December 12, 2009

JAPAN: The American Who Manages the Decline of a Japanese Hamlet

. NEW YORK, NY / The Wall Street Journal / World / Asia / December 12, 2009 By Daisuke Wakabayashi TSUCHIKURE, Japan -- Jeffrey Irish, a 48-year-old American, is the unlikely village chief of Tsuchikure, a remote farming hamlet in Japan's southern Kyushu island. The tall, even-tempered Californian got the position because he satisfies the post's main requirements: He hears and sees well. In Tsuchikure, where the average age is 77 (if you don't count him and his family), that makes Mr. Irish one of only three residents qualified for the job. He spends his days keeping track of the physical and mental decline of the 24 elderly longtime residents of this wilting Japanese village. Aging Japan Some of the residents of Tsuchikure Tsuchikure a community of modest single-family houses on a hillside about the size of a football field -- is in many ways emblematic of Japan in the 21st century: an advanced economy that must cope with the depopulation of everything outside the urban centers. It is one of thousands of withering Japanese villages. Home to more than 100 residents in the 1950s, Tsuchikure has seen its young people move away in search of jobs and never return. After eight years without a death, it had four villagers die this year; three are in the hospital and one-fifth of the houses sit empty. The remaining villagers have made a remarkable choice: Rather than try to come up with ways to lure new residents and keep the town alive, they have pretty much decided to let it disappear slowly, even as they do themselves. Following the death of a 99-year-old woman, Mr. Irish proposed renting out her empty home. A younger couple had expressed interest, and Mr. Irish thought bringing in new blood could extend the village's life. The villagers balked. Newcomers, they said, could upset the delicate harmony of the close-knit community. Mr. Irish had no choice but to turn the disappointed couple away. In the tiny village of Tsuchikure, the average age of the residents is 77. Akiko Fujita reports on why this and thousands of rural Japanese communities like it are literally dying out. . "They want to hold on to the status quo and not let in elements that they are not ready for, like people who stay up past 9 o'clock and make noise," says Mr. Irish, who is in his second one-year term as chief. He is paid about $3,000 a year from a variety of sources including the local prefectural government, the agricultural association, the agricultural insurance association and his fellow villagers (who, as a group, kick in about $800). "For the villagers, the goal is to disappear gracefully and on their terms." Mr. Irish moved to Japan in the 1980s after studying the language and history at Yale. He landed a job at Japanese construction firm Shimizu Corp. in Tokyo, rising through the ranks to become a vice president in the New York office. But he wanted to see a different part of the country: the vestiges of "Japan of the past." He left Shimizu and moved to a fishing village of 1,000 people in Kagoshima prefecture at the southwestern tip of Kyushu. He spent the next three years on a fishing boat catching mackerel, sardines and squid, an experience he described as "an anthropological field study." After publishing a book about life in the fishing village, Mr. Irish landed a job writing a column, in Japanese, for a local Kagoshima newspaper. Having decided that he wanted to live in a farming community, he hopped on a scooter and rode around the prefecture until, in 1998, he came across a hilltop cabin with breathtaking views in Tsuchikure. Since the prefecture owned the property, he negotiated with government officials a yearly rent of 2,500 yen, or $28, and didn't bother to ask permission from the village. He was the only person to have moved into Tsuchikure since 1959, he says. Jeffrey Irish, right, works with fellow residents of Tsuchikure, Japan, to keep them active and fit. Akiko Fujita for The Wall Street Journal In many ways, life in Tsuchikure remains as it has been for decades. Villagers work in the terraced fields near the road that snakes into town, pushing small carts filled with tools to tend to crops of giant radishes, sweet potatoes and fava beans. It's all part of a daily routine that, Mr. Irish says, keeps aging villagers active and fit. Most villagers also still walk on Tsuchikure's narrow roads for daily visits to the cemetery, where there are mausoleums for each household. Mr. Irish plans to bring doctors to Tsuchikure to conduct routine checkups, along with regular visits from a fitness instructor who can lead exercises. He wants to bring in a nutritionist to talk about diet and an expert on senility to explain mental decline. On a recent autumn day, Mr. Irish, or Jeff-san as he is called, made his usual rounds. Everyone in the village is on a first-name basis since most of the residents carry the family name "Tsuchikure" -- a remnant of the days when people would just identify themselves by their hometown. He helped 84-year-old Michiko Tsuchikure pick black-eyed peas in the field. Mr. Irish brought 79-year-old Mikio Tsuchikure a hearing aid to try out, but Mr. Tsuchikure seemed a bit confused by all the buttons. The American chief teased 77-year-old Kazuko Tsuchikure about her driving: "You almost crashed into me the other day." She dismissed him with the wave of a hand and got back into her car. In English, Mr. Irish is serious and speaks in a monotone. In Japanese he becomes animated and is quick with a joke, many at the expense of his receding hairline. He massaged the weathered feet of 89-year-old Mitsue Tsuchikure, joking about how they're caked with dirt from working in the fields, while her toenails are too long. She lectures him that he should have treated visitors to a fancy lunch. Throughout the day, Mr. Irish's voice rings out on the village-wide speaker system. It always starts with Mr. Irish playing a short chime on a xylophone and then an alert about an event ("The tea party is about to start") or an announcement ("The water will be stopped between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.") It's all part of Mr. Irish's attempt to help villagers feel good about their lives instead of worrying about the exigencies of aging. It's similar to what he does in his column, which has made him a local celebrity as the foreigner who shows the Japanese what is great about their own country. What the villagers don't know yet is that Mr. Irish is facing his own difficult reality. He got married in 2006 to a woman who lived in a different part of Kagoshima. She fell in love with his newspaper columns -- and with him. His 35-year-old wife stays home with their 2-year-old daughter and infant boy. In a few years, their daughter, Akane, will start at the elementary school, whose children are drawn from 20 surrounding villages. His daughter's first-grade class may have only one other student. Mr. Irish loves living here, but he worries about shortchanging his children's education and robbing them of basic experiences like playing with other kids their age. "I look at all these people that are the out-migration people who have left for the city and I think, 'Why did they make that decision,?' " says Mr. Irish. "But here I am, in the same spot, considering the same decision." [rc] Daisuke Wakabayashi E-Mail: Daisuke.Wakabayashi@wsj.com Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.