Japan has two big problems: an aging population and declining birthrates.
This problem can have effects as wide ranging as local governments going into bankruptcy to little towns becoming ghost towns.
For Yubari, a city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and once known as Japan’s capital of coal, this challenge is a reality.
In a recent article, The Guardian‘s Richard Hendy visited the town and reports that although the town is a doing a lot to stay alive it’s also learning how to die gracefully:
“What does the future hold for Yubari? More of the same: between 2010 and 2040, the population is projected to shrink by another two-thirds. The grand folly of monument-driven tourism is over, the lessons expensively, ruinously, learned. The city’s 2012 master plan calls for an orderly retreat from the fringes to the core, with the emphasis on preventative healthcare for the old, who will increasingly have to tend to the very old. Yubari is in its last throes now, learning, with the occasional slip but a certain grace, how to die with dignity,” Richard Hendy.
Yubari is the oldest city in Japan, demographically speaking. The average age was 57 in 2010 and it will rise to 65 by 2020, according to Hendy. Yubari has also faced a high debt burden and financial troubles due to their older citizens and declining infrastructure.
And in 2007, the city filed for bankruptcy and made the news when Japan’s government refused to bail them out.
But the city has changed with schools consolidated into one and branding helping to bring in tourism into the area. They have also sought out international investments with a Chinese herbal factory being built in the city and helping to bring in new jobs.
In 2011, the oldest city of Japan, Yubari elected the youngest Japanese mayor in hopes of spurring industry and finding new ways to encourage people to live in the city.
“Japan will tread the same path someday,” said mayor Naomichi Suzuki, in an 2012 interview with the New York Times. “If we can’t save Yubari, what will it mean for the rest of Japan?”
Since the 1960’s, the population has slowly dropped almost 90 per cent. With the coal mines in the area closing in the late 1980’s, the problem was exacerbated as local businesses had to switch from mining to tourism.
While Hendy writes that the town is facing an inevitable demise, Yubari serves as a microcosmic look into what Japan is facing as a whole.
With a median age of 44, a birthrate of 1.39 births per woman, and one of the world’s highest life expectancy rates it’s very might need to take a closer look at Yubari to find solutions for a national problem.
Featured image: Naomichi Suzuki is Yubari’s 33-year-old rookie mayor and he wants to save the town.