Japan’s Ministry of Education has over a thousand vacant school buildings that they would like to sell to you.
The rapidly aging country is desperately trying to find something to do with the hundreds of empty school buildings that it decommission every year. Japan’s population implosion brought its primary school student population to its lowest level since at least 1950, when the records began. The number is even more alarming in the lower grades, where the student body is only 60% of 1950 levels.
This creates a horde of zombie schools. Depopulation has long reduced the number of schools in rural areas and gradually spread to second-tier cities such as Osaka and Kobe. Its effects are even being felt in parts of the country’s sprawling capital, long considered a “black hole” that sucks in young people from the countryside.
About 5,800 public school buildings closed between 2002 and 2013, according to data from the Japanese Ministry of Education. In law, many more schools should close for lack of students. But they still exist because no one can think of anything better to do with them. Of those that closed, a few hundred were demolished and about 1,500 schools were still on the books in 2014 and needed a new purpose, according to ministry data.
The Japanese Ministry of Education was cast into the role of go-between, wooing private companies to take away unwanted school buildings.
Many public buildings have found new life as private schools. In the hipster paradise of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, the Seitoku School has dropped its primary school program and transformed into an upscale private high school for girls, which advertises study abroad opportunities in Australia. . Other buildings have seen more prosaic turns, being converted into health and recreation centers for the country’s ever-growing elderly population.
Still others have undergone esoteric transformations. A primary school in Niigata prefecture has been converted into onsen (hot spring spa) where visitors can âenjoy the charm of hometown lifeâ.
Yet another, in Akita Prefecture, visited Shirakami Foods. The company took advantage of the cool weather in northern Japan to use the building for curing meats. The Ministry of Education includes in its promotional material photos showing rows of pork knuckles (pdf in Japanese) hanging in what were once classrooms.
But even in schools that are still functioning, the effects of depopulation are felt among parents.
Takami Seiriki lives in a blue-collar area in southeast Osaka, one of Japan’s largest urban centers. Most weekday mornings, she pushes her son Noki with his cousin to walk the 20 minutes past the shops, then along a half-dry riverbed to their neighborhood public primary school.
There, the two school buildings have 12 classrooms spread over three floors, enough to accommodate 480 students. Enrollment last year was around 190 students, down almost a quarter from 2011. Noki and 25 other students make up the entire third year of the school.
Seiriki says it’s an open question whether the school will remain open until her one-year-old daughter is of school age.
âThere has been a rumor for years that the school is going to merge with another,â Seiriki says. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Several public daycares in the region have already closed or have been forced to merge with others due to the lack of children. Seiriki said she would prefer her son’s public school to remain open, to make sure Noki can stay with his friends. But she also realizes that a school with so few students may not have much of a future.
It’s good that the small class size allows the teacher to keep an eye on all the kids, Seiriki says. But the lack of competition among students worries him.
âThat’s the wrong point,â she said. “This is no place to feed hungry spirits.”
There may in fact be more empty school buildings than what appears in government statistics, said Hideo Akabayashi, professor of economics at Keio University. Indeed, it can be years before central and local governments even agree to view the school as a lost cause, preferring to label it as “temporarily closed” in the hope that more parents with young children will move in. in the neighborhood. Local residents typically fight to keep a little-used school open just to make sure the government continues to pay for the building to be maintained.
âWhen the building is abandoned, it sits empty for years,â Akabayashi said. âEveryone is leaving and it is difficult to attract new businesses. ”
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