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Japan uses closed schools to invigorate local economies
MARCH 04, 2014 07:25  
Noto in Ishikawa Prefecture is a rural town that meets East Sea. The Japanese village is covered with farmlands and was registered as the world agricultural heritage in 2011. The share of population aged 65 and over here stands at 37 percent, sharply higher than the criteria for ultra-aged society set by the United Nations (over 20 percent). Young population has continuously declined leaving many schools close doors behind. The Miyachi elementary school located at the town entrance also closed in 2002.

When a Dong-A Ilbo reporter visited the elementary school late last year, he could first see a wooden signboard that read Miyachi Exchange Lodgings. Each classroom was equipped with air conditioners, refrigerators and a tea set for four persons. At a storage closet on one side, blankets and pillows were arranged neatly. The school had turned into a joint lodging facility for families. The place was full of tourists who came to experience rural life.

As in Korea, schools in rural and fisheries villages are closing down one after another in Japan as low birth rate leads to a decline in school-age population. Rural town merger promotion law took effect in 1953 to reduce administrative costs, which led to gradual closure of schools. While towns were integrated to form bigger administrative units, small schools increasingly disappeared. Schools in cities are also gradually closing down, as many people move to suburbs due to high residential costs in cities, resulting in student shortage. Around 200 schools closed down in early 1990s, but it has doubled to an annual 500 since 2010.

According to school education law enforcement rules in Japan, elementary and junior high schools, which are the last stages of compulsory education, have 12-18 classes as standard. If the number of classes is below that figures, schools become object for merger. Law requires getting understanding and cooperation by residents before closure, meaning municipal governments and education ministry can`t force school closure.

Lack of schools desolates towns and households that have children have no choice but to leave. So residents mostly oppose school closures. However, local governments can`t leave schools where the number of teachers surpasses that of students, and thus are aggressive in persuading the residents.

The Japanese government and people have come to accept school closures and instead are trying to make the most of the current situation. Their idea is to use closed schools to promote community development. According to the Japanese education ministry, 4,709 schools were closed in 2002-2011, among which 4,222 had their buildings maintained. Among them, 70.2 percent, or 2,963, are used for other purposes. The buildings used as social and sports facilities number 802 schools, followed by cultural facilities and data storage facilities (754), welfare and medical facilities (337), lodging and training facilities (300) and government offices or warehouses (291).

The education ministry is currently promoting a project to gather data on closed schools nationwide to connect to people who want to use the buildings. The information is posted on the ministry homepage, and private companies, schools, non-profit organizations, social welfare corporations and medical corporations are expressing their will to use them. The ministry said, "We can save costs than building a new facility. If local-oriented businesses come, schools can act as hubs."

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