DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Japan, you sometimes hear this term, village on the edge. What it means is a village on the edge of extinction. Japan's population is fast declining. It's easy to find evidence of that in rural areas. NPR's Ina Jaffe recently visited a remote mountain village on the island of Shikoku. It once had some 300 residents. Now the population has dropped to just 30. But one of those residents has been repopulating her hometown with scarecrows.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: You can tell when you've arrived at the village of Nagaro. A tipoff is the three farmers in floppy hats resting against a telephone pole by the side of the road. Actually, they're life-sized figures made of cloth, stuffed with cotton and newspapers. The same goes for the man fishing in the creek a bit further up the road and the woman working in the potato field and the people waiting at the bus stop.
All of these figures are the work of 67-year-old Tsukimi Ayano. She's been making them for more than a decade. The first one she made really was intended to just be a scarecrow. And it looked like her father.
TSUKIMI AYANO: (Through interpreter) My father really didn't mind. But all the neighbors thought, because the scarecrow was wearing his clothes and looked like him, that he was out farming very early in the morning. So they'd say, good morning, how are you doing this morning? You're up working very early. So it just started up a conversation between the scarecrow and the neighbors.
JAFFE: Ayano met us in her front yard, where she was boiling a big pot of bamboo shoots over a wood fire. Nearby, a hose streams spring water into a tank where she's raising baby fish she caught in the nearby river. Country life seems to suit her. You wouldn't guess she's lived most of her life in Japan's third-largest city, Osaka. Her family moved there when she was in the seventh grade. And she remained, married, raised children. She returned to this village to look after her father.
AYANO: (Through interpreter) When I was in seventh grade, there were lots of people in the community, a lot of villagers, a lot of children. When I came back 15 years ago, you could obviously see the decline in the population.
JAFFE: But that emptiness has given Ayano a huge canvas for her creations. She guesses she's made more than 400 scarecrows by now, all with individuality in their faces and clothing. As we walk up the road, Ayano explains that many of her figures have names of characters she's made up or of real people, some living, some gone.
AYANO: (Through interpreter) This is Mrs. Ogata, Miyako Ogata. She's a grandmother who passed away two years ago. But she used to sit like that in front of the house. So I made the figure look exactly like her.
JAFFE: Does that make you sad, or do you find it comforting to see her there?
AYANO: (Through interpreter) It's no longer sad because she's wearing the same clothes when she was very active. So she's there, and I come and greet her all the time. And so it feels like she's still here.
JAFFE: Ayano seems to take the loss of her neighbors in stride. At 67, she's one of the younger people in Nagano. But the villagers are still a hearty bunch. The reason we don't see any as we walk, she explains, is because they're all out in the fields, harvesting potatoes.
Soon, we arrive at the town's only school. But there are no longer any children here. The place is now a showcase for dozens of Ayano's figures, classrooms as she remembers them, full of students, teachers, parents looking on. One of the classrooms has just two child figures seated at the desks. They represent the last two students who were here before the school shut down for good.
AYANO: (Through interpreter) These two little scarecrows, the children made those themselves during their home economics class. And they put the clothes they wore back then on the figures before they left the school.
JAFFE: Ayano's scarecrows have put this village on the map. The regional government sponsors a scarecrow festival for tourists each October. And some foreign visitors just find Ayano on their own, like a young man from Poland named Kit Kornowalski, who just showed up unannounced during our interview.
KIT KORNOWALSKI: I don't know, it wasn't - it's not even a rational thing. I just found it really interesting and just really wanted to come. It is absolutely wonderful. I can't stop smiling.
JAFFE: Ayano smiles a lot, too. She says she doesn't make these scarecrows because she's lonely, that making them brings her joy.
AYANO: (Through interpreter) Every morning I just greet them, saying good morning or, have a nice day. I never get a response, but that doesn't make a difference. I just go around talking to them anyway.
JAFFE: She says she'll keep making these figures as long as she's able. So Nagaro's population of scarecrows is likely to increase, as the people who live here slowly fade away. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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