Japan’s Medieval Islands of Exile Lure Young Workers

The Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan are turning history on its head.

The remote outposts that were used for centuries by medieval rulers to banish rivals have become a model for regional revival as Ama, on one of the four islets, attracts economic migrants from the mainland.

Through steps including expanding seafood exports, debt reduction and a revamp of the high school to provide a platform for entry to top colleges, the town found a recipe for countering the plight of demographic decline. With about 900 Japanese local districts at risk of becoming ghost towns in a generation, Ama’s success off the west coast has caught attention from the Abe administration -- and Australian educators.

“Ama got serious because it was in real difficulty,” said Hideaki Tanaka, who teaches governance at Meiji University in Tokyo. “Many places that rely on government support feel comfortable with the status quo but resources are limited and it’s unsustainable.”

Mayor Michio Yamauchi saw the writing on the wall in 2004. With 10.15 billion yen ($100 million) in debt to the national government and less than 5 percent of the money needed to pay that back, Ama was on the road to bankruptcy.

The town’s population had shrunk by two-thirds over the post-war period to fewer than 2,400 people. Two of every five residents were elderly. Even so, Ama still poured money into public works, increasing its debt burden without creating jobs.

“I decided to slash spending and remove waste, even if it meant reducing public amenities,” Yamauchi, 76, said by telephone from his office. “I cut my own salary to convince everyone of my resolve.”

Sales Network

While avoiding fiscal disaster was vital, that’s not the only lesson Ama holds, said Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co. in Tokyo.

Just as importantly, the town focused the economy on local specialties, expanded its sales and marketing networks, and attracted young people, according to Takumori.

Ama accomplished much of this with a public-private seafood company, which drew migrants like Toru Fujii, 44, and his wife Yuko, 46.

The pair relocated with two children in 2005 after Fujii tired of his administrative job in Nagano in central Japan and answered an advertisement to help set up the venture, called Furusato Ama.

The company invested in a freezing system that enhanced freshness by limiting ice-crystal formation in food, and then set about tapping national and global markets for the squid, oysters and fish that thrive around the Oki Islands.

New Jobs

Furusato Ama now employs about 30 people, has been profitable for five years and has annual sales of about 200 million yen, said Satoshi Fujita, a town official.

Ama’s catch is typically transported by boat to warehouses on the mainland, then flown to distribution centers in Tokyo and Kobe, from where some consignments are air-freighted to Shanghai, Dubai and the U.S., said Fujita.

The connections linking the town’s seafood buyers with the wider world are also being used by ranchers to sell Oki beef and by islanders like Fujii, who started a side business making squid crackers.

“The salary they offered my husband before we left was low and I had a lot concerns,” Yuko Fujii said by telephone from Ama. “We agreed because they were up-front about all the inconveniences and disadvantages.”

Next Generation

The couple, who had a third child after coming to Ama, are among the more than 300 migrants from the country’s main islands who’ve made it their home under the current mayor, according to the town office. Most are in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

That helps set Ama apart. Even as many localities strive to showcase products ranging from choice cuts of meat to craft beer, almost half of Japan’s municipalities have vanished in the past 15 years through mergers to cut administrative costs as the number of residents dwindles.

The same fate may await another 900 by 2040, as the population ages further, according to a report submitted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government.

The revival of Oki-Dozen High School is part to Ama’s strategy for a different future.

It’s recruited teachers from an external education service and overhauled the curriculum.

One new course prepares students for entry into Japan’s ivy league universities while others nurture future leaders for the Oki Islands by teaching town planning and product development, according to Misao Yoshimoto, a senior town official.

Roll Call

Oki-Dozen was on the verge of closing in 2008, with 90 students and new enrollments at a record low of 28. Roll call this year reached 140 and more than 40 percent of the new students are from Japan’s main islands and cities including Tokyo and Osaka.

The school’s 56-bed dormitory is full after being almost empty five years ago and a graduate from Oki-Dozen’s class of 2012 entered Waseda University in Tokyo, one of the nation’s most prestigious private colleges.

Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo visited the school in June after the town was selected as one of 33 models for local development. Shindo vacated this post in a Cabinet reshuffle this week.

Australian Ambassador Bruce Miller inspected Oki-Dozen in May to check its suitability for cooperation with schools in his country, the embassy said.

Cutting Debt

The attention is a boon for Mayor Yamauchi, who was re-elected to his fourth term this year and continues to spearhead efforts to bring newcomers to Ama and cut the town’s debt.

His government has cut its borrowings by about 30 percent over the past decade, while Japan’s national debt surged.

In the process Ama escaped the fate of Yubari on the northern island of Hokkaido, which became the country’s first municipality to go bankrupt in 2007.

A short walk from Yamauchi’s office, the tomb of the deposed 12th century emperor Go-Toba tells a very different story.

Banished from power by Japan’s feudal lords, Go-Toba whiled away his final years in isolation, lamenting through his poems that not even the wind made it to the Oki Islands from the capital.

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