revitalization.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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