The Funabashi Green Heights complex in Chiba Prefecture was typical of the “new towns” that sprouted up to accommodate the surging population in the Tokyo area. Family ties and a sense of community were promoted, as the bread-winners made their daily commutes to and from their offices in the capital.
But now, the only noticeable activity in the central part of the complex is when buses arrive at intervals of about 30 minutes. The streets are generally bare, and a barber shop and supermarket are about the only businesses still operating at the shopping mall that once housed 21 retail outlets on the ground floor of the complex.
"We once had three youth baseball teams, and residents paraded when we held an athletic meet," one neighborhood official said.
The shrinking Japanese population is finally noticeable in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
In particular, the population in Chiba Prefecture to the east of the capital declined in 2010 for the first time. But officials expect that trend to eventually spread to the entire greater Tokyo area.
During and after Japan's period of rapid economic growth, new towns, or suburban residential complexes, in various areas were the main force behind the population growth in Chiba Prefecture.
However, those communities are slowly emptying of people, particularly in areas with the most inconvenient transportation networks.
Funabashi Green Heights, for example, is located about 20 minutes by bus from JR Funabashi Station.
Over a 20-year period from 1960, Funabashi's population expanded threefold to about 480,000. In 1972, a construction company began selling units in the complex.
At its peak, Funabashi Green Heights had close to 8,000 residents. Now, only 3,600 people live there.
In 1989, only 3 percent of residents were 65 or older, but that ratio now exceeds 30 percent. Forty percent of the households are made up of just a husband and wife, and one in five residents live alone.
And as aging residents have given up on driving, they are also becoming burdened by daily aspects of life, such as shopping.
Signs of a slowdown in population growth are evident elsewhere around Tokyo.
Development continues on large condominium complexes in the six municipalities of the Higashi-Katsushika region, including Kashiwa, especially along the route of the Tsukuba Express railway line that began operations in 2005.
In 2010, the population of the region jumped by 11,513, but last year, the increase was only 1,286.
One major reason is the presence of higher radiation levels than in surrounding areas due to the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The nuclear disaster has devastated a citizens group in Kashiwa that had lobbied for radiation measurement and decontamination measures. A former group leader moved from Kashiwa to her husband's family home in Shimane Prefecture toward the end of last year. Although the group once had more than 100 members, many moved out of Chiba Prefecture due to radiation concerns.
The group stopped its activities when membership fell below 10 last autumn.
Even in Chiba city, the population has already started to decline in such wards as Hanamigawa, where residential development had progressed to a greater extent.
In a new basic plan compiled last June, Chiba city included a provision to deal with the declining population.
Population declines are also affecting Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture to the north, and Kanagawa Prefecture to the south.
As of Oct. 1, 36 municipalities in Chiba Prefecture, or about two-thirds of the total, saw their populations decrease from a year earlier.
About 60 percent of the municipalities in Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures also experienced population decreases.
The population of central Tokyo increased by 1 million over a 10-year period. However, over the past year, Tokyo's population has only increased by about 27,000, a much slower pace than in the past.
Due in part to the drop in foreigners following the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident, seven of Tokyo's 23 wards recorded population declines over the past year.
Companies are already making various moves to respond to the population shifts.
Hanno Shinkin Bank's normal base of operations is in western Saitama Prefecture. But toward the end of last year, the bank opened its first branch in the southern part of the prefecture, establishing an outlet in Saitama city.
"With the aging of the population near our headquarters, we had no choice but to move into areas where population growth is expected," a bank official said.
Other financial institutions, including those from outside Saitama Prefecture, have also begun establishing outlets in the southern part of the prefecture.
Aoyama Trading Co., which operates Japan's largest chain of men's clothing stores, opened a large branch in Tokyo's Shibuya district in autumn 2010.
The company had grown through the opening of branches in suburbs that were easily accessible by car. However, as members of the baby-boomer generation who live in those suburbs reach retirement age, Aoyama Trading officials doubted there would be a further increase in demand in those areas and decided to open outlets in central Tokyo or near major train stations.
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