NIYODOGAWA, Japan - Last weekend this dying town held a party, so its few remaining residents awoke at sunrise, headed up winding mountain roads and convened at the usual spot, where, for 217 years, they and their ancestors have gathered annually to celebrate their gods and assault their livers.
Many participants describe the Akiba Matsuri as the highlight of the year, and it combines the best elements of a holiday, a circus performance and a frat party. But lately, it has also come to resemble a wake. Niyodogawa, like so many places in rural Japan, is shrinking and aging, doomed by its demographics. Half the local population is 65 or older. This year, one local high school will graduate a class of six. No private companies offer jobs, so young adults face what amounts to mandatory banishment.
Viewed from up close, at least, Japan's great rural-to-urban migration - hastened by two lost decades of economic stagnation - carries the weight of a terminal condition, and those in Niyodogawa no longer talk about solutions or reversals. There is only a dull ache, with a town in consensus that its future isn't really a future. "I wish I could say there was hope," Niyodogawa school superintendent Toshumitsu Ono said, "but if I answer honestly I do not see it."
The Akiba Matsuri festival fits into this only because it's the one thing in Niyodogawa (pop. 6,868 - after nine deaths and one birth in December 2010) that hasn't yet changed. For some, this delivers a sense of pride: Just look at what the town still has. For others, it invokes dread: Just look at what the town stands to lose.
More than anything, though, the festival has assumed a central role in Niyodogawa's modest attempts for preservation. Fathers teach their sons about the elaborate traditions, with this inherent message: Even when you live somewhere else one day, come here once a year to these mountains in Southwest Japan and keep this tradition going.
The Akiba Matsuri festival has been going on for so long that much of its logic has been lost. Men don feline costumes and hideous masks; children dance with one another, thrashing real swords; about a dozen men haul a portable shrine up a mountain, nearly collapsing at points along the way from exhaustion; six particularly acrobatic honorees march along the same path while dancing with 25-foot poles, made all the more unwieldy by tufts of rooster feathers on one end. Occasionally, the men toss these poles back and forth, their failure to maim one another all the more impressive when one considers the numerous sake shots they took well before lunchtime.
But already, the Akiba Matsuri festival has had to adjust merely to remain the same; now even former residents are called on to take part. Participation used to be restricted to those who lived in a mountainside town called Beshi. Today, Beshi is a rubblelike collection of 60-year-old wooden houses; it has 100 residents and no children. Some 80 percent of those residents, municipal officials say, are elderly people living alone.