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 second-grade class at the Kami Hinokinai school has only three children and their teacher, due to Japan's low birthrate. The school is to close in 2007.
(Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)
Charts show the decline of Japan's population, which has hit rural areas and small towns particularly hard.
The junior high, which ceased operation six years ago because of a shortage of children, now houses a community center for the elderly. Suzuki comes to pass her time sipping green tea and weaving straw baskets with other aging villagers.
"I never imagined this school would close and that I would be back here myself," said Suzuki, a farmer's widow who lives with her 52-year-old son. 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.
In the aftermath of World War II, the rush to build a modern economy sparked migration from rural towns such as Nishiki to Japan's urban centers. But officials say the lure of the big city is no longer the key factor driving depopulation. For at least the past decade, the leading cause of the town's shrinking population base has been a disturbingly low birthrate.
Last year, 42 babies were born in Nishiki, the lowest number since the town was incorporated in the 1950s, while 75 villagers died, according to local statistics. Nishiki's plight, analysts said, could be an omen of Japan's future.
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.
Many people are asking: Will there be enough Japanese left to participate in the economy in the years to come?
"A nation requires a certain scale in the population to continue its momentum, but in Japan, we are confronting a serious combination of a low birthrate and an aging nation," said Kota Murase, a deputy director at Japan's Education Ministry. "Our pension system is already being tested to its limits. And with fewer young people in society, the question is: How are we going to sustain the elderly and the nation's future? We don't have a clear answer yet."
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. An estimated 63,000 teachers have lost their jobs. Even as the percentage of people over 65 steadily climbs, an estimated 300 more schools a year are scheduled to shut their doors over the next several years -- including Nishiki's 122-year-old Kami Hinokinai Elementary School, whose final graduating class will leave in 2007.
"We simply can't go on as we are," said Nishiki's mayor, Chiyoshi Tashiro, 55. "We don't have enough children being born to continue as an independent village. It is sad, but it is our reality."
The baby shortage is altering Japanese society and traditions. In Kisawa, a town on Japan's Shikoku island, elders at the Unai Shrine have long called out the names of newborns at their autumn festival for happiness and health. Last year, there were no new babies to announce.
The lavish department stores of Tokyo have begun eliminating their rooftop playgrounds, replacing them with cafes and picnic areas for adults and the elderly. Over the past decade, 90 theme parks designed for children have closed in Japan; in the same period, Disney opened a popular sea-themed amusement park just outside Tokyo that targets adults more than children and allows the sale of alcohol.