TOKYO – About the size of New York’s Central Park, the Japanese island of Shimaura is known for its bountiful seafood: red snapper, tuna, amberjack.
But if any of the town’s 850 residents wants to make sashimi out of the fish, they’ll have to do it themselves. The island is famous for its fishing abundance as much as its lack of restaurants, as its aging and shrinking population fails to attract businesses as basic as a supermarket.
Now, for the first time in over 15 years, an eatery has opened to put “eating out” back on the menu in Shimaura, a few miles east of the southern prefecture of Miyazaki.
Mangetsu Shokudo, which means Full Moon Eatery—a nod to the day most fish markets are closed—opened its doors in late March, serving curry, fried food, and side dishes like kinpira gobo (braised burdock root). The items are chosen specifically to win over households that for years have exclusively cooked at home.
“Basically, everyone on the island can get fish and eat it, but it’s hard to buy chicken, season it, prepare it, and deep fry it, especially on remote islands,” Taishi Iwata, a manager of the restaurant, told VICE World News.
Mangetsu Shokudo’s menu features fried chicken, which its owner believes will help attract customers. Photo: Courtesy of Hibi to Design
The opening is a modest triumph for Shimaura, one of many Japanese islands experiencing severe depopulation.
According to the most recent government data, the population on Japan’s remote islands declined by more than 9 percent between 2010 to 2015, compared to the nation’s overall drop of 0.8 percent in that same period. Islands have also seen rapid aging, with 39 percent of residents over 65 years old. Nationally, the rate stands at 26.6 percent.
Keitaro Kai, whose company owns Mangetsu Shokudo, wanted to open a restaurant to bring more life to the island that he first visited for business.
A Fukuoka city native, Kai moved to Miyazaki prefecture—where his father’s from—in 2018 to sell shochu, a Japanese distilled beverage. He recalled making frequent trips to Shimaura and eating the food locals had prepared for him, but wishing there was a convenient place he could rest at for a bite to eat.
The opportunity presented itself a year later, when the island village held a business plan contest in the hopes of revitalizing Shimaura. Kai entered his idea of opening a casual restaurant for locals to hang out in and tourists to visit. He ended up winning the contest and set up shop with Iwata, his high school friend.
“My idea of revitalizing the island village was not to create a resort district, as some people suggested, but to prioritize how we can continue the island’s daily life,” Kai told VICE World News.
The island of Shimaura, home to some 850 people, had no restaurants for 15 years. Photo: Courtesy of Hibi to Design
Apart from dwindling private businesses, one of the most drastic effects of the changing demographic on Shimaura island has been its need to collapse its elementary and middle schools.
Out of the island’s 826 residents, only 23 are elementary school-aged. Eight pupils attend Shimaura’s middle school. To continue their high school education, students on the island have to commute to Miyazaki prefecture by first taking a 20-minute ferry ride, and then a bus or train to the city center.
“If schools start disappearing, then residents start having a one-way relationship with the island and don’t come back,” Takafumi Sasaki, an associate professor who specializes in fishery economics at Hokkaido University, told VICE World News.
With family size shrinking, fishers have also found it harder to pass down their professions to younger generations, Sasaki added.
But Kai hopes that by giving locals a public place to gather, they’ll find reasons to stay.
“We need to find a way to protect the island’s unique culture, not just in terms of fishing, but also its mundane daily life,” he said.