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Japan’s toddler superstar: the baby bringing hope to a ghost village



Japan’s toddler superstar: the baby bringing hope to a ghost village

In the playground on the western edge of Ichinono, a mother watches fussily over a group of children as steel-grey clouds pause between autumn downpours. Two children are on scooters. One is on a wooden swing. A fourth is pedalling off towards the woods on a pink bicycle.

None of them are actually real.

The rain begins again and the five figures — along with the dozens of other life-size stuffed dolls positioned around Ichinono and conceived to populate a depopulating village — remain rooted to their spots. 

The roughly 60 dolls, which locals began crafting a few years ago to fill a psychological gap as people depart either vertically or horizontally, now outnumber the 53 flesh-and-blood residents of this dying village north of Osaka. Some are poised in farm activities. Others are in exercise, play or mid-conversation. Most simply lean or loom, their cloth eyes staring fixedly into space as the world takes its indifferent detour around Ichinono.

A garden gate clanks shut somewhere up the road. A pump bubbles water into a pondful of carp. Otherwise, the village is silent.


But as evening darkness envelops Ichinono’s small cluster of houses and working fields, and two of the residents return home for the night, another sound breaks the silence: a sound that has been unheard this side of the new millennium. In a partly renovated single-storey house in the middle of the village, a baby is wailing. 

Toddler Kuranosuke with his parents Toshiki and Rie © Yasuyuki Takagi

It does not last long. Kuranosuke is the first child born in Ichinono for more than two decades. He is its youngest resident by many years and, as he tucks into rice and sweet potato, the definition of contentment. 

On earth for a little over a year and cherished by a cooing, tribute-bearing platoon of surrogate grandparents from around the village, the boy has already had poems written about him. When he appears to his elderly local fans, he is the centre of attention and the target of collective parenting muscles, unflexed in some cases for over half a century. A haiku — “running around the village/ the patter of tiny feet/ gusts young leaves” — has been inscribed on a votive wooden plaque by the wife of the village chief and sits at the entrance of the family home. 

The boy gurgles back to his dinner, a hero for simply existing.

To some, this scene — exceptional, even in Japan — might look dystopian. Or at the very least, an extreme version of the destination that permanently low birth rates — of a type now established across significant parts of Asia and Europe — can take a country when not offset with immigration. Countries such as China, whose population has now begun to contract, can see that Japan may now be providing lessons on what this process will look like in decades to come. 

Some objects, including pieces of wood with characters inscribed on them, sit on a table
A haiku about Kuranosuke inscribed on a votive plaque (right of the white ornament) in the home of the village chief . . .  © Yasuyuki Takagi
A picture of Kuranosuke painted on wood
 . . . and a picture of him in another local house © Yasuyuki Takagi
A tree next to a small house. Around it are tied pieces of paper
The village’s sacred oak tree © Yasuyuki Takagi

The media, and with it the political debate, has tended to opt for the negative interpretation of birth-rate data and stories. In January, prime minister Fumio Kishida declared what appeared to be a line in the sand on years of halfhearted or ill-construed birth-rate policies. The government’s attention could no longer be distracted from this issue because, as he put it: “Japan is standing on the brink of whether we can continue to function as a society.” 

But to the Kato family, Ichinono is utopia. Kuranosuke Kato and his early-thirties parents, Toshiki and Rie, have opted to live in apparent defiance of Japan’s consumerist, atomising and urbanising statistical trends. The birth/death balance in the country means that its indigenous population is now shrinking at a rate of around one person every minute; the population of Ichinono, where the Kato family moved three years ago just as the pandemic was beginning, declined by three in 2022 alone. 

Almost 32 per cent of Japanese men and 24 per cent of women have never been married. Ever fewer young Japanese are tying the knot and the annual number of marriages — still overwhelmingly a Japanese social prerequisite for producing children — is half what it was in the 1970s. Last year, fewer than 800,000 babies were born in Japan and the indigenous population shrank by over half a million. 

Map of Ichinono in Hyogo, Japan

The Kato couple, meanwhile, left the city, married and are wondering about a brother or sister to keep their son company. Toshiki works from home as a consultant to IT companies. Rie, a midwife at a hospital to which she commutes by car every day, is in the baby business, and her husband seems to enjoy the irony.

“I like the countryside. We can find an identity in the countryside. In the city there are a lot of rules, but this is more loose,” says Toshiki, who discovered Ichinono by accident while on a work trip a few years ago. “I still don’t know if moving here was a good idea or not, but it feels like the human thing to do. My wife is more stress-free and my son can lead a natural life. Being in the countryside is about mental security. We’re less anxious about raising children.”

