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.

Executive Summary

This project aimed to explore, understand and compare approaches to island depopulation in Japan and Scotland to help inform policy and best practice and lay the foundations for further research.

The international research team undertook detailed literature and policy reviews in Japan and Scotland to understand the island contexts and the evolution of national policies relating to islands and to depopulation. In addition, the researchers undertook desk study on four islands in Japan (the Gotō islands, Nakanoshima [Ama Town], Sado Island and the Amami Islands), where different approaches have been taken to tackling depopulation across the themes of Net Zero, Tourism, Education and Teleworking. Short case study examples of depopulation challenges and initiatives in Scotland are also briefly highlighted in the report to provide comparative context. Based on the evidence collected, the research team suggested some 'lessons learned' to inform future policy focussed work and international engagement relating to island depopulation in Scotland.

There is a great diversity of island communities in both Japan (which has 7,000 islands) and Scotland (which has 790). Islands vary by their physical features (such as distance from the mainland, climate and topographical features); socio-economic and demographic profiles; governance (for example, whether they have dedicated island authorities or are they part of mainland-based local government structures); and cultural characteristics and significance. This diversity can be observed within as well as between island groups. Evidence from Scotland suggests that experience of island life varies with demographic age groups and location – with lack of education opportunities for young people, limited employment opportunities, and a lack of affordable housing often cited as key challenges. In Japan, there are considerable differences in circumstance between islands located closer to the Japanese mainland island (in the Inner Sea) and those further away in the Outer Seas. The latter have often experienced more significant population decline and demographic ageing, and are remote, with limited and expensive transport connections, more expensive goods and services, and poorer access to infrastructure. In both countries, on at least some islands, there has been a trend away from a dependence on primary production (including agriculture and fisheries) as service sector employment has grown. In Japan, island residents often rely on multiple income sources, and while this has been assumed to be the case in Scotland too, the recent National Islands Plan Survey (Scottish Government 2021) suggests that only one in five island residents works in more than one paid job or business.

Japan has a long history of national level policies and related funding packages focused on tackling demographic decline on its island and in remote rural areas, but the focus of these policies has shifted over time from an emphasis on infrastructure investments (which have brought both positive and negative impacts for island communities) to a recognition of the need for 'softer' development projects, including tourism-led and culture-based projects building on local resources. This shift in focus has taken place in the context of changes in the patterns of depopulation in different locations and wider economic processes and trends. More recently, debates have emerged in Japan around the extent to which the revitalisation of remote rural communities is possible or desirable in the context of important net zero and climate-change related targets and given Japan's continuing low birth rate, out-migration and population ageing.

There are many national and local level policy and funding initiatives reviewed in this report from which there may be useful learning for Scotland, including programmes to: provide support for people settling in island communities; encourage those who regularly visit island communities to contribute more to their sustainability, and indeed vibrancy; make empty buildings available for re-use; develop teleworking and 'parallel work' opportunities, and; launch education-focused programmes to encourage more young people to remain in island communities for their education.

Based on the evidence gathered, the research team proposes a set of 15 areas of learning for future island depopulation policies in Scotland. This learning is set out in section 6, and is summarised here:

1. Acknowledging the importance and diversity of islands.

2. Understanding the demographic contexts and trends in islands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Appropriately using islands as test-beds for innovative policy responses.

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

11. Providing a range of support for in-migrants.

12. 'Translating' the Japanese concept of Kankeijinkōto island Scotland.

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

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

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

The report concludes with some suggestions for further research which include exploring: individuals' values in relation to island migration decisions; different techniques that have been used to engage local island communities in shaping depopulation initiatives; changing work and livelihood strategies in island communities; the success of older- and young-people focused interventions; ways to encourage new residents to stay long-term; and the impacts of having an unbalanced population profile and, conversely, the benefits and outcomes of having a balanced profile.


Email: population@gov.scot

Back to top