In a nation known for its dramatically shrinking population, one city in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido owns the dubious distinction of being the least populous of them all.

Utashinai, with a population of 2,700, is fighting for its survival by highlighting the educational benefits that come from schools having small class sizes, as well as providing financial incentives to encourage residents of major cities to relocate.

In Japan, a city is generally defined as having a population of at least 50,000, with the majority living in a central urban area. There is also a requirement that a majority of the residents be employed in commerce, industry or other urban occupations.

Photo taken in September 2023 shows three pupils in the third grade class at Utashinai Gakuen in Hokkaido's Utashinai. (Kyodo)

Utashinai, located in the mountains of central Hokkaido, once thrived as a coal mining hub. In 1948, its population peaked at 46,000 but has been on a decline since the waning of the coal industry. As of the end of September, the city had 2,701 residents, just 6 percent of its post-war peak.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, a Tokyo-based think tank, has forecast that the city's population will decline further, to 813 by 2045.

"We have failed to develop a replacement industry," said the city's mayor, Kazunori Shibata, 66.

But the population decline is creating both challenges and benefits for the local education system.

Utashinai Gakuen, a combined elementary and junior high school run by the city's municipal government, has 70 first- to ninth-year students, roughly the same number it had at its pre-integration junior high school around a decade ago.

The school has only three third graders. On one day in early September, the three boys sat at the front of the classroom as electric fans whirred quietly nearby. "Sometimes it's quite lonely at school events. I wish we had more students," said Takayuki Togashi, 54, the school principal.

Kazunori Shibata, mayor of Hokkaido's Utashinai, gives an interview at the city hall in September 2023. (Kyodo)

Although the lack of students poses a challenge not only in terms of learning but also for club activities, Shibata emphasized that the city will "do everything possible to overcome this educational challenge."

That means taking advantage of the small student population by focusing on providing personalized instruction in single-grade classes.

Even the three-child third-grade class remains separate from the other grades. Among other benefits, school meals are free and excursions are fully covered by subsidies from the municipal government.

At Utashinai Gakuen, many initiatives give the kids opportunities to have contact with children in other grades, with social interaction among students of different ages being a big selling point of the school.

"It's nice to be able to interact with people of all ages, from elementary through middle school," seventh-year student Karin Sakai, 13, said.

A better learning experience for school children is attractive to new residents, but city Mayor Shibata knows it is not enough.

"We will push ahead with policy measures to prevent our population from further decreasing," he said.

Three pupils in the third grade class at Utashinai Gakuen eat school lunch on Sept. 6, 2023. (Kyodo)  

The city is promoting the improvement of services, among other offerings. It opened a publicly funded supermarket with a community space in April to give residents somewhere to shop after the closure of the city's sole supermarket in 2009.

To attract people from major cities, Utashinai shows off its beautiful natural setting and offers a financial incentive of up to 5 million yen ($33,400) to attract home buyers from big cities.

Utashinai once considered downgrading its status to a town or village but eventually decided to remain a city to maintain greater autonomy in its ability to make policy decisions.

Speaking about whether Utashinai can survive as a city, one senior official of the municipal government said, "There should be no problem if we can get people to realize the happiness that residing here can bring while meeting their needs."

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