When most westerners think of Japan, they think of a technologically-advanced society whose streets offer a window to the future. Bright lights, hovering cars, robots walking amongst humans. The reality though, is that the majority of Japan is just forest and boondocks. The boondocks in Japan are known as the inaka, and it is in the inaka where I currently find my home.
The scenery looks like something straight out of the samurai movies, and there are many aspects of life that really have not changed for hundreds of years. When you live in Japan, you live in about seven different centuries at once, not one of which being the 21st.
With a rapidly declining population and the youth’s desire to cling together and get the hell out of their hometowns, something very strange is happening. The inakas from which most everyones family came from at some point in time are evaporating. And fast.
These towns that were once teeming with life are becoming ghost towns. Villages that were once populated by tens of thousands of people a hundred years ago have dwindled down to just a few thousand. Abandoned houses are everywhere, and I myself have several friends who are the only tenants in entire apartment complexes. I have no neighbors on either side of me. Not the crammed-in Japan that occupies your imagination.
What is happening is that the youth are all heading to the major cities to find jobs. Companies have moved to the big cities, and if someone stays in the inaka, aside from becoming a teacher or working at the local town center, their really only other hope for work is working as a clerk in a convenience store. These days, staying in your hometown in your early 20’s in Japan means being isolated from all other people your age (the overwhelming majority of my neighboors are either under 15 or over 50) and having shit for work.
You can hear the tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. What is really sad about this is the life of the students here. Most of the schools that I teach at were designed to be filled by thousands, and I have seen photos of these schools from the 60’s and 70’s when they were in their years of glory. Now though, not a single one of my schools has more than 40 students. Some entire grades are only occupied by 2 or 3 students.
Every year, more and more schools in Japan are demolished as schools are merged together due to the dwindling enrollment. I pass by several abandon schools on my way to newer facilities every day on my way to work. I feel like I am living in a failed state. Commute times for students are becoming increasingly ridiculous, and many parents are packing up and heading to the bigger cities like everyone else so that their children will have more enjoyable lives and more successful futures.
In 10 to 20 years, most of the current residents of Japan’s inaka will be dead, and a repopulation of these areas anytime soon is highly unlikely. I am curious as to what Japan will become within my lifetime. Perhaps it will all one day become a monoculture of metropolis after all.
The inaka: incredibly beautiful and teeming with life. Not much of it belonging to the human species, however.