NAGORO, Japan – The last children were born in the remote mountain village 18 years ago. The elementary school closed in 2012, shortly after the last two students completed sixth grade.
But on a recent Sunday, Tsukimi Ayano brought the school back to life. It just so happened that she did it with dolls rather than humans.
Ayano, 70, arrayed life-size, handmade dolls in a tableau on the grounds of the shuttered school. Re-creating a school sports day known as undokai, a staple of the Japanese calendar, she had posed the dolls in a footrace, perched on a swing set and tossing balls.
“We never see children here anymore,” said Ayano. “I wish there were more children because it would be more cheerful. So I made the children.”
Japan’s population is shrinking and aging, and nowhere is the trend felt more intensively than in its rural regions, where a low birthrate is exacerbated by dwindling employment opportunities and an inconvenient lifestyle.
“There are no chances for young people here,” said Ayano, who remembers when the village had a clinic, gambling parlor and diner. Now, only two dozen adults live in this outpost straddling a river on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and there isn’t even a single shop. Residents eke out a living renting rooms to tourists attracted by the area’s mountain hiking trails.
Ayano and her friends made 350 dolls of wood and wire frames, stuffed with newspapers and dressed in old clothes donated from across Japan. They posed them all around the town in various scenes evoking the real people who once populated the village.
An old woman tended a roadside grave, while another rested in a wheelchair. Construction workers on break smoked cigarettes while others waited at a bus stop.
Ayano has a playful touch, giving many of her dolls an impish mien. The overall effect, of a town dominated by dolls, is not as eerie as it might initially sound.
“I don’t think it’s creepy,” said Fanny Raynaud, 38, a nurse from France who was traveling through Japan. She and her husband stopped in Nagoro after reading about the dolls on a travel blog.
“I think it is a beautiful way to make the village alive again,” Raynaud said.
Another visitor scrawled a more pointed message on a chalkboard in one of the school’s classrooms: “Where are the living?”
Shikoku is by far the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands. During the 1950s and ’60s, the region was fueled by forestry, road construction and dam building for hydroelectric plants.
Now to get to a supermarket or the nearest hospital, Nagoro’s residents drive an hour and a half along narrow, winding roads.
“You have to really like mountain living,” said Tatsuya Matsuura, who at 38 is the youngest resident. “I think a lot of people would have trouble living here.”
Matsuura is the third generation of his family to live in Nagoro. At one time, the family ran a general store and an inn; these days, Matsuura rents a guesthouse to hikers.
Ayano, the eldest of four siblings, moved out of Nagoro at age 12 when her father took a job at a food company in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city. She met and married her husband and raised two children with him there.
After retiring, her father returned to Nagoro to help take care of his ailing father-in-law and to nurse his wife through kidney failure. Sixteen years ago, Ayano returned to the village to look after her father, 90, and Nagoro’s oldest resident.
In the field in front of their home, she planted a few radish and pea seeds. Birds dug them out, so she made a scarecrow, fashioning it in her father’s likeness.
“It looked like a real human, not a conventional scarecrow,” Ayano said. “That is why it really worked.”
She added three or four dolls in the shape of women weeding the field and others on the side of the road. When a few travelers passing through asked some of the dolls for directions, Ayano was so amused that she started making them full time.
The day before the re-created sports festival at the old school, Ayano staged various scenes with the help of a group of college volunteers, as well as a few other villagers and her sister and brother-in-law, who had come from Kyushu in southern Japan.
Up until dark, Ayano meticulously stitched arms, hair and clothing into place. After an overnight rain, she was up before dawn, refreshing her work.
When the festival opened, Osamu Tsuzuki, 73, gave a welcoming speech to the tourists who had arrived. “On behalf of staff, villagers and more than 300 dolls,” he said, “we have all been waiting for you.”
Kayoko Motokawa, 67, grandmother of a toddler who resembled a doll himself, said it was sad that Nagoro was now known for dolls rather than its people.
“If these were real humans,” said Motokawa, taking in the festivities, “this would be a truly happy place.”