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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
World
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Desperately seeking Suzukis: Japanese town hopes to make name for itself with population boost

Kainan, a coastal town in Japan that is trying to lure new residents with the surname Suzuki to address its declining population.
Kainan, a coastal town in Japan that is trying to lure new residents with the surname Suzuki to address its declining population. Photograph: Kainan municipal government

A town in Japan is offering millions of yen to relocate there as it tries to arrest the fall in its population. The catch? New residents must live in Kainan, in Wakayama prefecture on the west coast, for five years to keep the cash. And their surname must be Suzuki.

As the “birthplace” of Suzuki, the town decided to tap into its association with Japan’s second most common surname when it launched the campaign in 2021, by targeting the estimated 750,000 Suzukis who live in Tokyo or the neighbouring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa.

Each household that can prove the family surname is, indeed, Suzuki, will receive ¥1m (£5,385), plus the same amount for each child under the age of 18. That means a family of four with two young children would receive ¥3m, with single people getting ¥600,000 each.

The restored Suzuki mansion in Kainan.
The restored Suzuki mansion in Kainan. Photograph: Kainan municipal government

But two years after the re-population drive, the town has failed to attract a single Suzuki – a predicament local officials take in good humour, but which underlines the difficulties Japan’s regional towns face in the battle against ageing and declining populations.

“I can confirm that not a single Suzuki-san has relocated to Kainan so far,” Tomonari Fujita, head of the town’s urban development division, told the Guardian. “One person made some initial inquiries, but it didn’t go any further than that.”

Monetary inducements aside, officials say that in moving to Kainan, people named Suzuki will be reconnecting with their ancestors.

The name is said to have originated among priests at a shrine in the nearby town of Kumano. The Suzuki clan moved to present-day Kainan during the Heian period (794-1185), where they continued to spread their version of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, taking their name with them during pilgrimages.

Kainan is not alone in experiencing a steady decline in residents. The population of Japanese nationals fell by a record 800,000 to 125.4 million in 2022.
Kainan is not alone in experiencing a steady decline in residents. The population of Japanese nationals fell by a record 800,000 to 125.4 million in 2022. Photograph: Kainan municipal government

Recently completed renovation work on the family’s Edo period (1603-1868) mansion in Kainan was funded by hundreds of donations totalling ¥70m from their namesakes across the country, including the Suzuki motorbike and carmaker. The town has also hosted regular gatherings of Suzukis who want to learn more about their ancestry.

While Sato tops the list of common Japanese surnames with 1.86 million, according to a March 2023 survey, Suzuki is a close second with 1.77 million.

Kainan is not alone in experiencing a steady decline in the number of residents. The population of Japanese nationals fell by a record 800,000 to 125.4 million in 2022, although the number of foreigners rose to a record high of almost 3 million. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts that the country will be home to just 87 million people in 2070.

Lacquerware on sale in Kainan, a coastal town in Japan that is trying to attract new residents.
Lacquerware on sale in Kainan, a coastal town in Japan that is trying to attract new residents. Photograph: Kainan municipal government

Of Kainan’s 47,000 residents, more than 36% are aged 65 or over, according to Fujita. “Population decline is serious here,” he said. “We thought we could make our campaign stand out by appealing to people with the surname Suzuki, but the hurdles in the way of actually getting people to live here are high.”

Officials in the town – famous for its lacquerware, kuradashi mikan tangerines and beautiful coastal sunsets – hope the completion next year of a hotel will tempt more Suzukis to visit and get a proper feel for their spiritual home.

“It’s unreasonable to ask someone to drop everything and relocate,” Fujita said. “There is so much to consider before making a decision like that. But if we can get people to come just for a short time and sense the atmosphere here, I think some of them will quickly fall for the place.”

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