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Inside Japan’s ‘Miracle Town,’ Where the Birth Rate is Soaring Amid a Demographic Crisis

Stephanie Yang at L.A. Times

Photo by Ryoji Iwata / Unsplash

For decades, this lush mountain town’s specialty was growing rice, black soybeans and satoimo, a taro root that features widely in Japanese cuisine and serves as the town’s official mascot.

But visitors are flocking to Nagi from across Japan and even other countries these days out of reverence, and maybe a touch of envy, for its spectacular success at producing something else: babies.

In a nation struggling with record low birth rates and population decline, Nagi has become known as a “miracle town,” where nearly half of the households have three or more children. Far from the bustling cacophony of cities like Tokyo, mothers here chat leisurely as their children’s laughter rings through the fields, and shrug off official hand-wringing over a dearth of youngsters.

“I can’t really feel the birth rate issue,” said Sachie Genba, 42, who grew up in the neighboring city of Tsuyama and is raising her two children in Nagi. “Many mothers here even have four children.”

The Japanese government is eager to unlock the secret of Nagi’s fecundity, which in 2019 resulted in an impressive local fertility rate of 2.95 — the average number of children a woman there will bear in her lifetime. By contrast, the national fertility rate fell to 1.26 last year, well below the 2.1 figure that demographers estimate is needed to ensure a stable population.

Fewer babies mean a steadily shrinking workforce that will be unable to support the country’s elderly as their numbers grow. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has warned that Japan is already on the brink of being unable to maintain its social security system.

“It is now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing — it is an issue that simply cannot wait any longer,” he said in a policy speech in January. The following month, he made his own pilgrimage to meet with parents and officials in Nagi, which has a population of 5,700.

Since then, Nagi has hosted or scheduled visits by more than 100 delegations of assembly members and government workers from other parts of Japan, according to Takamasa Matsushita, the town’s director of information planning. Several South Korean officials also visited earlier this year amid growing alarm over their country’s 0.78 birth rate — the lowest in the world.

In the U.S., the fertility rate hit a record low of 1.64 in 2020 before rebounding slightly over the last two years. China, the world’s most populous nation before India overtook it earlier this year, recently recorded its first population decline in six decades.

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