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.

2. Research Aim and Methodological Approach

The aim of this project was:

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

Methodological Approach

To meet the aim and objectives of this project, a staged methodological approach was taken. The first stage was an in-depth review of literature which included academic publications, policy and other grey literature in English and Japanese. The review of the literature was focused on both applied and academic work that addressed the issues of rural development and population decline particularly with regards to islands in both Japan and Scotland. Given the resource constraints in this project, the review was neither structured nor exhaustive, but drew on the significant relevant research experience of the authors to give an overview of some of the key academic and policy literature available. In reviewing the academic literature, special attention was paid to the current and historic conditions of islands in both nations, issues and challenges with regard to development and depopulation as well as the key academic approaches and areas of interest in island research.

In parallel with the literature review, the research team undertook a desk-based review of population and island policies in Scotland and Japan, with a particular focus on the latter. The policy review explored the aims of policies that have been introduced to address rural and island development and depopulation, and the ways in which policy aims have shifted and changed as new challenges and opportunities emerged. Given the focus on learning lessons from Japan, the review of Japanese policy was more detailed and explored its evolution post-Second World War.

The third stage of the project involved the identification of appropriate case studies of depopulation initiatives in Japan's islands from which to draw out lessons for similar interventions in Scotland. The research team initially created a 'long list' of potential case studies identified from existing literature and their own experience, knowledge and contacts. In identifying the potential case studies, a broad range of different approaches to island economic challenges and depopulation were sought. From this long list, the research team proposed four case studies on which to focus, which covered a range of differentiated approaches of relevance to the Scottish context and four key themes: net zero, education, art-heritage-agriculture, and teleworking/the changing nature of work (see Table 1 for an overview of the case studies). The proposed case studies were approved by the Scottish Government.

Table 1: Overview of four Japanese case studies
Island Key theme Key Information
Nakanoshima (Ama Town), Japan Education  There is an education scheme to improve schooling provision. This appears to have been a factor in encouraging net positive in-migration (although overall population fall).
Sado Island, Japan Tourism (art, heritage, agriculture) Characterised by tourism-based interventions. Sado Gold and Silver Mine is now aiming to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This case also features agriculture (certified as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), in 2011 and art projects (さどの島銀河芸術祭).
Amami islands, Japan Teleworking/changing nature of work The island has taken steps to encourage teleworking and remote work.
Gotō islands (11 islands), Japan Net zero (community action) The city formulated a Renewable Energy Plan in 2014 and a community energy company was founded in 2018 with investment from local enterprises, organisations and individuals based in Gotō islands. Approximately 50% of the local municipality's demand is already met by renewable energy sources.

In addition to the case study work in Japan, the research team identified examples of local-level depopulation initiatives in Scotland that are similar in terms of their focus. These are briefly included in our analysis as the project scope did not permit a more detailed exploration of these initiatives.

The case study work involved desk-based information gathering from websites, academic papers (where available) and other publicly available web and published information sources in both English and Japanese. Additionally, a small number of online interviews were conducted with key individuals involved in the initiatives at local level to understand more about their rationale, delivery (including barriers and challenges encountered and stakeholders involved), their impacts and how 'success' is measured, and any unintended consequences or policy tensions encountered. These stakeholder interviews (seven in total) included individuals from island-related research organisations, local government officials and representatives of NGOs and community/third sector groups in the case study island communities.

Ethical approval for the interviews was obtained via SRUC's Social Science Ethics Committee. An interview guide was developed to provide some structure to the interviews (see English translation of this in Appendix 1). All interviewees were asked to complete a consent form in advance, and all were provided with a project information sheet containing more information about the project. The interviewees were guaranteed anonymity and confidentiality and the names of individuals and organisations are not used in this report.

The national and local level interviews were semi-structured and lasted between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours. Interviews were conducted in Japanese and recorded and partially transcribed in Japanese and subsequently translated into English. The interview data was analysed by the research team in a thematic way, in order to ensure that we gained in-depth knowledge about individual interventions, but also identified commonalities; for example, in terms of the approaches used, successes achieved and ways of measuring them, and challenges and barriers experienced.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that we recognise power asymmetries and challenges in the production of knowledge in international research projects like this one (Hantrais 2009), particularly because of the differences in culture, language and context that we seek to present in this report. To ensure local context is understood and appreciated, and in the wider spirit of decolonising the academy, the team purposely included a symmetric approach of both Japan-based and UK-based researchers. More specifically, the team consists of: two researchers who are Japanese nationals and have research experience in the UK (Fukushima and Shinzato); two researchers who have working and research experience in Japan and are (or have been) affiliated with Japanese Universities (Dilley and Gkartzios); and two researchers who have worked and published in Japanese research projects (Atterton and Lamont). Furthermore, we pay particular attention to how terms have been translated into English and used in this report. For this reason, we also offer the original terms in Japanese script recognising that there are translation politics in how terms are used, translated and replicated in the anglosphere and beyond (see also Gkartzios et al. 2020).


Email: population@gov.scot

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