The island of the old

On the Japanese island of Oshima, young people are in such short supply that they put up mannequins instead. Richard Lloyd Parry explores the world capital of old age

In the Seto Inland Sea, a miniature ocean of warm currents in Japan's south-west, is an island called Oshima which might have come out of Odysseus's adventures or Gulliver's travels. Its name means simply "Big Island", although from end to end it is less than 20 miles long. Shaped like a round tropical fish with an elongated crescent- shaped tail, it lies cradled between the mainland islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Centuries ago, pirates operated out of its coves, and in 1943 a famous Japanese battleship was torpedoed and sunk just off shore. Nothing remarkable has happened on Big Island since that day. Yet it is one of the most remarkable places in Japan.

In the Seto Inland Sea, a miniature ocean of warm currents in Japan's south-west, is an island called Oshima which might have come out of Odysseus's adventures or Gulliver's travels. Its name means simply "Big Island", although from end to end it is less than 20 miles long. Shaped like a round tropical fish with an elongated crescent- shaped tail, it lies cradled between the mainland islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Centuries ago, pirates operated out of its coves, and in 1943 a famous Japanese battleship was torpedoed and sunk just off shore. Nothing remarkable has happened on Big Island since that day. Yet it is one of the most remarkable places in Japan.

Geography, politics and economics have made of it a demographic monster, a social time-bomb, and a warning. In a country with the world's fastest ageing population, Oshima has the most aged population of all. Every year the number of young people there dwindles. Every year the elderly, and the very elderly, increase. If Homer or Swift were still around they would recognise its potential as a symbol of extremity and folly. Oshima is a modern fable, a place cursed and blessed: the Island of the Old.

You notice it as soon as you get off the ferry which makes the 45-minute journey between Oshima and the island of Shikoku five times daily. The quays are clean and new, and the boat is fast and comfortable, with soft sofas and a giant television. Apart from the photographer and me, there are two passengers; the following day, on the way back, there is just one. The man and woman who haul the heavy gangway into place have greying hair, and around the quayside and in the streets of the port village there is no one else to be seen. A single taxi lingers by the ticket window, and takes us towards the town. During the half-hour journey along wide, smooth, empty roads, the driver rarely exceeds 25 miles an hour. This is probably just as well, for he is 83 years old.

In Oshima, you meet such people all the time - a 60-year-old policeman, an 84-year-old paper girl. In the village of Wada you can see Mitsuyoshi Nishiguchi, an 84-year-old barber who shaves customers with an untrembling cut-throat razor above a floor covered in shreds of grey hair. In Towa, the township which encompasses the eastern end of the island, half of the population is over 65 and a quarter over 75. Octogenarians outnumber teenagers by more than three to one, septuagenarians by seven to one. All over the island are the casualties of this usurpation: abandoned schools, which over the course of 50 years have simply run out of children.

During two days in Oshima, the only children I see outdoors are a boy and a girl standing with their dog in front of the biggest of the island's eight old people's homes. Their smiling faces are upturned, their hands frozen in a perpetual wave of welcome. It takes a second glance to work out that these are not real children, but dummies. The manager of the old people's home, one of the island's biggest employers, smiles when he is asked about them. "We bought them a few years ago," he says, rather shyly, "to soften the atmosphere of the place."

On Oshima's southern tip is Okikamuro, an island off an island off an island, with a community so old that it makes that of its larger neighbour appear youthful by comparison. Behind a small harbour is the kind of village that has almost disappeared from other parts of Japan: delicate houses of wooden boards and straw-reinforced clay, sloping gently upwards to pines and orange groves. The waters around here are rich in horse mackerel and puffer fish; in the autumn, the orchards yield armfuls of the sharp- sweet mandarin oranges called mikan. But several of the boats in the harbour, and half of the houses, are abandoned.

Tuberous wasps' nests hang from their eaves, beneath slipping tiles and exposed beams. Through the crumbling clay walls you can see tables still set with the plates and jars of their old dead inhabitants. On the wall of one is the photograph of an earnest-faced baby, who must now be in his thirties; beneath it is a calendar from 1966. "When there are two people and one dies, the house can keep going," said Toshiko Isobe, who runs the general store on the sea-front. "When there is only person, and they die, the children never want to come back and live here. The house becomes empty, and so it falls down." Mrs Isobe's shop sells everything from biscuits to socks to toilet paper, although much of the stock looks as if it hadn't been changed, or even dusted, in years. Her husband, whose family ran this shop for longer than she can remember, died 20 years ago, and these days she is lucky to have 10 customers a day. "But this is the only store like it in this area," she says, perched on bad knees behind her till and abacus.

"Everyone says that I have to keep it up, because if I'm not here there'll be no one else. I want to keep going as long as I can still move around a bit, because it keeps me busy. If it wasn't for my pension, I couldn't make a living out of this. But with a pension it's OK."

Twenty years ago, there were 500 people living in Okikamuro; today there are 230. Logically, if the decline continues at the same rate, in another 20 years there will none at all. "It's melancholy to think of the number of people who have left the island, the faces of people who aren't here any more, because they have moved or died," says Mrs Isobe. "In 10 years perhaps there'll be no one on this street. It makes me feel sad." Mrs Isobe is 75. She runs her shop as she lives, and as almost a third of Oshima's old people live: alone.

None of this has occurred suddenly, and the forces which have made Oshima what it is are at work all over the world. What makes the island so alarming is that its demography is extreme, but not freak. A lack of employment opportunities for people of working age may have accelerated the ageing process here (and contributed to a general exodus that has seen the population of, for example, Towa town, decline from 20,670 in 1945 to just under 10,000 in 1970 and a mere 5,553 today). But what has happened here will also happen, to one degree or another, throughout Japan - and in many other developed countries.

