Photographer James Whitlow Delano has lived in Japan for many years. Coming from a part of the United States made of exurbs and gentrified farms, he has always found it baffling that a bucolic paradise could exist so close to the claustrophobic urban madness of Tokyo, where he and his wife live.

But he has found that such places do exist. And he told In Sight about one of those areas, which he recently visited:

“On the fringes of urban sprawl are depopulating geriatric villages … set right beside worker-bee lowlands where people live cheek to jowl in tiny apartments and houses in a space-starved nation with traditions intimately connected to nature.”

Delano said that Japan is losing its younger population through an exodus and that if things do not change by 2040, “nearly half of Japan’s municipalities could vanish altogether.” He noted that, according to the Japan Policy Council, 869 municipalities are at risk.

Delano told In Sight that, according to Toshiaki Nishino of the Takasaki City University of Economics Research Institute, this depopulation is most acute in the country’s mountain villages, where life has always been more difficult than in its urban centers.

One of several complicating factors began in the 1960s with the switch from coal to natural gas as the main source of electrical power for Japanese houses. Some of the mountain villages depended for income on coal mining, and that loss meant fewer job opportunities.

In addition, the proximity of these villages to some of Japan’s largest cities only helped accelerate an exodus of young people. As Delano told In Sight in an email exchange:

“One by one, dominos in the mountain economy fell sending these villages into terminal decline and younger generations have voted with their feet and started new lives elsewhere. … In these ‘genkai shuraku,’ or marginal villages, lacking opportunity, where broadband never arrived, no sewage lines, we see exactly what rural depopulation in an aging society looks like — villages resemble lonely Hollywood backlots full of empty houses.”

Delano’s work as a photographer has taken him all around the world. But he has also set his lens on his immediate surroundings, like this latest work from his adopted home country. He said he has always “sought out the end of the road and beyond, knowing that few eyes have taken in the vanishing cultural gems found there.”

This is partly also what motivated him to explore these remote villages with dwindling populations, he said. “Often, climbing up mountain roads, never widened since they were built for horses, now strewn with tree branches, stones and boulders blown or washed down by the frequent storms, I would wonder how long it would take an ambulance or police car to respond to a health emergency in one of these remote villages, where spotting an inhabitant under 70 is a rarity.”

You can see more of Delano’s work on his website, here.

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