‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Enter with me, if you dare, the Humpty Dumpty world of Catherine Makino, Inter Press Service correspondent and former President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (July 2008-June 2009).
In Ms Makino’s world, “town” means “village”, when it suits, “settlement” and “hamlet” come to mean “village” and “town” when convenient, “surviving” means “dying” if needs must, and numbers must grow like Topsy, if that serves to sensationalize the story.
The article below first appeared in the LA Times in late September 2009, and was subsequently reprinted in early November in the Daily Yomiuri, a Japanese English-language rag owned by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with (allegedly) the largest circulation on the planet.
In Japan, little towns fall off the map
By Catherine Makino
Reporting from Kanna, Japan
Shop owner Hideo Sakamoto knows this sad truth about his dying town: When he retires, no one will be left to take the reins of his tiny business selling eyeglasses and clocks.
His two children have fled to big cities and his mother is bedridden. “It’s a sad story,” says the 57-year-old, “because I will not be passing down my business to my children.”
And not just that, he says. He and his wife, Mariko, are “so lonely.”
Most every day, this Japanese town surrounded by streams and mountains is eerily quiet, with only a few elderly people walking down its narrow streets.
Once a busy lumber and agricultural center, Kanna has seen its leading businesses close and its population plummet from 20,000 in the late 1970s to 2,600 today.
More than 60% of its citizens are over 65. Only about 80 children attend the two elementary and two junior high schools. For high school, most youngsters are sent to larger communities, and don’t come back to live here.
Six years ago, the towns of Manba and Nakasato merged to form Kanna in an effort to save the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the area. The town is about three hours northwest of Tokyo, and one of 62,000 government-designated dying villages.
In the last decade, about 200 communities in Japan have indeed vanished. And on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost large island, almost 10% of the towns are endangered, with half of those expected to disappear in the next 10 years.
With few jobs or social opportunities, towns like Kanna have little to offer the younger generation. Meanwhile, throughout Japan, women are marrying at a later age and fewer are choosing to have children. If the current fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman continues, the International Organization for Migration says, Japan’s population will fall to 100 million from 127 million by 2050.
Japan now has one of the world’s biggest populations of people over 65 — 22%, compared with 13% under age 15. More than two in five people living in rural villages are over 65, and older people make up more than half the populations of about 8,000 towns and villages.
In Kanna, the older adults are left to take care of the very old. For example, Kiyoshi Arai, 66, who along with his wife owns one of the few remaining restaurants in the village, watches over his 88-year-old mother, Kaoru.
Meanwhile, he says, “my daughter has already left and doesn’t want to come back.”
These days, the only jobs are in schools, the town hall or public services, says former Mayor Motoo Kuroda, 78.
“We used to have a successful lumber and farming industry, and our children followed what we did,” he said. “But the price of lumber dropped when timber became available from overseas. The huge farming enterprises undersell us.”
The town, he says, “is so different than my early days. There used to be so many people here. They would come for the lumber. But today the government for environmental reasons protects the forest. But even if we did cut the trees down, we couldn’t make enough profit.”
There are no clubs, cinemas, cafes or video shops to entice young people to stay, Kuroda says.
His four children have left. His eldest son, who just retired at age 60, promised to come back and take care of him and his wife when they get sick.
“But we don’t wish to give him any trouble,” Kuroda says.
The elderly, who are holding the town together, spend their days playing gate ball, a Japanese form of croquet, and participating in the few other community activities.
Residents say the national government isn’t doing enough to prevent Kanna from disappearing. The government gives towns a low-interest loan to keep up infrastructure, but that’s it.
Kanna’s 69-year old mayor, Tetsujuro Miyamae, believes there’s still hope for the town.
In a scheme to lure more tourists, Kanna is expanding its dinosaur museum. Opened a decade ago, it holds bones from Utah and Mongolia, as well as a newly purchased Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana. At the museum’s theater, children and their parents watch man-made dinosaurs roar across the stage.
