In rural Japan, a modest bid to preserve tradition

NIYODOGAWA, Japan -Last weekend this dying town held a party, so its few remaining residents awoke at sunrise, headed up winding mountain roads and convened at the usual spot, where, for 217 years, they and their ancestors have gathered annually to celebrate their gods and assault their livers.

Many participants describe the Akiba Matsuri as the highlight of the year, and it combines the best elements of a holiday, a circus performance and a frat party. But lately, it has also come to resemble a wake. Niyodogawa, like so many places in rural Japan, is shrinking and aging, doomed by its demographics. Half the local population is 65 or older. This year, one local high school will graduate a class of six. No private companies offer jobs, so young adults face what amounts to mandatory banishment.

Viewed from up close, at least, Japan’s great rural-to-urban migration – hastened by two lost decades of economic stagnation – carries the weight of a terminal condition, and those in Niyodogawa no longer talk about solutions or reversals. There is only a dull ache, with a town in consensus that its future isn’t really a future. "I wish I could say there was hope," Niyodogawa school superintendent Toshumitsu Ono said, "but if I answer honestly I do not see it."

The Akiba Matsuri festival fits into this only because it’s the one thing in Niyodogawa (pop. 6,868 – after nine deaths and one birth in December 2010) that hasn’t yet changed.

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