Japan’s 'miracle town' where the birth rate is twice the national average
Japan is an industrial powerhouse. But how long will that last? With below-replacement fertility since the 1970s, the population has declined 4 percent since 2009. The situation is such that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned:
Our nation is on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions. It is now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing — it is an issue that simply cannot wait any longer…
Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society… Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.
Even pronatalist Elon Musk weighed in:
At risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist.
But hold on a second. It’s not all doom and gloom. Here’s a Japanese man-bites-dog story:
Japan’s “miracle town”
Nagi is an out-of-the-way town of 5700 folks in Okayama Prefecture (southwestern Japan). Known for wagyu beef, satoimo, and as the birthplace of the creator of the popular Naruto anime series, it has a salubrious subtropical climate and hosts a small military base. The town is a perfectly normal little place, with one glaring exception: children abound. That’s highly unusual in Japan, where the spectre of demographic collapse looms large. Is there something in the water? Why the Nagi exception?
It all started back in 2002. Like many small Japanese communities, Nagi was dying out. Too few children and young folks leaving had the town in shutdown mode.
Municipal planners opted for a conventional solution, to merge with the nearby cities Tsuyama or Mimasaka. But that required approval by the voters, who administered a jolt of grassroots democracy and voted it down. Then the only solution left was to just save the town. But how? Planners went back to the drawing board. By 2005, Nagi’s fertility rate was a flagging 1.41, yet above the national average of 1.26.
Then Nagi did the unthinkable: they streamlined town government, reducing the municipal assembly (city council) from 14 to 10 members. They slashed the town budget and people from the community kicked in, realising a savings of $1.2 million. Not bad for a small town.
Those savings became the seed money for a revitalisation plan. Here in the US, revitalisation means vast expenditures for urban renewal (slum clearance and new development) plus more bureaucracy to run it.
But guess what? Without the benefit of sophisticated urban planners, the sagacious citizens of Nagi made child-rearing the core of their revitalisation program. Great idea! This is one of those splendid (and all too rare) occasions when public policy is based on good old-fashioned common sense. Man bites dog.
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Last week, Nagi’s Mayor Masachika Oku told the Los Angeles Times:
People went through a big mental change when they chose not to merge with other municipalities because we had to survive as a town.
“Mental change?” That is one way to describe what is necessary for humanity to stave off population collapse. Let the soul-searching begin!
In 2007, the Nagi Child Home was established. More than a daycare centre, parents can leave their children for $1.70 per hour under the care of experienced parents, including senior citizens. Refreshments are available, and the place is a gathering spot for parents to take a break, make friends and compare notes on the care and feeding of infants. It is a great community resource for first-time mothers.
Takamasa Matsushita, a father of two, heads Nagi’s information and planning office:
We’re trying to make bringing up children enjoyable by taking away the anxiety parents can have about finances, or if their child becomes ill. It allows them to balance their family and working lives… and they don’t need a special reason to use the service… Doing something about the declining birthrate is not just about children. We’re taking a holistic approach, and that’s why we try to get older residents involved.
Nagi’s 20-year family-centred revitalisation has established an impressive panoply of incentives to encourage family formation and entice young families to relocate there. Keep in mind the town has just under 6,000 people, so the number of beneficiaries is small (amounts based on current US$ exchange rates):
- “Celebratory” grant of $2,682 on the first birth
- One-time payment of $730 for the second child, which increases with each additional birth. A fifth child could rate as much as $3,500
- Annual payment of $1,800 for each child attending secondary school
- Subsidised babysitting for $12.28 per day
- Subsidised car seats and other baby accessories
- Free healthcare for children up to age 18
- Free school textbooks through age 15
- Subsidised school meals and bus fares
In the first quarter of 2023, Nagi ran a promotion offering up to $4,400 for twenty-somethings to register their marriage in the town, and half that amount for couples in their thirties.
Not only that, Nagi has built new apartments and three-bedroom homes for rent at a very reasonable $340 per month:
With three children per household now the norm, the town has responded to people's complaints about having too much laundry to dry by making all-electrified houses capable of drying laundry indoors. [Nagi official Eiji] Moriyasu explained, "It is important to continuously upgrade (the standard of living)."
Talk about progressive!
A network of volunteers, including senior citizens, keep the town’s two nurseries open. Businesses moving to Nagi are eligible for rent-free land.
Mr Matsushita says,
In Japanese cities, children are seen as noisy and disruptive, which is why you have bans on playing football and baseball in public parks. But here, we love the sound of children’s voices.
From the UK Guardian:
In Nagi, community involvement extends to work. At the Shigoto no Conbini work convenience store, people aged from their 20s to their 70s do jobs commissioned by the town council, from cleaning public toilets to stuffing envelopes. The programme connects businesses with women of childbearing age and retired people, along with people who haven’t worked for years, according to Yoshikazu Kuwamura, who manages the facility. “Parents can leave their kids here while they work, perhaps in the fields, and someone looks after them,” he says. “Then they return the favour another day.”
Today in Nagi, 47 percent of households have three or more children. Schoolchildren ensure the buses keep running, a bonus for senior citizens. Involving seniors in childcare and community service keeps them active in retirement. People are invested in their community.
Just look at the numbers. In 2005, Nagi’s fertility rate was 1.41. By 2014, it was 2.8. By 2020, it was 2.95, then 2.69 in 2021, more than twice the national average.
Model for the future?
Yes, Nagi is a small town. But like the rest of Japan, it is culturally homogeneous. Could the Nagi model be scaled up and implemented in larger cities?
That’s what many are wondering. The town’s reputation as a child-rearing champion has spread far and wide. Thousands come to see family-friendly policies in action. Japan’s newly created Children and Families Agency, with a $34 billion annual budget, is paying close attention to Nagi. More than 100 delegations of Japanese bureaucrats and politicians have visited this year, including the PM. There’s also been a slew of international visitors. Turning fame into opportunity, Nagi has become a natalist tourism spot and bills visiting delegations a flat fee of $73 plus $7.30 per person, generating a modest municipal income stream.
The Nagi model is inspirational. The town has been saved by fostering a new way of life based on traditional values. What a sterling example for the rest of us!
That’s today’s spot of good news.
Louis T. March has a background in government, business and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Image credit: Pexels
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