Visitors can also hike up the mountain behind the museum and dig for fossils, though none have been found in Kanna. More than 50 footprints believed to be those of dinosaurs have been discovered over the years, however.
The town is also hoping to lure manufacturers.
On Hokkaido, one town tried, with little success, giving away plots of land to people who agreed to move there and register as official residents. Another Hokkaido town was pressed this year to advertise several of its schools on Yahoo’s auction site owing to the drastic fall in enrollment. One school was converted into a nursing home for the elderly.
Kanna hopes to avoid such a fate, and some residents say they’ll stay put. Yushi Kanbara, in his 20s, was born nearby and works at the town hall.
“I love it here,” he said. “The nature, the clean air and the fishing.”
Makino is a special correspondent.
One slow afternoon at work, a colleague, knowing of my fascination with the decay of rural Japan, handed me his copy of the Daily Yomiuri, neatly folded to this article.
As I read it, the blood began to rise. I put the newspaper down and with a few keyboard strokes, I had a fairly reliable 1980 population figure for Kanna: 5,469, from the national census-derived data on Wikipedia. So I was being asked to believe that due to some unacknowledged catastrophe, Kanna had lost roughly three-quarters of its population in five years. That just doesn’t happen, not in Japan, not anywhere in the world, except when a volcano blows, an underground coalmine catches fire, or a similar calamity occurs. Demography is almost always glacial yet remorseless—that’s its appeal.
“Thanks for the article”, I said, handing it back to my colleague, “but sadly it’s complete bullshit”.
I let it lie for a few days, then tried to track down Ms Makino via a mail, sent from my work address, to the FCCJ. An hour or so later, I got a call. After the preliminaries, I suggested there were a few things wrong with the article.
“The population wasn’t around 20,000 in the late 1970s”.
“There was a sign in the Town Hall. I took a photo of it”.
“And the elderly ratio isn’t around 60%, it’s around 50%”.
“The mayor told me”.
“And I think you’ll find that one of the villages is called ‘Nakazato’, not ‘Nakasato’”. [I'm no longer convinced that I have this 100% right, but never mind.]
“Oh, did I misspell that?”
She didn’t seem particularly concerned about anything I had to say. I found it an odd breach of contemporary etiquette that she should have phoned in response to a mail.
Later that day, I received a follow-up mail.
Sent: Monday, November 16, 2009 2:55 PM
Subject: Thanks from Catherine
Just a short note to thank you for your comments since it’s always good to hear from readers.
Please feel free to contact me anytime.
I found this surpassingly strange, as all I had done was lament the inaccuracies in her article. I guess she really hadn’t listened to a word I said.
The next day, I sent her the following mail.
Date: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 9:50 PM
Apologies for the delayed response; busy day at work. Allow me to deal with a few of the points in your Kanna article in turn and at more length than we were able to do over the phone.
1) “Kanna has seen its leading businesses close and its population plummet from 20,000 in the late 1970s to 2,600 today”
Attached is a spreadsheet showing the population of all of Gunma’s towns, cities, and villages from 1960 to 1985. You can access the raw data here:
If you know which buttons to press and can read csv files.
Simply adding together the population data for Kanna’s two constituent towns gives the following results:
I’m not seeing any population of around 20,000 in the late 1970s.
The town’s own website:
“The population of both villages, while once above 10,000, has currently fallen to 3,200″
Note the “once”.
I await the photo you say you have of a sign in the town hall with the 20,000 figure with interest!
2) “More than 60% of its citizens are over 65″
Go to the town’s homepage here:
and scroll down on the left and you’ll see the town’s own estimate of its 高齢者比率 is 50.2%.
On the phone, you gave me the impression that i) the difference between 50% and 60% is trivial and that ii) the mayor told you.
The difference between 50% and 60% is actually very important – at 60%, you are one of the very oldest municipalities in Japan, at 50% you’re an also-ran.
