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.

1. Introduction

1.1 Project background and rationale

Scotland has over 790 offshore islands, 93 of which are inhabited. Population decline has been a serious threat to the sustainability of many of Scotland's island communities for decades, and this continues to be the case for some – though by no means all – of them. Indeed, over the last 10 years, almost twice as many islands in Scotland have experienced population loss as have gained population. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) is forecasting population reductions for all of Scotland's island local authorities over the next 20 years (SPICe 2022). Future population decline is predicted to be particularly severe in the Western Isles (Scottish Government 2019; Hopkins and Copus 2018).

Population decline, which is often accompanied by ageing of the population structure, can lead to a number of inter-related challenges for communities, including: skills shortages; public service pressures; economic contraction; loss of culture, language and traditions; and weakened community capacity, all of which can further exacerbate population loss and create a vicious cycle of decline (Margaras 2016).

In recognition of the particular characteristics and challenges facing Scotland's island communities, the Scottish Government passed the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. In 2019, the National Islands Plan was published, which focussed on a range of issues including the strategic objective to 'address population decline and ensure a healthy balanced population profile.' This was followed in March 2021 when the Scottish Government's Ministerial Population Taskforce published its Population Strategy 'A Scotland for the Future: the Opportunities and Challenges of Scotland's Changing Population'. Both the National Islands Plan and the Population Strategy set out clear ambitions to ensure a robust and up-to-date evidence base to inform future policy approaches on depopulation trends. This includes engaging with international countries to share learning and best practice as and where appropriate.

As part of those aims, this project seeks to contribute to this international evidence base by exploring responses to island depopulation trends in Japan, both in terms of national policy initiatives and local-level interventions in specific island communities, and distilling appropriate learning to inform future approaches in Scotland.

Japan is made up of five main islands and almost 7,000 smaller islands, 90% of which are uninhabited (Kuwahara 2012). Many of Japan's islands (and remote rural areas) are experiencing a 'double negative population disequilibrium' (Matanle and Rausch 2011: 20) – both net negative migration and death rates exceeding birth rates – and this has led to acute depopulation in some areas. Population decline and ageing has resulted in challenges for such communities, including difficulties in maintaining services and businesses, increased social isolation, and an inability to maintain common resources and spaces (Matanle and Rausch 2011). Japanese rural and island policy has increasingly focused on the issue of population decline including the Remote Islands Development Act, first enacted in 1953, which has more recently sought to promote the cultural and natural resources of remote islands in Japan with the aim of developing tourism and related economic activity (Nagashima 2012; see also: Favell 2017, Funck 2020). Other more recent initiatives and policies have also placed emphasis on encouraging increased urban to rural migration with promotion and support from central and local government (see: Klien 2020; Lewerich 2020; Gaini 2017; Murakami et al. 2008, 2009; Dilley et al. 2022).

By reviewing the policy approaches taken in Japan at a national level and interventions in four case study islands, this project informs: the delivery of the 'more balanced population' pillar of the Scottish Government's Population Strategy; the development of policy to support sustainable population profiles in Scotland's island communities; and future international engagement with Japan on shared challenges.

1.2 Understanding key terms and potential policy tensions

It is important to acknowledge that the key terms in this study, including depopulation, are not necessarily understood in the same way by all. Definitions of depopulation vary with some dictionaries defining it as the condition of having reduced numbers of inhabitants in a region or country while others refer to it as the action of causing a country or area to have fewer people living in it. Conversely, repopulation is usually used to refer to the return or reintroduction of people into an area, i.e., the action or process of repopulating. While depopulation is often used interchangeably with population or demographic decline, repopulation is used interchangeably with population increase or growth.

It is also important to acknowledge that demographic trends, including migration, may vary substantially across small geographies. Indeed, we recognise that multiple relocations can take place simultaneously in a given settlement pattern, which means that mobilities can be 'messy' and not necessarily follow a one-directional repopulation/depopulation taxonomy (Stockdale 2016). Furthermore, in academic research there are many different approaches and definitions to describe the relocation of new residents particularly in rural contexts, which might (or might not) lead to demographic repopulation or population revival (see for example a breadth of research on counterurbanisation; Mitchell 2004; Gkartzios 2013; Smith et al. 2015; Dilley et al. 2022).

Depopulation is shaped by a range of complex, interdependent factors, including migration patterns (themselves the result of a combination of different economic, social and environmental factors) and birth and death rates. This research has particularly focused on exploring policy approaches that aim to attract or retain people or focus on job creation, and the provision of critical infrastructure.

The policy outcomes desired in relation to population, and the approaches to be taken to achieve them, are not without tension. Depending on context, approaches to support local population growth can have both positive and negative effects (see: Stockdale et al. 2000; Dilley et al. 2022). For example, key concerns in many rural and island communities in Scotland include the gentrification impacts of in-migration in raising local house prices beyond the reach of local people, especially those reliant on lower paid jobs in the local labour market, and the potential damage to community cohesion and local traditions (Stockdale 2010; Sutherland 2019). There may also be tensions about the 'level' of repopulation deemed to be desirable or appropriate for a particular area – is the aim of policy intervention to reduce, slow or stop or reverse depopulation so that an area experiences population growth? Who decides on the aim? Who are the new entrants and do they share broadly similar values, expectations and ambitions about the future of these island places with other new entrants and with the in-situ population? What new politics and identities do they bring, and is there the potential for tension and conflict? And what are the implications of different policy outcomes in terms of infrastructure and service provision and land use and management, and the mechanisms required to achieve them? Some of these questions have been explored in recent academic work (see for example: Dilley et al. 2022; Gkartzios et al. 2022a; McManus 2022).

Finally, it should be acknowledged that population policy objectives inter-relate very closely with other policy objectives and strategies. For example, there are strong links between population change, environmental and land use objective and the aim for greater local involvement and community-led, bottom-up activities. [1] The inter-relationships between people and different growth objectives, including degrowth, green growth and community wealth-building – which is a particularly important current policy driver for Scottish Government – are strong. People are crucial in achieving sustainable, resilient communities and in realising the huge potential of rural and island communities in delivering climate change and net zero targets, including in terms of peatland restoration, natural flood management and renewable energy generation.

1.3 Report structure

This remainder of this report is structured as follows:

Section 2 summarises the project aim and objectives and describes the methods used in this study. Sections 3and 4 provide some contextual information on islands along with detail on the evolution of island and population policies in Scotland and Japan (the latter being the focus).

Section 5 reports the results of the case study explorations undertaken by the research team in four locations in Japan. This work involved a combination of desk-based information gathering and a small number of targeted interviews (seven) with individuals involved in different ways in these specific island initiatives and individuals with national level intelligence and experience.

Section 6 summarises the key learning for Scotland that can be distilled from the evidence gathered in Japan, acknowledging the different island and policy contexts.

Section 7 outlines some areas where further research would be useful to inform policies and initiatives relating to depopulation in Scotland, Japan and indeed beyond.


Email: population@gov.scot

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