Japan island depopulation: lessons for Scotland

This research report - commissioned from a team based at Scotland's Rural College - explores policy approaches to depopulation on Japan's islands, and proposes a series of recommendations to the Scottish Government which may help inform the development of future island depopulation.

6 Lessons for Scotland

From our literature and policy reviews as part of this project, and our four case studies in Japan, the research team has distilled a set of lessons to be considered by policy-makers in Scotland when designing and delivering island population policies and interventions. Some of the learning relates to broader policy principles which might be considered, while other learning relates to the shaping of more specific policy interventions, but all build on the evidence from Japan. We provide examples to illustrate our points where relevant.

These lessons also build on work completed by members of the research team under the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme 2016-22. This focused on exploring international depopulation initiatives in remote locations and drew six key lessons for Scotland (see Box 1 below). These lessons, outlined below, resonate strongly with the learning generated from this project with its focus on Japan.

Box 1: Six aspects of particular importance when addressing depopulation in remote locations (from Mc Morran and Glendinning 2022).

i) Inward migration: Whether migration is foreign or domestic, it can play an important role in slowing or reversing population and demographic decline (ageing, youth out-migration) and addressing labour shortages. However, in-migration does not guarantee a sustained shift in demographic trends and labour market integration does not guarantee social integration of in-migrants, with long term retention of in-migrants requiring considerable support. The political context and socio-economic factors may limit the potential for foreign in-migration to be utilised effectively to address demographic change in some contexts.

ii) Long term integration of foreign in-migrants in rural areas requires a holistic approach: This can include specific posts (e.g., an integration coordinator) and initiatives (e.g., mentoring programmes, housing provision schemes) and catering for whole families (social networks to combat isolation and exclusion), as well as language training.

iii) Young people represent a critical and limited asset in remote areas: Ensuring their retention and/or return requires innovative approaches to providing opportunities for empowerment, education, employment and entrepreneurial activity.

iv) Effective collaboration, communication of local values, opportunities and knowledge sharing is a key component of addressing demographic challenges in rural areas.

v) Community resilience and capacity: Resilient rural communities often exhibit a strong sense of community; community organisations and local businesses are responsive to local needs; strategic partnerships exist between community organisations and the public/private sector; and digital connectivity has been enhanced.

vi) Networked rural development: This emphasises the inter-twining of local and extra-local or endogenous and exogenous assets, resources, skills, knowledge, information etc. for successful rural community development.

1. Acknowledging the importance and diversity of islands

This work has demonstrated the importance of islands in both Japan and Scotland, not only in a political and strategic sense (related to security, defence and territorial considerations in Japan for example) but also in terms of their cultural significance. While extremely diverse, they are also economically important, in a way which perhaps goes beyond their significance in terms of their proportion of the national population in each country. While Japan has a long history of islands-focused policy interventions dating back to the post-war period, the history of islands-specific legislation and policies in Scotland is more recent. There is much to be learned from ongoing dialogue and engagement between the two countries to share experiences of national and local level depopulation policies interventions. The work in this project can usefully form the basis for starting this engagement.

2. Understanding the demographic contexts and trends in islands

It is critical that any policies seeking to address demographic trends on islands are informed by up-to-date and accurate evidence about the historic, recent and potential future population trends on those islands, and how they vary in different locations, including down to very local scale (recognising that there may be concerns around anonymity and confidentiality when numbers are small). The evidence should also go beyond population trends to encompass a broader understanding of the interplay between demographic trends and wider social, economic and environmental processes, including land use, service provision, economic activity, transport and digital infrastructure, etc. On all of these topics, both statistical (i.e. quantitative) and lived experience (i.e. qualitative) data is vital to fully understand the 'real-life' experiences of local people living and working on islands, as well as those moving to such locations.