Two important things are bringing this about. Japanese people, even more than their rich contemporaries in European countries and America, are living longer and longer. The exact reasons are unclear, but a low-fat diet and improving medical care obviously have much to do with it. Life expectancy in Japan is higher than anywhere else in the world: 83.6 years for women and 77 years for men. Sixteen per cent of the population at large is over 65, and in 15 years' time this could have risen to one in four. For, as their grandparents live longer and longer, Japanese women are having fewer and fewer children.

Japan's fertility rate - the number of children which the average woman bears in a lifetime - has sunk to 1.39, and no one really seems to understand why. Limited living space, later marriage, an increase in the number of working women, low sperm counts caused by pollution and stress, or simply a loss of interest in sex among married couples - all have been suggested. Whatever the cause, Japanese are dying significantly faster than they are being born. If the downward line continues to follow the same gradient, the population will have halved by the end of the next century.

The consequences of these changes will be gradual but drastic. Culturally, Japan will abandon the emphasis on youth that currently dominates fashion and the media. Politically, it will be dominated by elderly and conservative voters. Economically, it will be stricken by a shrinking number of working tax-payers and an increase in those dependent on the medical services, welfare facilities and social security.

Demographers use a particular kind of bar-chart to illustrate the make- up of populations. The central vertical axis divides them into age-groups - from birth to age four, from five to nine, from 10 to 14 and so on. The horizontal axis expresses the numbers of people in each group, men along the left and women on the right. In a developing country, with poor standards of health care and low rates of birth control, the graph takes the form of a rough pyramid - a large number of young children diminishing with the years and reaching a narrow apex in old age. Across Japan nationally, it looks more like a spindle - a small number of younger people, with a middle-aged bulge, tailing off towards the top. But the graph for Oshima is quite different - a narrow stem of the young and middle-aged supporting a fat cluster of the elderly which contracts dramatically in the nineties and disappears in the hundreds. It looks top-heavy and unstable and slightly sinister, like a strange formation of eroded rock or a mushroom cloud.

In Swift's great novel, after his visits to the midgets of Lilliput and the giants of Brobdingnag, the hero, Lemuel Gulliver, visits a country of people who have eternal life. The immortals are called the Struldbrugs, and their great blessing turns out to be a cruel curse. Weary and exhausted and cynically embittered towards one another, they crave death, but it is always beyond their reach.

This is the nightmare that Japan fears most. Among politicians and bureaucrats in Tokyo, the inexorable ageing of the population has produced an atmosphere of thinly disguised low-level panic, charged by the realisation that it is already too late to reverse these overwhelming trends.

Every few months, from the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka, awful stories detail the loneliness and desperation of the urban elderly - of old people driven to suicide by poverty and isolation, and corpses which lie undiscovered for weeks.

But here is the last surprise of Oshima: that, far from being lonely and embittered, its people are the most contented of Struldbrugs. Just like the young who leave, the old people who stay in Oshima have their reasons. "This isn't a place for young people," says Takeo Otani. "It's the destiny of this island. I've resigned myself to that." Mr Otani is 86, and a former head of Okikamuro's Old People's Club. His children live in Tokyo and Osaka. "When my wife died five years ago, they used to say, `Come and live with us!' But I have no friends there, apart from my children and grandchildren. My son and his wife both work, the children go to school. Life there would not be good."

Every day, Mr Otani walks up the hill to gather mikan from his trees, which he distributes among his neighbours and friends. He cooks for himself, using the recipes he acquires at a cooking class organised by the Old People's Club for recently bereaved widowers. In the afternoon he deals with Old People's Club business on his word processor. In the last hour of light, he fishes for the horse mackerel which he will eat the following day.

Apart from the occasional autumn typhoon, the weather on Oshima is mild. Someone stole a few coins the other week from offertory box of the Reverend Niiyama, who has a Buddhist temple on Okikamuro; but otherwise there is no crime. Almost a third of the island's old people live alone, but the lonely deaths that occur in Japan's big cities are unknown here. Instead, a pattern has emerged which is establishing itself in other parts of Japan as well: the old caring for the very old. Until the death of her 104-year- old mother three years ago, Tsurue Inokawa looked after her at home. Now she gets up at 4.30 every morning to help prepare meals-on-wheels for 100 other housebound people. She herself is 86.

There is a fashion among the elderly of Oshima for setting up "Touch- Meet Salons". Members of the Dandelion Salon enjoy dancing and karaoke; once a week, the Liveliness Salon goes swimming. The local welfare office has set up the Touch-Meet Post, which delivers letters to the elderly in person, rather than just pushing them through the letter box. If there is no sign of life after three days, action is taken. The famous Japanese propensity for group "activities" can be stifling, but in a place like Oshima it is almost certainly a life-saver. "That's the difference between here and the city," says Yoshinori Nakamoto of the Social Welfare Council. "People communicate with their neighbours, and they care about how they are. Everyone has someone as their friend, even if they are old and sick."

"What you have to realise is that an aged society is something that humans have always searched for," says Reverend Niiyama. "We have struggled for long life, and for peace that allows us to enjoy it, and for a rich country in which women can work and live lives of their own without always being burdened with children. Each element of this is something we aimed for, so now we have found it, we shouldn't be afraid of an ageing society.

"It is not a wolf which is attacking us. It is what we always wanted. By that measure, this island has the most advanced society in Japan. This is the life that all of Japan will have in the future. However we go about building the future, this is a good place to start." 2

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits