NISHIKI, Japan—When Kami Hinokinai Junior High opened half a century ago in this picturesque northern village, Fukuyo Suzuki, then a young mother, remembers joining other parents on a warm May afternoon to plant pink azaleas in the schoolyard.
The azaleas are still here, though bare in the winter snow and, like the new occupants of the school, more fragile than they once were.
In a nation grappling with a record low birthrate and the world’s longest average lifespan, Suzuki, 77, is spending the daytime hours of her twilight years back in the halls of her son’s old school.
The junior high, which ceased operation six years ago because of a shortage of children, now houses a community center for the elderly.
Like one out of four men in Nishiki, her son remains single and childless. “Now, I hear our elementary school is going to close, too,” she said. “It’s so sad for us. Children are vanishing from our lives.”
The change at the junior high in this shrinking village of 5,924 is an example of what analysts describe as Japan’s greatest national problem, a combination baby bust and senior citizen boom.
Indeed, next year Nishiki is set to pay the highest price for its shrinking population: Unable to sustain its annual budget, it will join a growing list of Japanese towns that have officially ceased to exist and have merged with a neighboring city.
The national child shortage, even as the population ages, is raising fears about Japan’s long-term ability to maintain its status as the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.
With more Japanese choosing to remain single and forgoing parenthood, the population of almost 128 million is expected to decrease next year, then plunge to about 126 million by 2015 and about 101 million by 2050.
Japan’s disappearing schools are emblematic of the problem. More than 2,000 elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide have been forced to close over the past decade.
The number of elementary and junior high students fell from 13.42 million in 1994 to 10.86 million last year.
About 63,000 teachers have lost their jobs.
The list of solutions is short and complicated. The most obvious—opening Japan to more immigration—is enormously controversial in a society that is 98.8 percent ethnically homogeneous and, in many respects, still markedly xenophobic.
Some farmers in Nishiki who have failed to find Japanese women willing to live traditional lives in rural villages have sought brides in China instead.
But village officials said several of the Chinese women fled after they failed to win the acceptance of their new in-laws.
When a baby is born in Nishiki, it is huge news. Last August, Yuna Wakamatsu arrived in a part of the community where no child had been born for 10 years.
Traditionally, only women would come calling, offering gifts of food and money.
But the men also turned out this time, showering Yuna with so many gifts that they now fill the Wakamatsus’ one-room home.