There Are No Children Here. Just Lots of Life-Size Dolls.

A tug-of-war, with both doll and living participants, during a day on which the village recreated what was once an annual sports festival day, in Nagoro, Japan, Oct. 6, 2019. In a childless mountain village on an island of Japan, two dozen adults compensate for the absence with the company of hundreds of giant handmade dolls. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)


Motoko Rich

c.2019 The New York Times Company


NAGORO, Japan — The last children were born in the remote mountain village of Nagoro 18 years ago.

Now, a little more than two dozen adults live in this outpost straddling a river on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The elementary school closed its doors in 2012, shortly after the last two students completed sixth grade.

But on a recent bright autumn Sunday, Tsukimi Ayano brought the school back to life.

It just so happened that she did it with dolls rather than humans.

Ayano, 70, had arrayed more than 40 handmade dolls in a lifelike tableau on the grounds of the shuttered school. Recreating a school sports day known as “undokai,” a staple of the Japanese calendar, she had posed child-size dolls in a footrace, perched on a swing set and tossing balls.

“We never see children here anymore,” said Ayano, who was born in Nagoro, and has staged an annual doll festival for the last seven years.

“I wish there were more children because it would be more cheerful,” she said. “So I made the children.”

Japan’s population is shrinking and aging, and nowhere is the trend felt more intensively than in its rural regions, where a low birthrate is exacerbated by dwindling employment opportunities and an inconvenient lifestyle.

“There are no chances for young people here,” said Ayano, who remembers when the village had a medical clinic, a pachinko gambling parlor and a diner. Now, Nagoro does not have even one shop. “They can’t make a living.”

Some 350 dolls made by Ayano and her friends outnumber the human residents by more than 10-to-1. All around Nagoro, she has staged the dolls — made of wood and wire frames, stuffed with newspapers and dressed in old clothes donated from across Japan — in various scenes evoking the real people who once populated the village.

An old woman tends a roadside grave, while another rests in a wheelchair. Construction workers smoke cigarettes on break while others wait at the bus stop. A father pulls a wagon full of children. A mischief maker shakes chestnuts from a tree.

Inside the school, dolls loiter on the stairwells or sit at desks in front of teachers giving eternal lessons. Ayano has a playful touch, giving many of her dolls an impish mien. The overall effect, of a town dominated by dolls, is not as eerie as it might initially sound.

“I don’t think it’s creepy,” said Fanny Raynaud, 38, a nurse from France who was traveling through Japan on a motorcycle with her husband, Chris Monnon, 55. They stopped in Nagoro after reading about the dolls on a travel blog.

“I think it is a beautiful way to make the village alive again,” Raynaud said.

Another visitor scrawled a more pointed message on a chalkboard in one of the school’s classrooms: “Where are the living?”

Nagoro, which sits in what is known as the Iya Valley surrounded by vast mountainsides blanketed by cedar trees, was never a big place. Even when Ayano was a child, the population was only about 300. Shikoku is by far the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the region was fueled by forestry, road construction and dam building for hydroelectric plants.

Once the dams were built, many people left. Those who stayed operate their own pumps to bring water to grow their own vegetables.

To get to a supermarket or the nearest hospital, Nagoro’s residents drive an hour and a half along narrow, winding roads.

“You have to really like mountain living,” said Tatsuya Matsuura, who at 38 is the youngest resident of Nagoro. “I think a lot of people would have trouble living here.”

Matsuura is the third generation of his family to operate a guesthouse for hikers on Mount Tsurugi, about 6 miles up the road from Nagoro. Three years ago, as business dwindled to nothing, the family shut down a general store and inn in Nagoro.

“If we continue on the path we have taken for the last 10 or 20 years, rural areas will continue to shrink and people will continue to concentrate in the cities,” said Hiroya Masuda, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a former governor of Iwate, in northern Japan. “Many communities will eventually vanish.”

Nagoro is one of several hamlets consolidated into a municipal area where more than 40% of the residents are 65 or older.

Even with child care subsidies, discounted medical bills and housing support, the area has little luck attracting new residents or luring back adults who were born in the region.

The local government merged several schools together and spent more than $8 million on a spacious new set of buildings. Just 38 students are enrolled in the entire school.

Most students travel to bigger towns for high school, and leave the region altogether for college or work.

“We want them to choose the life they want,” said Hiromi Mukai, principal of Higashi-Iya Elementary and Middle School. “It is unavoidable.”

Ayano, the eldest of four siblings, moved out of Nagoro at age 12 when her father took a job at a food company in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city. She met and married her husband and raised two children with him there.

After retiring, her father returned to Nagoro to help take care of his ailing father-in-law and to nurse his wife through kidney failure. Sixteen years ago, Ayano returned to the village to look after her father, 90, and Nagoro’s oldest resident.

In the field in front of their home, she planted a few radish and pea seeds. Birds dug them out, so she made a scarecrow, fashioning it in her father’s likeness.

“It looked like a real human, not a conventional scarecrow,” Ayano said. “That is why it really worked.”

She added three or four dolls in the shape of women weeding the field and others on the side of the road.

When a few travelers passing through asked some of the dolls for directions, Ayano was so amused that she started making them full time.

She now gives occasional doll-making lessons in a nearby town or to visitors to her studio, set up in the village’s old nursery school.

On a recent afternoon, Ayano showed a group of women who had driven 60 miles from Tosa City how to create an angry or benevolent expression by angling fabric in different directions to make eyebrows. Extra stitching could denote cheekbones or the creases of age.

Sometimes she takes custom orders from around Japan. A doctor whose wife died of cancer asked for two replicas of his spouse, one to keep in the living room and another for his bedroom.

Ayano keeps a doll modeled after her grandmother in the passenger seat of her car. When driving the hour and a half to the grocery store, she said, “I’m never lonely.”

The day before the recreated sports festival at the old school, Ayano staged various scenes with the help of a group of college volunteers, as well as a few other villagers and her sister and brother-in-law, who had come from Kyushu in southern Japan.

Up until dark, Ayano meticulously stitched arms, hair and clothing into place. After an overnight rain, she was up before dawn, refreshing her work.

By the time the festival opened, the sun emerged. Residents set up food stalls serving soba noodles, fried potatoes and octopus balls.

Osamu Tsuzuki, 73, the owner of a local construction firm, gave a welcoming speech. “On behalf of staff, villagers and more than 300 dolls,” he said, “we have all been waiting for you.”

A few children showed up from nearby towns or were visiting grandparents.

During a tug of war, people joined dolls whose hands Ayano had sewn to the rope. There were not enough human children, so competitors in their 80s gave it their all. After a footrace, Hiroyuki Yamamoto, 82, a resident of a nursing home down the mountain, stroked the cheek of a doll in one of the running lanes.

“She is so cute,” said Yamamoto, a retired road maintenance worker. “I wanted to talk to her.”

Kayoko Motokawa, 67, grandmother of a toddler who resembled a doll himself, said it was sad that Nagoro was now known for dolls rather than its people.

“If these were real humans,” said Motokawa, taking in the festivities, “this would be a truly happy place.”