One of the dolls Tsukimi Ayano created to fill the mountain village of Nagoro on Shikoku Island in southern Japan, February 24, 2015.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

The small town of Nagoro is dying. Only 35 people still live in this remote part of Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. Nagoro is one of 10,000 villages throughout the country that are expected to disappear in the coming decades due to urban migration. One resident, however, is trying to fight the emptiness of her hometown by creating life-sized dolls of those who either die or move away. Ayano Tsukimi’s dolls now outnumber the villagers ten to one.

I visited Nagoro in November 2013 to film my documentary, Valley of the Dolls, and to introduce Tsukimi’s strange creations to a Western audience for the first time. When I arrived, Nagoro was eerily silent. There were no murmurs or conversations, no humming of machines, and no shouts of playing children. Only the Iya River made a steady noise, gushing down its valley. The lone road to the town is just a single lane, twisting and turning alongside the mountain and shrouded in complete darkness at night. A visiting car is a rare sight in this village, situated high in the mountains and one hour away from the next traffic intersection. Yet, almost all travelers who pass through stop once they see the dolls. 

Tsukimi made all her dolls by hand out of wood, cotton, old paper, and donated clothes. She says that for her, the lips are one of the hardest parts to get right. “A little tweak and they can look angry,” she told me. But, “I’m very good at making grandmothers. I pull the strings at the mouth and they smile.” At least 70 of her dolls sit, stand, or crouch just outside her house and she has placed another 20 inside her living room. The rest are scattered throughout the village and the eastern side of the Iya Valley. Altogether, Tsukimi believes she has created at least 350 dolls over the last eleven years. But she hasn’t kept count and isn’t sure that number is right. The dolls, which initially served as scarecrows, last up to three years, so she has had to fix and replace them quite often. Sometimes, she even forgets where she has put them.

The dolls keep guard at the empty houses in Nagoro where the residents have long since left for neighboring cities. At 65, Tsukimi is among the youngest people in the valley, where she estimates 2,000 people still reside. Roughly a quarter of Japan’s population is above the age of 65. With a declining birth rate, that share is expected to rise to half. It is likely that by 2060, the population of Japan will shrink by 42 million people, with most living in the big cities.

Growing urban migration in Japan, much like in all developed nations, has caused a decline in rural development. It is common in Japan for the college-bound to move away and remain in the city. In fact, it is considered a failure to return to one’s hometown when one is still young. It means that person couldn’t “make it” in the big city. 

Even Tsukimi herself once left Nagoro. After high school, she went to Osaka, the third biggest city in Japan, to help out in the family business. She got married, had a daughter, and returned to Nagoro only 12 years ago, alone, to take care of her ill father. She is a strong, creative woman who is not afraid of others’ opinions. While her neighbors spend their days drinking or gambling, she battles the mundaneness of Nagoro with her sewing needle. A decade of doll making has not dampened her energy, passion, and discipline, even though she said bluntly, “there was nothing else to do.”

Tsukimi is married, but her husband and daughter still live in Osaka. Several times a year, she takes a five-to-six-hour ride northeast and visits them. I asked her why she lives apart from her family. She politely explained that her husband has problems with the altitude, but I suspect something else. Tsukimi is slightly hermitic and her hometown lends itself to seclusion. Although she enjoys the attention her dolls bring, she prefers being alone.

The Japanese government has been aware of the looming ghost-town problem—of shrinking communities in mountain regions or islands—since the 1960s, when mass urban migration first began. Over the years, Tokyo has passed a number of laws and reforms to address the lack of development in remote areas. But most of them failed or were shortsighted. 

The government’s initial approach in the 1960s was to create self-supporting communities that do not require outside aid or labor to survive. In the case of Nagoro, a dam was built to power the valley, which largely lacked electricity even late into the second half of the twentieth century. For a time, the concept of self-sustainability worked. Several hundred people moved back to Nagoro and the town thrived. But after construction wrapped up, they all left for the cities again. The dam still stands. 

Since the self-support era, Tokyo has introduced at least one new plan a decade to improve rural development. Ideas have ranged from providing financial incentives to attract returnees to creating more construction projects. The current approach, introduced by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration in the early 2000s, harks back to the idea of self-sustaining communities. This plan promotes local agriculture and food production. The concept is to use empty spaces for farming, which could create jobs, generate tourism, or, at the very least, provide a pastime and livelihood for senior citizens. That would, in turn, create a market for healthy, locally produced food, in which urban areas might show interest.

Tsukimi is growing her own food in her extensive garden. Aside from rice, meat, and imported fruits and vegetables, she is largely self-sufficient. She does not sell her goods, but she frequently gives away her yams, Japanese radishes, and mikan (a type of small tangerine) to guests or tourists. The way she has positioned her dolls in her field, makes it appear as if they are farming alongside her: some are planting seeds, others are standing guard.

Everybody in the valley knows about the dolls. And while they try to use polite phrasings when asked, most people don’t like them. Especially at night, under the bright beams of car lights, the dolls on the side of the road appear real and startle even longtime residents. Still, those who live in the valley appreciate the dolls as something that has increased interest, and even revenue, in Nagoro. Indeed, although it wasn't Tsukimi’s intent, her dolls have increased tourism in the valley.

But they haven’t brought new residents. And so, one day, after Tsukimi and her neighbors have passed away, only her dolls will remain in Nagoro, population zero or 350, depending on how you count.

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  • FRITZ SCHUMANN is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker from Germany. He lived and worked in Japan from 2009 to 2014 and has published three books about the country. Follow him on Twitter @fotografritz.
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