Still, their choice of idyll is odd. For some decades now the village, crouched in the hills of Hyōgo prefecture and with a sacred 500-year-old oak tree at its centre, was indisputably on a demographic course to zero. It feels perfectly possible that, if the family stays here, Kuranosuke could reach adulthood in a village where he and his parents are more or less completely alone. In common with the rest of Japan, where 10 per cent of the population is now over the age of 80 and 29 per cent is over 65, Ichinono is old. Most of its 53 residents are well past retirement age, and some a good way beyond that.

A man and two women, probably in their seventies, stand in a rural setting with a small wooden bridge behind them
Taeko Murayama (centre) with husband Shinichi and fellow villager Hisayo Yamasaki: ‘No new people would come here. Anyone young would not be able to find anyone to marry’ © Yasuyuki Takagi
A view over green fields with wooden hills and a collection of houses in the distance
The view over Ichinono, where half of the houses lie empty © Yasuyuki Takagi

“I suppose that gradually we got used to the idea that the village would just disappear, and one day we would all be gone. No new people would come here. Anyone young would not be able to find anyone to marry locally and leave. It would just vanish,” says Taeko Murayama, a farmer whose memories of growing up in Ichinono include playing with her grandmother in a house that now stands, just a few metres from her, in abandoned ruin.

Taeko’s rice-farmer husband Shinichi sees Japan’s diminishing demographics reflected in the village’s changing relationship with nature. When he was a young man, and the village had a far larger and more energetic population, Ichinono lived in harmony with the wooded mountainside around it. The villagers would fell trees but also replant and prune. Delicious — and valuable — matsutake mushrooms would grow copiously in this environment. Now, with the forest untended, the mushrooms are gone.


Half of the houses in Ichinono, by local estimates, now lie empty, their residents either dead or moved to care homes elsewhere. They are part of a national stock, according to a 2018 estimate, of 8.5mn such akiya in Japan, whose numbers are on course to swell to 20mn over the next two decades. The small rice paddies and vegetable farms on which the village lives are productive but raggedy. Electric fences surround many of the plots because Ichinono’s shrinking population no longer produces the sort of bustle and activity that once convinced bears, deer, monkeys and boars to confine themselves to the nearby hills. 

A stuffed figure leans next to a wooden building, arms outstretched as if weight lifting
One of Ichinono’s 60 or so life-sized dolls . . .  © Yasuyuki Takagi
. . . which were crafted to ‘populate’ the village and now outnumber actual residents © Yasuyuki Takagi

One very striking factor in all this is how unisolated the village is. It is not remotely remote, easily reachable by large, well-maintained roads. It needs them — there are four high-grade golf courses within a 3km radius of Ichinono’s abandoned farmhouses that attract respectable traffic. It is just 32km from Kyoto and 63km from the centre of what is generally considered Japan’s second-biggest city, Osaka. A bullet train station that could take you to Tokyo every 15 minutes is less than 30 minutes’ drive away. 

The temptation is to see villages like Ichinono as the vanguard of Kishida’s feared rumble into dysfunction. Toshiki, who chuckles at the fact that villagers like to leave pumpkins and other vegetables on the doorstep for Kuranosuke, would not agree. At its best, he says, Japanese culture is actually the culture of the village.

A small wooden building set among trees
The village shrine  © Yasuyuki Takagi
Some plants in pots next to a corrugated shed decorated with pictures and a bicycle wheel
The community garden . . . © Yasuyuki Takagi
A picture of a sumo wrestler painted on a panel at the entrance to a garden plot
. . . which is a place for the locals to meet and chat © Yasuyuki Takagi

“It is a culture of mutual support. When my thatched roof collapses, everyone helps rebuild it. Everyone owns the village, and when a child comes along, everyone raises it together,” he says. “That doesn’t happen in cities.”

It remains very unlikely, however, that the Kato experiment with a return to the countryside will be widely replicated, and few truly believe that Japan’s demographic tide can be turned. Optimists might see the Kato family as part of a successful experiment in the economics of “degrowth”. Others will decide their cheerful trend-breaking is the exception that proves a far more depressing rule among young Japanese. 

Japan’s stagnant “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s, while relatively comfortable for millions of Japanese and even enviable to other countries around the world, have left an indelibly negative mark. There is still a deep sense of precariousness around work, while the competitive pressures that hound parents and students into heavy expenditure on extra schooling have not abated.

