The village of Nagoro, deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan, once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Tsukimi Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. She moved back from Osaka to look after her 85-year-old father after decades away. "They bring back memories," Ayano said of the life-sized dolls crowded into corners of her farmhouse, perched on fences and trees, huddled side-by-side at a produce stall, the bus stop, anywhere a living person might stop to take a rest. "That old lady used to come and chat and drink tea. That old man used to love to drink sake and tell stories. It reminds me of the old times, when they were still alive and well," she said.
As Japan is ravaged by a falling birthrate and rapid aging, Nagoro is typical of the thousands of communities that are turning into ghost towns or, at best, open-air museums, frozen in time. The one-street town is mostly abandoned, its shops and homes permanently shuttered. The local elementary school closed two years ago. Japan's population began to decline in 2010 from a peak of 128 million. Without a drastic increase in the birthrate or a loosening of the staunch Japanese resistance to immigration, it is forecast to fall to 108 million by 2050 and to 87 million by 2060. By then, four in 10 Japanese will be over 65 years old. Greater Tokyo, with more than 37 million people, and Osaka-Kobe, with 11.5 million, account for nearly 40% of the country's 127 million people. "There's been this huge sucking sound as the countryside is emptied out," says a population expert at Columbia University. (Read more Japan stories.)