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.

7 Suggestions for further research

This scoping study has gathered information on the characteristics of islands in Scotland and Japan and the national islands and population policy contexts in both countries, and has briefly examined local depopulation-focused interventions on four Japanese islands, with reference to relevant Scottish interventions where appropriate. However, resource and time constraints have meant that the data gathering work was limited in scope, and the research team has identified a number of valuable avenues for further work in future. These potential projects could draw on, and make a significant contribution to, wider academic work from island studies scholars.

  • Further exploration of individuals' values in relation to island migration decisions: A long history of academic work has shown how people's values and residential aspirations shape rural migration decisions (see for example Mitchell 2004). Understanding these values and aspirations, and how they have been shaped by Covid-19 could inform migration-focused interventions to ensure that they are targeted in the right way at the right group/s of people. For example, how do the values held by young people differ from those in the workforce or those of retirement age? How can migration interventions be shaped to take account of these values?
  • Exploring and evaluating the techniques that have been used to engage local island communities in shaping depopulation initiatives: This project has examined a number of ways in which local island residents and stakeholders have been engaged - to a greater or lesser extent - in shaping interventions at their design and/or delivery phase. Exploring the success of these engagement mechanisms in terms of ensuring that initiatives are truly bottom-up would be a very useful avenue for further research.
  • Exploring (changing) work and livelihood strategies in island communities: Crofting is a feature of some of Scotland's islands, while for others the fisheries sector is an important source of income and employment. However, for many families and communities reliant on these income sources, the activities and returns are small-scale, necessitating multiple job-holding, although the recent National Islands Plan Survey showed that this was the case for only one in five respondents. This is also the case for residents on many of Japan's islands, particularly those in the Outer Sea. Further exploration of these livelihood strategies in island locations and how they could be supported (see for example Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Initiative) would be valuable especially understanding how more 'traditional' forms of livelihood strategies are/are not/could be improved by hybridising with digital technologies, greater connectivity and AI. Further, evidence collected on changing work and employment patterns since the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that rural and island locations may benefit from more flexible or hybrid working becoming the norm for many companies with people choosing to work from home for at least some of their week. While it was initially hypothesised that this shift to more flexible working would impact more accessible rural locations, there is evidence that people are prepared to move further out of urban centres, thus bringing the benefits of this shift to a wider geographical area (Nordregio 2022). Longitudinal research to explore the short-, medium- and longer-term benefits of this shift for more remote rural and island communities would be worthwhile. Understanding this (shifting) techno-socio-economic context for island residents is critical to ensuring that policy interventions and funding streams embed these lived realities for households and communities.
  • Exploring the success of older- and young people-focused interventions: While Japan has focused some of its depopulation interventions on the attraction of older people (though notably in rural areas rather than island locations, for more information see: Murakami et al. 2008, 2009), interventions in Scotland have tended to focus on retaining or attracting (back) young people. Further research to explore the shape and 'successes' of both types of intervention, and how they might 'translate' to other contexts, would be useful.
  • Ensuring that new residents stay long-term: As highlighted in Box 1, for long-term reversal of depopulation trends, it is vital that those who are attracted to rural/island locations are encouraged to stay beyond the short-term. Further research into the long-term migration decisions and experiences of urban to rural or island migrants would be very valuable. Questions could include: what factors influence an individual's or family's decision to stay or leave, do people move up or down the urban hierarchy (e.g. another island or rural location, or a town or city location)? More specifically, exploring the reasons for the variable success rates of Japan's Community Cooperative Support initiative (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai) would be valuable.
  • Evaluating the impacts of having an unbalanced population profile and the benefits and positive outcomes of having a balanced population profile: This is a key aim of Scotland's population policy but the 'pros and cons' of having a balanced population profile could be usefully unpicked for both rural and urban locations.


Email: population@gov.scot

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