The long years of wage stagnation are often blamed for permanently tranquillising Japan’s animal spirits. But also clear is that Kuranosuke has been born into an epoch when decades of accumulated demographic torque — the super-ageing of society and shrinkage of the successive generations — are unwinding some of the great certainties that have made Japan what it is today. 


Those include, for some, the certainty that growth — both in economics and demographics — is the only valid course. Other unravellings are less up for debate. A postwar Japanese political establishment built around the courting and appeasement of farmers and the baby-boom generation must substantively reimagine its priorities. A massive corporate sector once shaped around an abundance of legally unsackable labour must retool and restructure for its opposite. The once notoriously overworked workforce, now shrinking and in hotter demand, is gaining the power to quit and question.

The great upheaval, overwhelmingly created by demographics, may even now be greater than Japan has yet admitted to itself. To certain parts of the financial industry, there is a good deal to celebrate in this. 

In a note to clients published last week by the brokerage CLSA under the title “Japan’s perfect demographics”, the equity strategist Nicholas Smith argued that investors may see a range of benefits in a set of circumstances that have conventionally been painted as wholly negative. While the employment-threatening advent of automation and artificial intelligence may be a millstone to countries with a large population, they are a boon to a shrinking one. Wage increases — their long absence once seen as a heavy padlock on wider economic revitalisation — are far more likely as labour becomes more scarce.  

Still, the sense of an unstoppable, slow-motion disaster — where an ever-diminishing young population is forced to support an ever-swelling elderly one, remains the predominant take. And it is no less unsettling for how well everyone knows this. Japan has seen its demographic crisis coming for a long time. 

Japan’s immigration debate, despite the now steady influx of foreign workers coming in as part of national policy, remains prickly and widely avoided. It is likely to be so, say political analysts, even if the public narrative finds an acceptable terminology with which to bring the debate more fully into the mainstream conversation. In 2019, Japan introduced a visa programme that in effect opened the country to tens of thousands of blue-collar workers from overseas. Three years later, the government produced a road map to implement “harmonious coexistence” with a new immigrant population. All very practical, but none of it able to dislodge the idea that the government, first and foremost, has a responsibility to raise the indigenous birth rate.

A woman sits on the floor, her arms around a little boy who sits on a wooden trike
Kuranosuke at home with his mother Rie © Yasuyuki Takagi
A pull-along caterpillar toy
One of his toys at the family home . . .  © Yasuyuki Takagi
A child’s plastic ride-on car seen through a doorway
. . . and his ride-on car © Yasuyuki Takagi

That idea of government responsibility for an intensely personal decision is deeply entrenched. Back in 1990, Japanese media swooned at the “1.57 shokku” or shock, the point where the fertility rate — births per woman of childbearing age — had fallen decisively below replacement levels, and a moment of national recognition that coincided with the collapse of the late-1980s asset bubble. (The particular significance of that figure derived from the rate having been 1.58 in 1966, a deeply ill-omened year when many families avoided having children.) For all Japan’s wealth, ingenuity and stability, it appeared not to be a country where people wanted to form households.  

Those fears felt more real every year that the new fertility numbers were published. Since the 1.57 shokku, the fertility rate has declined to an all-time low of 1.26 in 2005, risen slightly from there and since declined again to 1.26 in 2022. It is nowhere close to reversing population decline, but is now higher than fertility rates in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. This comparison may not immunise the authorities in Tokyo from the political need to “solve” the birth-rate issue, but it may help shake off the unhelpful myth that the causes are unique to Japan.

The biggest issue, says Junya Tsutsui, an expert on demographics at Ritsumeikan university, is that successive government policies on the birth rate have skewed towards the wrong part of the problem. While many measures have been tried over the years, the majority are designed to address fears that having large numbers of children is simply too expensive for young Japanese to contemplate. 

Yet the declining birth rate, he says, can mostly be explained by the fact that the unmarried population is rising, and people are marrying later in life. “The amount of child-rearing support on offer has little to do with this. The birth rate isn’t actually that much declined among people who do get married. Japan needs to increase the marriage rate.”

The problem then shifts to the question of why more Japanese are not marrying, and what, realistically, any government can do about this. Again, says Tsutsui, the “lost decades” have a lot to answer for. Of all the surveys carried out around the birth-rate issue, he says, the significant one relates to income and marriage prospects. Among men with an annual income of ¥5mn or more, he tells me, about half will get married within a few years. For men with an income of less than ¥2mn, that ratio drops to 10 per cent. The more precarious the employment market, the lower the prospects of marriage and, consequently, children.

