Castaways of Oblivion

Predisposed to the media images of overpopulation, traffic congestion, and glittery commercial centers, it is widely assumed that Japan has “too many people and too little land [1].” But these familiar images of overcrowded megalopolises are persistently maintained, so that they cut people off from an often forgotten fact. More than half (51.7%) of Japanese territory is classified as kaso areas, predominantly rural, underdeveloped, and largely afflicted by serious depopulation [2] (see the map below). In sharp contrast to the urban cities, these communities are increasingly socially and economically desolate.

Map of Japan showing the Kaso areas (click to enlarge)Despite the significance of the rural decline, kaso issues have not gained much attention outside of Japan. In recent years, Japan has disputed with other countries over the sovereignty and ownership of dislocated or sparsely inhabited territories [3]. It is ironic, therefore, and perhaps even puzzling that Japan seems to attach so much national identity, pride, and strength to those rarely habitable territories. Meanwhile, the country is losing its cultivated national territory (its productive resources) because depopulated villages are becoming abandoned or extinct and the forests are reclaiming the rural lands [4], hence half of the country, including zones of human habitation, are being discounted and overlooked. However, kaso villages do matter. I will explain why by describing socio-demographic effects of rural abandonment and the government’s inefficient or ill-judged interventions.

Alarming demographic imbalance

First, Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world, with the highest life expectancy and one of the lowest birthrates. A very problematic issue is that population aging is disproportionately concentrated in rural areas. Approximately 5% of the total population live in kaso areas and over one third of the rural population is the elderly [5]. Of critical concern is that genkai shuraku or “the villages that have reached their limits,” labeled by the sociologist Akira Ohno at the University of Nagano, are on the rise. These villages have been afflicted by large scale out-migration and demographic aging (more than 50% of the population are aged 65 and older), and thus have diminished community capacity [6]. Without renewed demographic and economic dynamism, these genkai shuraku do not have adequate operating budgets and capacities, and therefore they are almost unable to retain themselves or to survive. Ohno estimates that there will be 51 genkai municipalities in 2015 and 144 in 2030; these 144 municipalities are mostly located in remote mountain areas and in isolated islands. While the population decline continues in many municipalities (2066 out of 3246 existing municipalities), ironically, Tokyo keeps the world’s largest urban agglomeration (over 35 millions people during the daytime) with hyper-pricy real estate values; nearly one third of the total Japanese population live in Tokyo and the adjacent six prefectures [7].

Kaso villages forced to fend for themselves

Second, a combination of aging and depopulation (low population density) only adds to economic and fiscal difficulties of rural municipalities. An average kaso municipality has only 30% of the national average of annual expenditures and revenue (see the websites of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Cabinet office). Under the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which promoted structural reform and decentralization efforts, the Government has cut subsidies, grants, and tax redistribution (for example, the chihou koufuzei, or local allocation tax) to local governments, while promising to give them more autonomy to govern and to collect taxes directly [8] [9]. Yet, because of previous out-migration, a diminishing working population, and economic stagnation, rural municipalities cannot collect much in the way of tax revenues. Not to mention, the Government has been cutting back its safety net of pensions and welfare benefits for the elderly, while pushing to move toward a more “self-sufficient” system of social services. In other words, under the guise of structural reform, the administration has transferred responsibility from the central government to the vulnerable localities without securing decentralization power and resources, economic means, and collective abilities of these villages to adapt to socio-demographic changes.

Vulnerable rural elderly

Third, the vulnerabilities of the rural elderly have been unrecognized and under-addressed in public policy (cf. Ohno’s work). Although population aging affects all of Japan, the biggest challenge lies in the area of the high concentration of the elderly in kaso villages. Many older people stay healthy and independent, though some become frail as they grow older and need more medical attention. Paradoxically, these isolated depopulated villages have underdeveloped medical and related infrastructures (e.g., far away from a doctor and pharmacy, very limited home care services such as meal preparation, little public transportation, a lack of basic comforts such as telecommunication and a flush toilet) which inescapably amplify the challenges associated with aging.