While learning from what has worked (or not) in other countries is valuable, the different geographic, political, institutional, cultural and social contexts must be acknowledged. For example, in Japan, kaso areas make up only around 8% of the total Japanese population, but kaso areas cover almost 60% of the total area of Japan (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2018). In comparison, Scotland's rural areas make up 17% of the national population, with 6% located in remote rural areas and 11% in accessible rural areas.[12] Rural areas account for 98% of Scotland's landmass, with 70% of this being remote rural areas and 28% accessible rural areas. Moreover, while Japan is made up of five main islands and almost 7,000 smaller islands, 90% of which are uninhabited, Scotland has only about 10% of this total number of islands (790), of which 93 are inhabited. In both countries, the diversity of islands and their communities is huge, even within island groupings, and this provides a challenge to policy-makers seeking to develop appropriate – and indeed locally differentiated – policy responses.

It is also important that policy interventions are shaped with reference to broader social, economic, cultural and environmental trends and again adequate data is required to understand these trends. For example, promoting sustainable tourism as a foundation for encouraging positive population change on an island will need to be done with a thorough understanding of current and future trends in this industry, for example in terms of the types of tourism experience that people are likely to be looking to have in future. In this sense, care should be taken in trying to transpose 'successful' initiatives, either internationally or nationally, as different contexts can result in very different outcomes. In particular, experience has shown in the peripheries of Japan that trying to duplicate development schemes, particularly around tourism, can be ultimately counter-productive.

3. Ensuring clarity about the goals of demographic-focused policy interventions

Clarity over the desired demographic outcomes from policy interventions is crucial at a time when countries have ambitious net zero and climate change related targets, tighter public sector budgets, and debates are growing around the extent to which growth should continue to be the ultimate policy goal. There are also other key contextual factors to consider when deciding on desirable outcomes. One example is wider national demographic trends – Japan for example continues to experience overall population decline and questions have been raised as to whether repopulating island communities is realistic in this context. A second such factor is the apparent recent changes in preferences, attitudes, lifestyles and values which have come about as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, including a shift in preferences towards hybrid working or parallel work, to use a Japanese term, and/or rural over urban living.

Fundamental decisions need to be taken about the goals of population and island policies in this complex context. Is a goal to repopulate all island communities realistic? And is that said repopulation a panacea to sustainable island and rural development? Should the focus be on 'managed depopulation' or 'managed decline' and on providing welfare support for those people who remain in communities that have experienced long-term out-migration and low birth rates, and associated downward pressures on service provision, economic activity and community capacity? Does this simply create a self-fulfilling prophecy? If the latter approach is taken, what are the wider implications for land use, land management (linked to debates around rewilding and repeopling in Scotland), sustainable economic activity and future tourism potential, to name a few?

Is a differentiated policy approach best, whereby the shape, extent and goal/s of interventions in different places vary, from revitalisation and repopulation in the most viable localities, to providing welfare support (perhaps over an agreed timescale) to communities which are unlikely to achieve revitalisation, either through public, private and/or third sector interventions. These are fundamental decisions that government may need to take, and are likely to be difficult, even in the context of increasingly important net zero and climate emergency-focused ambitions. But in any case, these decisions need to be taken with significant input from local people rather than top-down prescription.

A clear, evidence-based rationale for wanting to achieve a more balanced population is also important. For example, it is important to understand the negative impacts of urbanisation for city dwellers who experience overcrowding and congestion and also for rural dwellers as economic activity declines, services close and community cohesion is lost. In Japan, for example, the Act on Emergency measures for Depopulated Areas was introduced when it was evident that rural depopulation was creating social problems nationwide. Whatever policy outcome is desired, engagement with local stakeholders is vital to decide on the most appropriate outcomes for a particular locality.

4. Providing a flexible policy framework to enable locally tailored interventions and initiatives

Taking such a differentiated approach to tackling demographic challenges and opportunities in such diverse communities both within and across island groupings (in terms of geography, size, location, topography, culture and socio-economic conditions) requires a flexible policy framework that enables local level interventions to be tailored as far as possible to local circumstances. It is interesting to note that assessing the potential island-specific impacts of policy interventions is a legislative requirement in Scotland through Islands Community Impact Assessments, introduced as part of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.