Therefore, Tsutsui says, Japan has grounds for optimism. The country’s once seemingly hostile demographics are, in theory, turning friendly. The tighter the labour market, and the more directly that translates into wage increases, the more marriageable its young people become. 


The Kato family, sitting at a low table on a tatami floor, watch patiently as the village superstar finishes his dinner and eyes a small sit-on car in the corner that begs to be ridden around the room before bedtime. His mother Rie wipes his chin and gestures out at Ichinono — its roads in near-complete darkness and the silence, once again, its defining feature.

“It is peaceful here,” she says, “but Kuranosuke needs friends his own age.”

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Asia business editor

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Google agrees to pay C$100mn a year for news in Canada



Google agrees to pay C$100mn a year for news in Canada

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Google has agreed to pay C$100mn a year into a fund to support news organisations in Canada as part of a deal with the government, ending a dispute that led it to threaten to cut links to news from its services.

The pact ends a six-month stand-off following the passage of an online news law designed to funnel some of the cash that Google and Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, make from online advertising to bolster the finances of news organisations. The dispute blew up into the biggest conflict between the internet giants and a national government over news subsidies since Australia became the first country to pass a law on the issue in 2021.

Meta suspended links to news stories in Canada earlier this year in protest at the law, and Google threatened to follow suit when the law goes into effect in mid-December unless the government diluted the impact of the legislation.


The search giant dug its heels in against being forced to pay for news links in its services, which it feared would set a precedent that could be applied to other types of online links. Rather than hurting the news companies, the internet giants have always claimed that their links deliver valuable traffic to news sites, with Google claiming its news links are worth C$250mn a year to Canadian publishers.

However, Canada’s Online News Act was explicitly aimed at bringing what it called greater “fairness” to payment for online news following a huge shift in the online advertising market to Google and Meta. 

Google also objected that the Canadian law would leave it with open-ended financial liability, since it would be forced to negotiate with each publisher individually and would face an arbitration process the company believed would be stacked against it.

In a compromise announced on Wednesday, Pascale St-Onge, minister of Canadian heritage, said that the agreement would “benefit the news sector and allow Google to continue to play an important role in giving Canadians access to reliable news content”. Google’s payments would be made to a collective fund, she added, ending the need to negotiate with each publisher separately.

Canadian officials estimated earlier this year that the act would require Google to pay C$172mn to publishers. It was unclear on Wednesday whether the final regulations under the act, which are due to be released before it goes into force on December 19, would still amount to Google paying for carrying links — something the company has strongly objected to.


Meta indicated that the deal with Google would make no difference to its decision to block news links in Canada. “Unlike search engines, we do not proactively pull news from the internet to place in our users’ feeds and we have long been clear that the only way we can reasonably comply with the Online News Act is by ending news availability for people in Canada,” it said.

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Potential tornadoes and damaging storms to target Texas, including Houston area | CNN



Potential tornadoes and damaging storms to target Texas, including Houston area | CNN


Another tornado threat will take aim at the southern US on Thursday, less than two weeks after at least a dozen tornadoes hit Louisiana and Mississippi.

This time, the tornado threat will center on Texas as a storm system begins to take shape in the southern Plains.

Severe thunderstorms are expected to rumble to life late Thursday morning across Texas and Oklahoma and track east into portions of Louisiana and Arkansas.

The greatest risk of tornadoes will be primarily in southeastern Texas – including parts of the Houston metro area – from late Thursday morning through mid-afternoon. An enhanced risk, or Level 3 of 5, for severe storms is in place for the area on Thursday, according to the Storm Prediction Center.


Storms in portions of southwestern Louisiana could also produce a tornado or two Thursday afternoon.

In addition to tornadoes, any severe thunderstorm on Thursday could produce hail, damaging wind gusts up to 60 mph and heavy rainfall.

The severe storm threat will linger into Thursday night in Louisiana as the storm system begins to track generally from the Plains into the Mississippi Valley.

Rain will fall across an expansive part of the Mississippi Valley, Midwest and Southeast as the storm pushes north and eastward Thursday night into Friday.

This rain is desperately-needed in the Lower Mississippi Valley, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, which are battling some of the worst drought in the US.


Louisiana is suffering through its worst drought on record – one which has fed unprecedented wildfires. Exceptional drought – the US Drought Monitor’s highest level – covers almost three-quarters of the state, according to data released last week. Exceptional drought covers more than a third of Mississippi.

One to 3 inches of rain is expected to fall across the Mississippi Valley on Thursday, and an additional 1 to 2 inches could fall Friday in portions of the Gulf Coast and Southeast.