I find it interesting that the mayor didn’t know what his own elderly ratio was, assuming that 60% is what he told you.
3) “Only about 80 children attend the two elementary and two junior high schools”
Amazingly, as far as I can tell, there’s only one of each, but we’ll let that slide for now.
4) “The town is about three hours northwest of Tokyo, and one of 62,000 government-designated dying villages”
I’m not entirely sure how a town can be a (dying) village? Perhaps you could enlighten me?
I finally found the source for this – it comes from a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism (not the MHLW, as you said on the phone) report from January 2007.
You can access it here
The survey targeted 62,000+ “shuraku” in areas designated as “kaso”. “Kaso” does not mean “dying”, it means depopulated, or really an area suffering from more or less severe population decline.
“Shuraku” does not mean “village” in English, it is a geographical term meaning “settlement”. 10% of the shuraku in the survey had fewer than 10 households. Are they really villages? Another 19% had fewer than 20 households. And another 15% had fewer than 30 households. So nearly half the survey was of what you and I would in real life call hamlets.
More important than that, the survey has a section (p12) on 今後消滅の可能性集落数, or the number of settlements expected to disappear in the future.
Of the 62,271 settlements surveyed, 422 were expected to disappear in the next decade and 2,219 “eventually” (いずれ). On the other hand, 55,085, or 83.6% of the total were expected to survive (存続). So instead of your “62,000 government-designated dying villages”, we have just 2,641 dying settlements, or just 4.25% of the number you gave.
5) “And on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost large island, almost 10% of the towns are endangered, with half of those expected to disappear in the next 10 years”
Extraordinary stuff. Towns? On Hokkaido? 5%? Disappear? In a decade? I am eagerly awaiting the source for this.
6) “Another Hokkaido town was pressed this year to advertise several of its schools on Yahoo’s auction site owing to the drastic fall in enrollment. One school was converted into a nursing home for the elderly.”
This is just me being picky, but this reads as though Niikappu sold one of the schools on the auction site and it ended up as a home for the elderly.
We know that’s not true, don’t we?
Your Kanna essay is coming very close to being Spiked, as have several pieces from your contemporaries.
I don’t, you might be surprised to learn, take great pleasure in this, I find it kind of wearying and distracting. But I do have this stubbornly old-fashioned belief that journalists should double-check their facts and try their best not to inflate, distort, and dissimulate in the interest of a good story. Besides anything else, it’s not in your long-term interest to lie.
All the best,
I was shocked, I tell you, shocked, not to get a response from Ms Makino.
I decided to go and check out Kanna for myself, to see if our heroine had really been there, as by now I was having serious doubts. In all fairness, she had.
Date: Tuesday, November 25, 2009 9:22 PM
You’ve gone all quiet on me. Still, I’ll take you up on your kind offer, expressed in an earlier mail: “please feel free to contact me anytime”.
I took advantage of the glorious weather on the Monday of the long weekend to take a little trip out to Kanna myself—you had really stoked my interest in the place.
I had my doubts—of course—that you had actually been there, but I realized as soon as I found Sakamoto san’s watch and clock shop that you indeed had. Congratulations on making it out there, it must be one of the most inaccessible places within a couple of hundred kilometers of Tokyo. Of course, if I had higher expectations of the foreign press corps, you wouldn’t need to be congratulated on doing the bare minimum, but there we go.
Sakamoto san is a charming if garrulous chap, isn’t he? I felt for his predicament.
He also knows his facts about his own town—when I told him you had claimed Kanna’s population was over 20,000 in the late 1970s, he immediately knew that was wrong. “Oh no, it was about 5,000″, he said. I also told him that you had put Kanna’s elderly ratio at 60%. “Oh no, that’s wrong. It’s about 50%.”
Amazing that he knew the right percentage and yet you claimed on the phone to me that the mayor had told you otherwise. He also confirmed that there is only one elementary school and one junior high school in Kanna.
