KAMIYAMA, Japan — At first glance, Kamiyama looks like any other rural town in Japan: shuttered stores on the main street, a gas station unencumbered by customers, hunched-over old ladies tending rice fields.
But on closer inspection, this mountain village on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, also has many highly unusual attributes, such as wood-fired pizza, tech start-ups and young people.
As rural Japan battles the twin afflictions of a population that is getting smaller almost as quickly as it’s getting older, Kamiyama is one of a handful of towns that is bucking the trend. It’s practicing “creative depopulation” — trying to make sure it gets younger and more innovative, even as it shrinks, by attracting youthful newcomers who are weary of big-city life to work in new rural industries.
There’s a French bistro run by a former Apple employee, a handmade shoe atelier, an organic coffee roaster, long-haired guys in “no nukes” T-shirts and a bunch of techie types opting out of the rat race. Think of it as Japan’s answer to Portland, Ore.
“For me, it’s simple. I can have my work and my hobbies coexisting here,” says Kiyoharu Hirose, the director of a Web design company who moved here with his family a year ago from Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city. His sons are in fourth and sixth grade, and his wife works as a florist.
“Here, I can go fishing in the morning before I come to work,” said Hirose, 42, sitting on a camping chair outside his office in jeans and sneakers on a recent sunny day. “Even though it’s still May, my boys come home wet after playing by the river.”
His office is an open-plan kominka, a traditional wooden Japanese building, with big computer screens inside and racks of fishing rods outside. The only skyscrapers are cedar trees and the only noise pollution comes from birds.
About 10 steps away is his home, an old kominka, several times larger than the one they had in Osaka.
“My designer friends said there would be no work for me if I came somewhere so rural, but my work is client-oriented, so this is a great chance to try to create my own work and jobs.”
That is exactly what Shinya Ominami, a Stanford engineering graduate and Kamiyama native, had in mind when he started thinking about creating a “Green Valley” here.
“There is no way to stop the depopulation trend, so we wanted to concentrate on the quality of the population by bringing in young people and diverse working styles,” Ominami said.
It’s also an example of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government in Tokyo has in mind as it tries to stanch, if not reverse, the flow of migration into Japan’s metropolises. The Japan Policy Council, a think tank, predicted last year that a third of Japan’s 1,800 municipalities were in danger of vanishing, with the number of women of child-bearing age dropping precipitously in half of them.
Meanwhile, greater Tokyo has a population approaching 38 million. People commute long distances from tiny apartments on packed trains — at rush hour, there are even white-gloved attendants to pack people into the carriages — to work 12-hours-plus days.
But an increasing, though still tiny, number of people are opting out of this daily grind.
They are moving to Kamiyama and a handful of other towns across Japan that are seeking to attract young people, who civic officials hope will create jobs and have children there. Iketani village in Niigata, the site of a major earthquake almost a decade ago, is being resurrected by young volunteers offering eco-tourism. Amacho, on a tiny island in the Sea of Japan, was on the verge of extinction but now boasts 300 newcomers thanks to new businesses and educational programs — earning it the title “the star of remote islands.”
Kamiyama’s population has fallen from 21,000 in 1955 to about 6,000 now. But in 2011, the year when Japan’s population started to decline, Kamiyama’s numbers grew — even if by only 12 people.
With no public funding to help with traditional incentives such as tax breaks for investment, Ominami and his “Green Valley” team have had to sell the lifestyle — especially the opportunity to live and work in atmospheric traditional houses — and the collaborative community aspect. They also run an unpaid artist-in-residence program.
Two things have helped propel Kamiyama’s metamorphosis: a high-speed broadband connection used by relatively few people and its location on an island famed for its Buddhist temple pilgrimage, which means people here are used to welcoming outsiders.
Existing businesses are happy with the influx.
“There are so many shops around here that closed down, so it’s good to see new businesses opening up,” said Masakazu Kitai, who has run Kitai Dry Cleaning here since the 1960s. His son, Junji, added: “The people who moved here are more fashionable, so they’re more likely to get their clothes cleaned.”
Ominami’s plan began as an idea to encourage companies to set up satellite offices in Kamiyama. That idea took off after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in 2011, when many companies realized they should have another location in case disaster struck Tokyo.
That was the main reason that Tetsu Sumita opened a satellite office in Kamiyama in 2013 — as part of a “business continuation plan” for his company, Plat-Ease, which develops computer programs to manage and monitor television broadcasts.
Ninety Plat-Ease employees still work in Tokyo, but 20 are based here, working in a renovated kominka with cartoons playing on large televisions above their heads. But Sumita’s plan to remain based in Tokyo and to come to Kamiyama when needed didn’t last long. He soon realized he wanted to be here all the time.
“In Tokyo, I lived in an apartment building, I didn’t know any of my neighbors, and of course, I didn’t know anyone on my commute. I worked in a huge office building with all these other companies. I had no idea who anyone was,” he said.
Now, Sumita lives in a 200-year-old kominka that is a 10-minute drive away, and he knows everyone in the community. He is even building a small hotel to encourage others to come and experience the Kamiyama way of working.
“I learned after I moved here there is a bigger group of potential people, people who want to live outside the big city,” he said. Plat-Ease is planning to add 10 more staff here.
The environment is conducive to creative work, said Daisuke Motohashi, a 37-year-old Tokyoite who is the sole Kamiyama-based employee for Dunksoft, a software company.
He’s based in a co-working space in an old sewing factory, which still has the fluorescent strip lights that used to hover over the machines. Motohashi was in shorts and flip-flops, and a bunch of guys with ponytails wandered in and out.
“My job is to come up with new business ideas, and I feel like I’m much more creative here and have lots of new ideas,” he said, playing with the toys that surround his desk. “Lots of different people come through here. It’s very stimulating.”
The usual drawbacks of small-town life apply: Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and there’s no nightlife beyond the brightly illuminated 24-hour convenience store.
But everyone who spoke to recent visitors said that their social life was more, not less, active here.
“In Kamiyama, people party more,” said Hirose, the Web designer. “This has become a hub where people come and gather and create something new, and it seems that we have a visitor here every week. That means every night is party night.”
Not everyone here is having fun in the slow lane.
Luka Shiota traded his life as a food wholesaler in Osaka to open an organic pizza restaurant on a hillside here with his wife, Mai, last year. It is in a beautiful renovated kominka overlooking a valley.
Before, Shiota saw his three young children only while they were sleeping. Now, they wander from their house, which adjoins the restaurant, straight into the kitchen where their parents work.
“I’m actually busier here than I was in Osaka,” Shiota said as he sprinkled turnip leaves on a pizza, describing how he needed to keep up with the weeding to make sure snakes don’t flourish. The restaurant is fully booked each day, and Shiota hasn’t had time to grow his own ingredients as he had planned.
“There are lots of social gatherings for newcomers to the town, but if I tried to join in every time, I wouldn’t be able to survive,” he said, laughing, perhaps with a touch of irony that he hadn’t managed to completely jump off the hamster wheel.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.