Valley of the Dolls: The Tragic Past of the Village with More Scarecrows Than People

If you somehow stumbled upon the mountainous Japanese town of Nagoro, you might think you’ve stepped into an episode of the twilight zone. The village was once home to hundreds of families, but the residents today are fairly realistic scarecrows.

The scarecrows are the work of 65-year-old resident Tsukumi Ayano, one of the youngest of Nagoro’s remaining 35 residents. The Associated Press reports Ayano moved back to the village to take care of her ailing 85-year-old father.

She said that the one-hundred-plus homemade scarecrows now peopling her hometown bring back memories of the neighbors that once populated the area. Each scarecrow carries its own expression and is situated in its own particular place — farmers man plows, neighbors lean on fences, students listen to teachers,

“That old lady used to come and chat and drink tea. That old man used to love to drink sake and tell stories,” she said. “It reminds me of the old times, when they were still alive and well.”

Ayano takes one scarecrow in the passenger’s seat of her car to visit the nearest big town for groceries. This scarecrow and the others mostly serve as photographed curiosities for passing tourists.

“If I hadn’t made these scarecrows, people would just drive right by,” said Ayano. Instead, she greets and talks with tourists who happen upon her town.

The slow decay of Nagoro is typical of Japan, a nation with a dwindling population and more than 10,000 depopulated towns. Due to a falling birthrate and an aging population, more of Japan’s rural areas are emptying and falling into ruin each year. The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the nation in 2011, killing 18,000, didn’t help either.

While some towns, such as Kamiyama, are slowing their decline by working to attract high-tech companies and young artists, towns like Nagoro, and even neighborhoods and suburbs of Tokyo, are turning into ghost towns, or “open-air museums, frozen in time,” as the Associated Press calls them.

Japan’s population peaked in 2010 at 128 million, and it’s been dropping fast ever since. If the decline continues at the current pace, the population will be 108 million by 2050 and 87 million in 2060.

Read more about Nagoro and the Japanese population problem here, or scroll through the photos below.

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