The approach to defining remote and island communities in Japan is complex. Moreover, without doubt these designations have their own 'politic' to them and are attached to particular funding allocations, power relations across stakeholders, etc. There are disadvantages to such classifications or typologies, but it may be worth considering such an island typology in Scotland, which could be used, alongside the flexible policy framework, to guide local decisions around policy, practice and funding decisions. Such a typology must take account of the qualitative, lived experiences of local people to add depth and meaning to official statistics. More importantly, such typologies need to consider the stakeholders – and their power struggles – that hold the key to their development trajectories. In this context, we might envisage the emergence of a typology along the lines of the prolific 'differentiated countryside' (in the context of the English countryside; See Murdoch et al. 2003), reworked for the purposes of a Scottish 'differentiated archipelago'.

5. Incorporating 'hard' and 'soft': Taking a holistic approach to depopulation challenges

The early focus on infrastructural improvement (particularly bridges) in national policies for Japan's islands does appear to have led to some positive impacts for the islands within the Inland Sea area, which have benefited from much greater connectivity to the Japanese mainland. Benefits have also accrued in many island communities from improved digital infrastructure and connectivity.

However, such infrastructure improvements have also been costly and in some instances have had negative impacts related to community cohesion and displacement of island-based businesses. In terms of learning for Scotland, anticipating and then monitoring and measuring the extent of these positive and negative impacts is crucial to inform future investment decisions relating to infrastructure provision on Scotland's islands, in the context of current work on National Planning Framework 4, for example.

In recognition of the potentially negative impacts of taking an infrastructure-focused approach, shifting towards a more holistic, cross-sectoral, place-based and community-led approach to tackling depopulation is important. This is happening in Japan, for example, with the 2010 kaso Act having been amended to incorporate 'softer' projects such as ensuring local medical care and operating community transport schemes – although it is important to note that infrastructure is still a key element of the Act.

A more holistic approach is also evident in Scotland's National Islands Plan and its 13 Strategic Objectives. Further, the National Islands Plan specifically recognises the need to use the Place Principle to guide an integrated approach to ensuring sustainable island communities in future. Taking a holistic approach could help ensure that any tensions between different policy priorities and outcomes are illuminated and are able to be resolved early in the policy design process.

6. Engaging with island communities in co-designing policy interventions

Engagement with island communities to shape policies and interventions relies on these communities having the capacity to engage.By the late 1980s/early 1990s in Japan, there was a growing policy emphasis on regional revitalisation based on local assets, initiative and ingenuity. Similarly, between 2000 and 2020 the kaso Acts have placed greater emphasis on building self-reliant local communities that draw upon and demonstrate local assets and resources. In Scotland too, much policy emphasis has been placed on strengthening the capacity of communities to engage, including through wider legislation such as the Community Empowerment Act and wider policy reform, including relating to Local Governance. While some islands can benefit from very active communities with high levels of human and social capital and strong leaders, others may not, and for them, external support (financial, skills, knowledge, networks, etc.) will be vital. Appropriate support and facilitation is also required to ensure that when engaging with communities, all voices are heard, including those who might not traditionally get involved in such discussions. This could also explore creative engagement and the use of art-led initiatives as part of engaging with communities, raising local concerns and revealing even community disconnects, rather than the normative approach of utilising art as a way to bring the community together (see also Crawshaw and Gkartzios, 2016).

7. Exploring the 'positives' of demographic ageing as well as retaining/re-attracting young people

Islands in both countries have long experienced challenges with ageing demographic profiles and the out-migration of young people, and the demographic ageing trends are predicted to continue in future. While older people can bring significant resources to island communities, including financial, social and human capital, as they age in-place, this can put strain on local health and social care services. Meantime, the loss of young people means a loss of the resources that they would otherwise contribute and potential risks for local schools and other services in future as there are fewer children born. One initiative that stands out in this regard is Ama's High School Attractiveness project which appears to have been successful in both increasing the numbers of high school students and in terms of encouraging young families to either stay or in-migrate. Here an initiative has proved to be not only valuable to young people (i.e. high school students) but has also had broader positive demographic knock-on effects.

