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Aging and Empty: The birthplace of the next Japanese prime minister highlights the challenges ahead


YOZAWA, Japan, September 14 (Reuters) – On a warm afternoon in the Japanese town where Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s next prime minister, grew up, more than half of the shops in a downtown shopping arcade are closed and the sidewalks are empty except for rare elderly passers-by.

A building marked “I Love Yuzawa” is abandoned. Huge store close to buildings above street, most of them are unusable as they do not meet seismic safety standards but too expensive to be demolished.

The remote part of Yuzawa where Suga grew up, 480 kilometers (300 mi) northeast of Tokyo, captures the main challenges his administration will face: Half of the area’s population is over 60 years old. The displacement of residents and the aging has led to a significant decline in tax revenue, which has prompted the city government, dependent on Tokyo’s support, to consider merging with other cities in Akita Prefecture.

“Japan is the fastest-aging country in the world, Akita is the fastest-aging prefecture and Yuzawa is one of the worst in Akita,” said city employee Toru Abe, noting that nearly 40% of all Yuzawa residents are over the age of 65, compared to 28 % For the nation.

“If we don’t have financial support from the central government, we will not be able to cover our expenses,” Abe said. He said the town’s annual budget of 27 billion yen ($ 250 million), only a fifth of which comes from taxes.

Suga is on her way to being chosen as leader of Japan’s ruling party on Monday and being elected prime minister on Wednesday, replacing long-serving Shinzo Abe who resigned for health reasons.

Yuzawa, which witnesses 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) of snowfall that locals say makes it rough, has branded Suga, 71, a self-made politician among hereditary legislators from wealthy families. It also influenced his most famous policies.

These include boosting inbound tourism, reforming the country’s vast agricultural cooperative network, and introducing a “city tax” – a system that allows people to pay local taxes in an area other than where they live, and in return, receive discounts and local delicacies such as beef or rice. .

He talked about it long before then, saying that he grew up in Akita and capitalized on the tax returns, then moved here and feels weird about not paying anything. Hiromi Okazaki, a retired bureaucrat who worked for Suga at the Ministry of Home Affairs when Suga ran it and introduced the scheme in the 2000s, said he wonders if there is a system in place to make this possible.

“Let’s buy cigarettes!”

Most of Yuzawa residents blame the economic decline on a devastating population decline, largely due to the low birth rate and lack of jobs in a city that relies mainly on rice cultivation.

In 1955, Yuzawa had a population of 80,000, some of them working in a silver mine that is now operational. Since then, the population has decreased by half. Only 442 high school students graduated last year.

With 16.4 deaths per 1,000 residents in 2019, Akita has the highest mortality rate in Japan. As compared to 11.2 deaths nationwide. The birth rate, 4.9 per 1,000, is the lowest in Japan.

Town officials expect 400 million yen ($ 3.8 million) in revenue from the Suga “hometown tax” in the fiscal year through March. They say it’s not enough to change her fortunes, but at Yuzawa, every part helps.

Next to a row of cigarette vending machines in the city center hangs a sign: “Tobacco taxes are important to our region. Let’s buy cigarettes!” She added that in 2019, the tax brought in 209 million yen.

In 2015, Akita devised a plan to halt demographic decline with steps such as expanding medical benefits for schoolchildren, providing additional daycare support, and helping workers pay off student loans. But locals say it is difficult to revive an aging economy.

“If we had places that people would want to visit, like stores,” said Momoko Takahashi, 33, of Yuzawa, preparing to open a cafe in October. “Even a large supermarket will help.”

Strawberry fields

The Suga family’s home in a remote area of ​​Yuzawa remains empty since his elderly mother moved into a nursing home three years ago.

The small village of Akinomiya was famous for its rice fields, and adult male farmers left their families every winter to work in Tokyo to make ends meet – a practice that Suga’s father, Asapuru, helped eliminate by venturing into lucrative strawberry planting and forming a cooperative.

“He would have seen his father’s thinking, his father’s initiatives, and that would have grown up naturally in him,” said Masashi Yuri, 71, who lived only a few houses away from Suga.

Yuri said Suga helped out in the Strawberry Fields and was calm and stubborn as a classmate, playing baseball for hours at night to get the third place he wanted.

Yuri said: “He does not show anything on his face, he does not show his feelings, but in the shadows, he makes great efforts.”

Of the 200 strawberry farmers who made the region famous for its tart summer berries, only 60 remain. More than half are elderly. ($ 1 = 106.1400 yen)

Reported by Ellen Lyse, Kiyoshi Takenaka, and Chris Gallagher in Yuzawa; Written by Eileen Lyse. Edited by William Mallard


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