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Merged educational facilities in depopulated Aomori Pref. offer hints for future

Principal Takahiro Sakazaki, center back, watches over 5-year-old students rolling crushed soy bean paste into balls to make miso as part of dietary education, at Kodomoen Higashidori, on Aug. 20, 2018, in the village of Higashidori, Aomori Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Kodomoen Higashidori)

HIGASHIDORI, Aomori -- In this village in the northeastern part of the Shimokita Peninsula, home to nuclear power facilities, is a unique day care and kindergarten facility.

"You did a great job!" says Takahiro Sakazaki, the 58-year-old principal of "Kodomoen Higashidori" in the northern Japan prefecture of Aomori. He was speaking to a class of 5-year-old students learning about cooking, rolling up crushed soy bean paste to make miso in the school building that exuded an aroma of local Japanese cypress wood.

The grounds of the facility span an expansive 18,695 square meters. According to a fiscal 2008 survey conducted by the Japan National Council of Social Welfare, the average size of day care centers is only 2,389 square meters, meaning that Kodomoen Higashidori could fit eight day care centers inside its grounds. In the large space, there are five school buildings, some having two stories. Roughly 200 pupils, or some 70 percent of the village's 260 children aged 5 or younger, use the facility.

In the past, the 29 neighborhoods of Higashidori had their elementary and junior high schools scattered around the area. However, with its falling population, the schools were combined to form just one elementary and one junior high for the village from around 2005. In 2012, the day care center was built on land adjacent to the schools. This was part of a municipal government push for combining day care, kindergarten, elementary and junior high into one smooth education system.

At most, a student will spend 15 years around the same peers. If someone runs into relationship problems with another student, it is difficult to get away. That's why Sakazaki has monthly meetings with the principals of the elementary and junior high schools and the superintendent of the board of education to thoroughly share information. There is little distance between educators and parents and guardians, and Sakazaki says that this is useful for preventing child abuse or situations where children do not attend school before they happen.

"Enhancement of child care and education can contribute to slowing down the progression of population decline," he believes. That is because if parents feel uneasy about the quality of child care or education, they will be quick to move their children to schools in urban areas. Kodomoen Higashidori employs education methods originating from places like Italy and the Netherlands, and a seemingly endless number of people come to observe the school from all over Japan.

One 34-year-old father who was born and raised in the village and sends his child to the facility is satisfied with the quality of the curriculum and events held there. He himself attended a mixed-grade elementary school with a total of only 30 students. Even compared to then, he feels that the growth of the children is more accelerated, and said, "Having well-grounded education available is a condition for raising my child in my hometown."

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were 26,081 children on waiting lists to get into a day care facility in Japan as of April 1, 2017. The children on the waiting lists are spread out over 420 municipalities. Over 70 percent of the children reside in Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, Japan's 20 specially designated cities or the 54 core cities.

On the other hand, in Aomori Prefecture, where Higashidori is located, the number of children enrolled in government-certified day care centers fell by 87 in comparison to 2016. For seven consecutive years since 2011, the number of children on waiting lists for day care across Aomori has been zero. Other prefectures with no waiting lists in 2017 include Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Yamanashi, Nagano and Tottori.

Part of the reason the waiting lists have been growing is because the number of women entering the workforce or continuing to work after having children is on the rise, and the government has not been able to keep up with the demand for day care services. However, the number of children being born is actually decreasing. In the future, it may become harder to say that the current depopulation issues faced by regional areas have nothing to do with urban areas.

But as the waiting lists to enter day care in urban areas grow, in depopulated areas, residents are facing a different set of worries. That is, being driven away as a consequence of the falling population. At another day care center in a different municipality run by the social welfare foundation that Sakazaki heads, the nearby grocery where the facility buys ingredients for food closed up shop, and having the items delivered from another store a greater distance away was said to cost 1,300 yen per day.

Fees unique to rural areas, such as snow removal and gas for vehicles, also pile up, but government subsidies for child care are lower than those given out in urban areas. Sakazaki wonders if the government has stopped caring about children in rural areas.

Even then, Sakazaki hopes that other municipalities can learn from the practices carried out in Higashidori. "If people do not perceive child care and education facilities as an area's lifeline, then the elementary and junior high schools, and even the region itself, will fail," he said. "This is the path that Japan will have to walk at some point down the road, and it is possible to start thinking about the issue starting from depopulated areas."

This is Part 5 in a series.

(Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Medical Welfare Department)

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