Depopulation is a major problem in all rural areas in Japan, but remote islands are hit particularly hard. The Japanese archipelago is officially comprised of 6,852 islands, only slightly more than four hundred of which are inhabited. When policymakers on Ikijima, an outlying island of Nagasaki Prefecture, were looking for ideas to attract more people to the island, the municipal Board of Education pitched the idea of a remote island study abroad program (離島留学). I signed my family up for this program, and in 2020 took my two kids to Iki to experience rural island Japan.
Build it and They Shall Come
“As the Board of Education, this is one way we thought we could contribute to a solution.” says Superintendent Kubota Yoshikazu, when I sat down with him in his office. Prominently displayed on the walls are mission statements and principles of education, as well as many photos of Kubota with students and visitors to Iki. Kubota listens intently to his interlocutor, and speaks with a soft voice. His life has been dedicated to education. Originally from Iki, he graduated from Nagasaki University, and returned to the island to teach middle school and coach baseball. After a long career of teaching, he went on to the prefectural education ministry, working in teacher training. Now, at 76, he is still working hard, heading the school board.
Iki’s current population of 25,643 is about half of where it was in the late 1970s. In 2017, the Board of Education proposed the Ikkiko remote island study abroad program to Mayor Shirakawa Hirokazu. The program was approved in April of the following year, and announced it would start taking students that September, the middle of the Japanese academic year which starts in April. “We wanted to get the word out quickly,” says Kubota, “we weren’t sure if anybody would apply.” If any child wants to come to the island to study, Superintendent Kubota does not want to put up any walls to prevent them. Five students came to the island that September. In 2019 another 14 students arrived, and the next year saw 22 more. The program is growing, and Kubota and his team are meeting with potential applicants every week.
Ticket to an Insular World
The Ikkiko Study Abroad Program is available for elementary and middle school students (Iki city’s two high schools are run by the prefecture, so have their own system). Students wanting to study on Iki have three options: stay with a homestay family, stay with a grandparent, or come to the island with their whole family (this third option is how my family and I came to Ikijima). The program is subsidized by a combination of city and federal money through Remote Islands Rejuvenation Grants (離島活性化交付金). Families can receive up to ¥40,000 a month for a student to offset costs (see the site for a breakdown).
Remote island study abroad programs have been around since the mid 1980s. More than 60 islands from Hokkaido to Kyushu are recruiting students for next year. I asked Superintendent Kubota why it took so long for Iki to start its own program, and he said it was due to Iki’s slower population decline compared to other islands.
Iki has 18 elementary schools and 4 middle schools. As the population on the island dwindles, the schools are emptying. The elementary school my children went to has 47 students in total, from grades 1 to 6. Students have come to Iki from all over Japan, from Okinawa in the south to Niigata in the north. Our family is only the second to come from overseas, the first being a family from the US who came the previous year and settled permanently on Iki.
Life on Iki Island
The school board helped our family settle in a lovely house close to the ocean. I would often stop at the beach to take sunrise photos after dropping the kids off at school. My children had the run of the island, collecting bugs and avoiding snakes with their new friends, as the whole community knew who they were and everyone keeps an eye out for one another’s kids. Until Iki, my children’s image of Japan was of Kyoto, Universal Studios Japan, and Tokyo Disneyland.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, local festivals were cancelled and we were not able to participate in very many community activities. We spent the year exploring the treasures of this historically significantly island, as well as observing the effects of depopulation on the countryside. Every day on the fifteen minute walk to school we passed dozens of abandoned houses. Once students graduate high school, most set sail for the mainland in search of higher education. This means that there is an eery lack of twenty-somethings on the island. It also leaves many low-paying service jobs on the island vacant. There are not enough workers to keep the island communities running.
Furthermore, aging farmers means abandoned fields, and climate change is adversely affecting seaweed production. Traditional fishing stock is moving north, a blow to the fishing industry. The Japan Times reported on an Iki fishing boat restorer changing his business model to crushing fishing boats. The island is trying to attract remote workers and people with new ideas to create local solutions to a problem that plagues much of rural Japan.
Global to Local
Although the Ikkiko Study Abroad Program targets people who want to break out of Japan’s hectic urban environments, Superintendent Kubota is happy to have people from overseas, telling me it is better than going for the typical short international school trip. This way the whole school gets to interact with kids from abroad for an entire year.
The program is ostensibly for one year, but extensions are possible. The ultimate goal is to convince some people of the benefits of island living and have them settle for good. Good schools are a prerequisite for any family considering a move, and Kubota is determined to show how they are properly educating children on the island. I was very impressed with the progress my children were able to make on the island, perhaps a testament to the standards of Japan’s education system, even in remote areas.
Before applying to the program in October, students and families are invited to come to the island and see a few schools before they make their decision. We visited for the first time in January and toured four schools before making our choice. Iki’s school board wants the students to be comfortable with the idea of living on a remote island, and for homestay students to have a chance to meet the family they will be staying with.
“We have confidence!” exclaims Superintendent Kubota, who is sure people will like living here if they just try it out. He encourages students to not fear failure, and is not too fussed about people coming in the middle of the school year, or even leaving if they really have to. This flexibility is particularly appealing for children that are not going to school in their hometowns. Absenteeism is a long-standing issue in Japan, and a change of scenery and the opportunity to re-invent oneself might just be the thing to get a student to go back to school. Iki’s school board staff responsible for the program are careful to spend time learning about each applicant’s situation. Kubota’s normally gentle eyes become determined when talking about his wish for every child to get the opportunity of education.
With only a couple of years under their belt, I asked Kubota what the biggest challenge is for the program now that it is off the ground. He told me that while it can be tough to convince kids to focus on their work rather than thinking they are on holiday on this beautiful island, the main challenge is finding host families so they can accept even more kids.