What now mystifies me is why, having gone to all the trouble of actually visiting Kanna, complete with your assistant/helper/secretary/sidekick/partner—forgive me, I don’t know your preferred expression—you managed to completely flub the article. Was Kanna just not sensational enough?
On rereading your article and after visiting Kanna, I have a few more queries that I’d like to take up with you.
1) “For high school, most youngsters are sent to larger communities, and don’t come back to live here”
This now completely bewilders me, as there is a high school in Manba, only a few hundred yards from Sakamoto san’s shop:
2) “In the last decade, about 200 communities in Japan have indeed vanished”
In the absence of a source, I’m going to assume that you took this from the MLIT survey.
The MLIT survey gives a total of 61 settlements that had vanished in the 7 years since the last survey.
That gives a decade run-rate of around 78 settlements, not your 200.
3) “And on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost large island, almost 10% of the towns are endangered, with half of those expected to disappear in the next 10 years.”
I’ll assume that his is also from the MLIT survey. Please advise me otherwise. The survey says 5.3% of settlements (not towns) on Hokkaido are expected to disappear sooner or later, with 0.6% expected to disappear in the next decade. 0.6% of settlements (which can be of fewer than 10 households) is a long way from your 5% of towns, wouldn’t you agree?
4) “More than two in five people living in rural villages are older than 65, and older people make up more than half the populations of about 8,000 towns and villages”
Well, I don’t know what a “rural” village is, sadly, so I can’t check the first half of this sentence, but the second half I’m sure comes from the same MLIT survey, which has the figure at 8,298. Again though, these are settlements, not towns or villages.
Your headline numbers, the big ones, are precisely, up-to-the-minute correct—the overall over-65 percentage is indeed 22%, and the overall under-15 percentage is indeed 13%. Your other numbers are without exception wrong.
I’m beginning to see a pattern here, wouldn’t you agree? The numbers you think you can easily inflate without anyone noticing you do, the ones that you think someone might notice, you don’t.
I was eagerly awaiting your response to my last mail, but none came. I can think of several plausible rebuttals you might have tried—”it was all my sidekick’s fault”, “it was all lost in translation, as I can’t really speak Japanese” (as Sakamoto san confirmed)—but nothing was forthcoming.
All the best,
I shudder to delve into the other violence unleashed on the English language in this article, from the first sentence on: “Shop owner Hideo Sakamoto knows this sad truth about his dying town: When he retires, no one will be left to take the reins of his tiny business selling eyeglasses and clocks.” This is not a “truth” about the “dying town” – it is a “truth” about his family! Kanna will not die, anyway, even if it merges with another municipality. I can predict with almost complete confidence that there will be people living in Kanna after Ms Makino pops her clogs. So then I guess Ms Makino must be a “dying journalist”. Certainly her profession faces extinction if it carries on this way.
I won’t attempt to tackle the highly dubious statements: nobody in their right mind would think for a minute that “the towns of Manba and Nakasato merged to form Kanna in an effort to save the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the area”! They did it primarily to save money through economies of scale, although as Sakamoto san lamented to me, “we were the smallest town in Gunma when Manba merged with Nakazato, the smallest village in Gunma, and we’re still the smallest town…”
What Kanna and its neighboring former lumber towns are going through now is the final stage of extreme population loss caused largely by the rapid collapse of the Japanese timber industry as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s. They are tiny and not representative, though there is absolutely no denying that most of the rest of rural Japan is going through its own, albeit mostly more moderate, depopulation trauma.
Perhaps the truest line in the whole article comes at the end, not from Ms Makino – that would be impossible – but courtesy of the LA Times:
“Makino is a special correspondent”
I’ll say she is!
This is the last in the Spiked Japan series; needling junk-writing journalists is a worthy cause, but noone’s listening, and even I don’t have the time to waste on the irredeemable dross that journalistas like La Makino put out. Caveat emptor.
[With many thanks to Y.K. for the Gunma population data.]