Scotland has tended to focus its policy approaches on retaining/attracting back young people to rural and island communities, whereas the focus in Japan has been more mixed, with both older and younger in-migrants a focus of interventions. This is at least partly related to different cultures and attitudes; demographic ageing and a rise in the number of older 'dependent' people in society tends to be viewed negatively in the UK, whereas in Japan attitudes towards older people and intergenerational living and working are generally much more positive. There may be particular lessons to be learned in the Japanese interventions that are focused on attracting older people to depopulating communities as well as the Japanese attitudes toward older citizens more broadly (see for example: Murakami et al. 2008, 2009).

8. Building on shifts in values, lifestyles and practical working and living preferences relating to the Covid-19 pandemic

Recent developments on some of Japan's islands relating to eco- and culture-led tourism have a focus on attracting people seeking remoteness and distance from metropolitan population centres. This is a particular area in which ongoing shared learning between the countries, and indeed involving other countries undertaking similar developments, would be worthwhile. Such learning could be expanded to encompass agri-tourism initiatives, where there has been investment in Scotland recently, as in many areas of Japan it is possible to find tourist initiatives that offer visitors rural/farming experiences that are embedded in local communities. Developing such shared learning and following developments in this area is particularly important in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and continuing restrictions and/or challenges relating to international travel.

9. (Appropriately) Using islands as test-beds for innovative policy responses

In both Scotland and Japan, questions are increasingly asked around the extent to which growth should be the ultimate policy goal in the context of a range of potential policy objectives. Islands may be appropriate locations in which to explore innovative policy and practice interventions linked to a range of goals and which inter-relate strongly with different population-related outcomes at different levels (from encouraging repopulation and revitalisation to simply slowing depopulation or what could be termed 'managed decline', while still ensuring the welfare and quality of life of those continuing to reside on islands). It is critical that this testing or pilot work is done in appropriate ways, with the full involvement of local communities from the beginning of the design phase.

10. Recognising and building on the resources and positive benefits of depopulated/depopulating areas

In recent years in Japan there has been more explicit focus on emphasising the positive functions of less densely populated areas, such as their role in supplying food, water and energy, their biodiversity and as a location for cultural heritage to thrive (see for example: Ministry of Environment's Fifth Basic Environment Plan 2018). In Japan too, there has been increased interest in depopulated areas as concerns about large-scale disasters and infectious diseases due to significant population concentration are increasing. Such changing perceptions challenge the narrative of sparsely and depopulating areas as literally lagging behind and in need of improvement and population growth. In Japan, remote and sparsely populated areas are increasingly being seen as having a different value from urban spaces and the national policy context in Japan is also starting to shift and adapt to recognise new lifestyles and business models that make use of diverse resources in remote areas. Further, while it's probably fair to say that growth remains the dominant policy goal, the re-valuing of remote areas is taking place in the context of overall population decline in Japan and in the context of some (albeit fairly limited at present) discussion over the potential for different growth pathways, including green growth. Similar considerations are emerging in Scotland too (see for example: Scotland's Degrowth Commission).

11. Providing a range of support for (national and international) in-migrants

In-migrants can sometimes struggle to integrate in island communities (even nationals from the same country), particularly in close-knit communities. Support and guidance can help. Scotland can potentially learn from Japan's various migration settlement initiatives, including 'experience' schemes and initiatives i.e. those initiatives which provide opportunities to 'test' locations before people move permanently and services to support people to settle when they first arrive. Sometimes there may be gap between the expectation or vision of island life and the reality (as was the case with in-migrants to Sado for example). As such, these support services may be especially beneficial to encourage those who come to stay long-term. This message is echoed in Box 1 above.