An “unfair egalitarian” remedy

A critical problem is the lack of service provision in rural areas. Responding to the increasing care needs of the aged, in April 2001 the Japanese government launched kaigo hoken or mandatory long-term care insurance (LTCI). Despite its fair and egalitarian principle, older people face disparities among the insurance premium rates, which vary among municipalities [10]. In the kaso municipalities afflicted by the fiscal difficulties, the rural residents have to pay higher premiums than urban residents. For example, in 2006 the residents in Nanamune town in the Gifu prefecture paid 2200 yen per month, which was the lowest premium, whereas the counterpart in Yanakuni town in Okinawa paid 6600 yen, which was the highest amount, or 2.77 times higher than the former prefecture [11].

Where for-profit senior service providers do not want to go?

Furthermore, regional disparities in terms of quantity and quality of care services are even more pronounced. With the aims of improving the quality of elderly services and increasing consumer choice, the Government has employed the business-oriented approach that was expected to stimulate service competition in the quasi-market. However, they might not have taken market failures into account. The for-profit companies have not found a lucrative market in kaso areas, hence they often withdraw services and leave these areas [12]. Consequently, it is known for remote rural people that regional disparities have been reinforced under the current scheme of LTCI.

Kaso villages inconveniently situated

In sum, the Central government has been ineffective in addressing kaso area’s special vulnerabilities. These villages are isolated and inconveniently situated, but the kaso plight may be conveniently distant, hundreds of kilometers away from Tokyo’s administrative district. It is easy for the rest of Japan to keep kaso areas remote and out of touch until awful consequences or scandalous media coverage erupt; recall the hot summer of 2003 which claimed 15,000 older people’s lives in France [13] and Chicago’s unbearable heat wave in 1995 which claimed 521 lives of the solitary elderly [14]. These catastrophic events provided a severe critique of governments’ inadequate interventions and morally embarrassed many people.

The problems of Japan’s depopulated villages are not only policy issues, but also moral issues.  It is not fair to dismiss kaso problems as a distant misery.  As we continue to live within the comfort of our own homes, kaso residents choose to live in their villages, though it does not mean they deserve more burdens and less benefits in society. When the issues of the unevenness of development and regional disparities are critically analyzed from the egalitarian and fair constitutional point of view, which asserts the equity of citizens (equity that Japan cherishes), we cannot say that economic and social benefits and effective opportunities are justly distributed. Hence, we can draw a logical and obvious conclusion; the government (representative of the whole society) owes responsibilities to the members of the society, namely kaso people to promote their well-being.


[1] Knight, J. and Traphagan, J. (2003) ‘The study of the family in Japan: Integrating anthropological and demographic approaches’, in J. Traphagan and J. Knight (Eds.), Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society, State University of New York Press, Albany, p.10

[2] [5] Kaso taisaku kenkyuukai (Ed.) (2004) Kaso taisaku databook, 2004, Marui Kobunsha, Tokyo, p. 4. *Map of kaso is based on this book, page 4.

Also, visit the site by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

[3] Koo, M G. (2005) ‘Economic dependence and the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between South Korea and Japan’, Harvard Asia Quarterly, 4(4). Available at

[4] Knight, J. (2003) ‘Repopulating the village?’, in J. Traphagan and J. Knight (Ed.), Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp.107-124.

[6] [7] Ohno, A. (2005) Sanson Kankyo Shakaigaku Jyosetsu (Introduction sociologique à l’environnement des villages de montagne), Nousanryousonn bunnka kyokai, Tokyo, pp. 11, 22-23.


[9] Onishi, N. (2006) ‘Village Writes Its Epitaph: Victim of a Graying Japan’ in the New York Times, April 30.

[10] [12] Nakai, K. (2003) Kaigo hoken : chiiki kakusa wo kangaeru (Une assurance dépendance : réflexions sur la disparité régionale), Iwanami shoten, Tokyo.

[11] Sankei shinbun, April 29, 2007.

[13] Pitaud, P. (Ed.) (2004) Solitude et isolement des personnes âgées. Editions érès, Saint-Agne.

[14] Klinenberg, E. (2002) Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Interesting link: Global Action on Aging