Additional severe thunderstorms are possible, but much less likely, on Friday from Louisiana to Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. A marginal risk level for severe storms, or a Level 1 out of 5, is in place for the area on Friday.

November marks the start of a secondary severe weather season in the South. The clash between cold, Canadian air drilling into the region and lingering warm, moist air over the Gulf of Mexico typically leads to an uptick in damaging thunderstorms from November to December.

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Russia has stockpiled missiles for winter attack on Ukraine, says Nato



Russia has stockpiled missiles for winter attack on Ukraine, says Nato

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Russia has built up a large stockpile of missiles and intends to use them in a bid to destroy Ukraine’s power and heating infrastructure in the coming months, Nato’s secretary-general has warned.

With the front line largely frozen after Ukraine’s autumn counteroffensive failed to make significant gains, Kyiv has stepped up calls for more air defence supplies from its western allies as it girds for another winter bombardment.

“Russia has amassed a large missile stockpile ahead of winter, and we see new attempts to strike Ukraine’s power grid and energy infrastructure, trying to leave Ukraine in the dark and cold,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.


“We must not underestimate Russia. Russia’s economy is on a war footing,” he said following a meeting of allied foreign ministers and their Ukrainian counterpart.

The warning from the head of the US-led military alliance, which Ukraine has applied to join, comes as EU countries and US lawmakers continue to squabble over respective new financial support packages for Kyiv proposed by Brussels and the White House, raising questions on the longevity of western backing as Russia’s invasion grinds on.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said he saw “no sense of fatigue” among Nato members regarding support for Ukraine.

Russia is planning to spend Rbs10.8tn ($122bn) on defence next year, three times the amount allocated in 2021, the year before the invasion, and 70 per cent more than was planned for 2022, according to a bill on Russia’s budget that President Vladimir Putin signed on. The enormous sums in Russia’s record Rbs36.6tn budget for next year will take defence spending to 6 per cent of gross domestic product.

Arms manufacturers are working three shifts a day to meet the defence ministry’s orders. Several civilian factories have shifted to defence production, as well as some non-industrial sites including a bakery that now makes drones.


Putin told arms makers in September to “raise production capacity in the shortest possible time, keep facilities as busy as possible, optimise technological cycles, and cut down production time without lowering quality”.

Russia’s intelligence agencies have also stepped up their operations to import western dual-use technology — goods that have both potential civilian and military applications — for the defence industry.

The rush for parts has forced Russia to seek ways around western sanctions and export controls by smuggling western-made technology through third countries such as Turkey, according to western officials.

Despite Putin’s orders, Russia is not putting an emphasis on quality, accepting whatever parts arms manufacturers can get their hands on to increase missile production, western officials say — even if that makes them less accurate.

A senior Ukrainian intelligence official told the Financial Times that Russia was now receiving frequent shipments of munitions from Iran and North Korea, including Iranian one-way attack drones and North Korean artillery shells and rockets.


The artillery is arriving in quantities that will ensure Russian troops can at least continue fighting at a level consistent with the hostilities in recent months, while the drones are likely to be used along with long-range missiles in Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure over the winter months.

Stoltenberg’s remarks come after Russia launched its biggest drone attack of the war on November 25, targeting Kyiv’s energy infrastructure and signalling what Ukrainian officials fear marked the start of a winter air campaign.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday said his country’s air defences have had a success rate of more than 90 per cent in intercepting Russian missiles and drones in the latest wave of attacks. But he said Kyiv still needed more help from the west to get through the tough winter ahead.

“There is a clear need to develop and reinforce our mobile firing groups, as well as to get all highly effective air defence systems [from western partners],” Zelenskyy said.

Stoltenberg said Russia was “now weaker politically, militarily and economically” than before the February 2022 invasion and had “lost a substantial part of its conventional forces. Hundreds of aircraft. Thousands of tanks. And more than 300,000 casualties.”


Oleksandr Lytvynenko, Ukraine’s chief of foreign intelligence, wrote in a rare public report on the war last week that Russia’s military had been weakened but that Putin had set his economy on a war footing, significantly increasing its arms production which is likely to continue at least until 2026.

“The Kremlin believes that it has enough resources for hostilities with Ukraine at the current level for a long period,” he said. “At the same time, Moscow is convinced that Ukraine’s internal resources are allegedly ‘approaching complete exhaustion’.”

Russia’s goals in Ukraine, to gain as much territory as possible, remain unchanged, he added. Going into winter, the conflict had now fully attained the “stage of a war of attrition”, Lytvynenko said.

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