Desperately seeking young people
There aren’t many, and cities are growing desperate
MIEKO TERADA moved to Tama in 1976, at about the same time as everyone else there. Back then, the fast-growing city in Tokyo’s suburban fringe was busy with young married couples and children. These days, however, the strip of shops where Ms Terada runs a café is deathly quiet, her clientele elderly. The people of Tama and their apartments are all growing old and decrepit at the same time, she says.
In the mid-1990s Japan had a smaller proportion of over-65s than Britain or Germany. Thanks to an ultra-low birth rate, admirable longevity and a stingy immigration policy, it is now by far the oldest country in the OECD. And senescence is spreading to new areas. Many rural Japanese villages have been old for years, because young people have left them for cities. Now the suburbs are greying, too.
Between 2010 and 2040 the number of people aged 65 or over in metropolitan Tokyo, of which Tama is part, is expected to rise from 2.7m to 4.1m, at which point one-third of Tokyo residents will be old. In Tama, ageing will be even swifter. The number of children has already dropped sharply: its city hall occupies a former school. Statisticians think the share of people over 65 in Tama will rise from 21% to 38% in the three decades to 2040. The number of over-75s will more than double.
The city’s inhabitants have already been spooked by an increasing number of confused old people wandering around. By 2025, officials in Tama predict, almost one in four elderly residents will be bedridden and one in seven will suffer from dementia. And the city is hardly ideal for old people. It is built on steep hills, and the five-storey apartment blocks where many of the residents live do not have lifts.
For Tama, though, the most worrying effects of ageing are fiscal. Two-thirds of the city’s budget goes on social welfare, which old people require lots of. They do not contribute much to the city’s coffers in return. Although Japan’s central government redistributes money between municipalities, much of what local governments spend comes from local residency taxes, which fall only lightly on pensioners. In short, says Shigeo Ito, the head of community health in Tama, it pays for a place to avoid growing too old.
So, as well as providing more in-home care and laying on aerobics classes to keep people fit enough to climb all those stairs, Tama is once again trying to lure young families. With a developer, Brillia, it has already razed 23 five-storey apartment blocks and put up seven towers in their place. The number of flats in the redeveloped area has almost doubled, and many are larger than before. That has attracted new residents: although the poky 40-square-metre apartments in the old blocks were sufficient for the post-war generation, modern Japanese families demand more space. Tama’s authorities intend to transform other districts in a similar way.
This is smart policy, but there is a problem with it. The number of 20- to 29-year-olds in Japan has crashed from 18.3m to 12.8m since 2000, according to the World Bank. By 2040 there might be only 10.5m of them. Cities like Tama are therefore playing not a zero-sum game but a negative-sum game, frantically chasing an ever-diminishing number of young adults and children. And some of their rivals have extremely sharp elbows.
Follow the Tama river upstream, into the mountains, and you eventually reach a tiny town called Okutama. What Tama is trying to avoid has already happened there. Okutama’s population peaked in the 1950s, as construction workers flocked to the town to build a large reservoir that supplies water to Tokyo in emergencies. It has grown smaller and older ever since.
Today 47% of people in the Okutama administrative area—the town and surrounding villages—are 65 or older, and 26% are at least 75. Children have become so scarce that the large primary school is only about one-quarter full. Residents in their 70s outnumber children under ten by more than five to one (see chart).
And Okutama’s residents are as stubborn as they are long-lived. Some of its outlying villages have become so minuscule that providing them with services is difficult, says Hiroki Morita, head of the planning and finance department. It would be better for their residents, and certainly better for the local government, if they consolidated into larger villages. But old people refuse to leave their shrunken hamlets even during heavy snowstorms, and are unlikely to move permanently just to make a bureaucrat’s life easier. The internet and home delivery help them cling on, points out Mr Morita.
Okutama has tried to promote agriculture: wasabi, a spicy vegetable that is ground up and eaten with sushi, grows well there. It hopes to appeal to families by offering free vaccinations, free school lunches and free transport. None of that has staved off ageing and decline. So now it is touting free housing. Mr Morita estimates that the town has about 450 empty homes. He wants the owners to give their homes to the town government, which they might do in order to avoid property taxes. The government will then rent the homes to young couples, the more fecund the better. If they stay for 15 years their rent will be refunded.
Although its setting, amid steep hills, is spectacular, Okutama is not a pretty town. Its houses are neither old enough to be considered beautiful nor modern enough to be comfortable. Some feature post-war wheezes like plastic siding. Still, the prospect of free accommodation some two hours’ journey from central Tokyo might tempt some young families. And in the meantime, Okutama has another plan.
A building once occupied by a junior high school, which closed for lack of pupils, is becoming a language college. Jellyfish, an education firm with tentacles in several countries, will use it to teach Japanese to young graduates from East and South-East Asia. It hopes to enroll 120 students, plus staff, which ought to make a notable difference in a district where there are now fewer than 350 people in their 20s. Some of those students might even decide they like the place, and settle down. Whisper it, but this sounds a little like a more liberal immigration policy.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “A negative-sum game”