In this small village, the children still sit in the classroom behind their desks, staring at the teacher, while on the road a group of elderly people wait for the bus, and on the bank of the river a boy rests next to a pile of wood.
A really normal picture of a really normal rural life, in a really normal remote Japanese village.
In reality, this people is stationary in houses, fields, streets, and those who is in the crowded bus stop wait for a bus that never comes, in fact, after a closer inspection, the inhabitants of this remote village reveal a sad truth: they are the lifeless witness of a once lively community, which is inexorably sliding towards extinction.
This is the village of Nagoro, on the southwestern island of Shikoku, Japan, that once housed hundreds of inhabitants.
But over the years, the population has fallen dramatically, because the young people of the village have gradually started to find work and a better life in the cities, leaving only very old people and pensioners to live on the island. As unfortunately it happens often in the many villages in Japan’s countryside, and something similar happened also to Tashirojima, now inhabited by more cats than people.
In the early 2000s, when Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home, in Nagoro, after decades of living in the metropolis of Osaka, she was very saddened to find her village more like a ghost town than an inhabited place.
She thus began to create life-sized dolls, one for each resident who had left the island or died, and scattered them around the village: figures in colorful clothes crowded outside a shop, another group wrapped up in winter clothes waits at the bus stop, or old ladies that sit by the roadside to look over the fields.
The dolls are everywhere, ten times more numerous than the current residents of Nagoro!
Ayano Tsukimi discovered her passion by chance: about 13 years ago she made a scarecrow for her garden, just returned to Nagoro. Unknowingly she had made a straw man who looked like her father, and this gave her the idea for her new hobby.
In this village, there are only 35 people, and in the last years, she has made more than 350 scarecrows, built with a wooden core, and then wrapped with newspapers, straw and cloth to give volume to the figures. Finally, each doll is dressed in old clothes often hand-made.
Tourists are drawn by the two lifeless delegates guarding the road leading to the village, next to a board identifying Nagoro as “Scarecrow Village”.
Ayano, now that her creations have turned into a tourist attraction, is always concerned with keeping them in perfect order. The ones located outdoors are lined with plastic to keep them dry, and Ayano has often had to replace scarecrows exposed to the open air.
Sometimes, the scarecrow are made to order, usually in the likeness of young people who have left Nagoro or residents who have died.
At about 65, Ayano is among the youngest residents of Nagoro, and she is the symbol of a demographic change that appears irreversible, characterized by a low birth rate and an increasingly large number of elderly people, particularly long-lived thanks to the traditional diet low fat.
The village school was closed in 2012 after its two pupils graduated. But the building is now occupied by Ayano’s scarecrows: there are students at their desks and in corridors, a teacher by the blackboard, and also a suit-wearing school principal looks on.
Perhaps, within a few years, Nagoro will truly turn into a ghost village, inhabited only by the sad dolls of Ayano Tsukimi…..