12. 'Translating' the Japanese policy concept of Kankeijinkō to island Scotland

The Japanese concept of kankeijinkō (relationship population) may be worth considering in a Scottish context, although there are perhaps parallels with work already undertaken by Government and others to maintain links with the Scottish diaspora internationally based on family and cultural ties to island communities. What is striking in the Japanese context is that those people who regularly visit rural/island locations, perhaps to frequent second homes, or visit relatives or inherited property, are viewed positively in terms of their potential role in regional revitalisation. In Scotland, particularly in the context of the increased potential of (and preference for) hybrid or home working that takes advantage of improved digital connectivity, it may be worth exploring the potential for a scheme in an island location, with high levels of second/holiday home ownership for example, that engages visitors during their stay with the view to enhancing their positive impacts by contributing skills, financial capital and networks for example. A particular focus on attracting kankeijinkō who are interested in working from, or setting up businesses, satellite offices, enterprise hubs or teleworking locations in Scotland's island communities, at least on a part-time basis may be especially worthwhile. There are existing examples of enterprise hubs in rural locations from which lessons could be drawn (see for example, Merrell et al. 2022).

13. 'Translating' Japan's Community Cooperative Support initiative (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai) to island Scotland

Another specific initiative from which there may be useful learning for Scotland is Japan's Community Cooperative Support initiative (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai) in which people moving from urban to rural areas are given a stipend for a maximum of three years in return for their participation in activities aimed at promoting or preserving local culture, history or nature. Data indicates that overall, 63% of participants in the CCS scheme ended up staying in their adopted areas after completion of their three-year CCS term, although the proportion does vary across localities. Further exploration of this data and the underlying reasons for people staying or not would be valuable (see Section 8).

14. Incorporating renewable energy and digital investment considerations into demographic initiatives

An increasing emphasis has been placed in Japan on the utilisation of renewable resources and decarbonisation in more peripheral areas. This emphasis has emerged in tandem with greater emphasis on digitalisation, use of smart technologies and AI. National level funding has come from the Japanese Government for 10 SDG projects from which learning would be beneficial. These involve a range of stakeholders working in partnership and also a 'matching platform' for individuals and organisations with ideas and skills to formulate concrete projects. The Iki island project is one which has taken a very holistic approach with a range of goals including boosting agricultural supply chains, tackling labour shortages, skills development, a renewable energy project and encouraging teleworking. Another case that has stood out is that of Gotō where a renewable energy scheme has appeared to not only bring de-carbonisation benefits, but has contributed to jobs, skills, local income, energy security and marine conservation. What is important to note about Gotō is that at first, the renewable energy scheme was not initially conceptualised as a 'population project' but appears to have had a broader positive demographic impact. Second, the renewable energy project was established in the context of a broader suite of measures and initiatives aimed at tackling economic and population decline and the impact of that decline. This suggests a need for a multipronged approach that engages with a range of cross-cutting issues. There may be interesting learning here for the six islands that Scottish Government has recently designated to be carbon neutral by 2040.

15. 'Translating' the Akiya bank concept to island Scotland

There may also be useful learning for Scotland from Japan's akiya bank (empty house bank) approach where unused houses are listed for sale or rent with the goal of attracting migrants to use these buildings. This scheme was enabled by a change in the law in 2014 which allowing local authorities to collect information on abandoned properties. It started locally but has grown to become a national-level scheme. While the cost of rural properties in Japan can be substantially lower than in Scotland, the 'matching' performed by local officials between potential in-migrants and empty properties might be worth revisiting, in addition to the broader elements of the bank which include introductions for potential migrants to local community members. Questions have been raised in Japan about the usefulness of this scheme in providing housing for people where there are limited employment opportunities, but the lack of affordable local housing is often regarded in Scotland as being the barrier to people either staying or moving to island locations.


Email: population@gov.scot

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