This article analyses rural depopulation in Japan and its implications by means of a case study of Niigata Prefecture and Sado Island. In the first part of the article, we present population maps to show that rural demographic shrinkage is both deepening as well as broadening to include urban centres. We focus initially on Niigata Prefecture in the national context and then discuss migratory patterns in Sado. The data show that Sado, and now Niigata Prefecture as a whole, have entered what we call a ‘double-negative population disequilibrium’, whereby both the migratory and natural reproduction population contributions have turned negative. Recent evidence indicates that Niigata City itself may also have begun to shrink. In the second part, we discuss the implications of depopulation for Sado Island via extracts from qualitative interviews gathered from local residents. We found that many residents now accept the inevitability of continued shrinkage and, rather than seeking to re-establish growth, many institutional and social and environmental entrepreneurs are instead working towards achieving community stability and sustainability. We conclude by suggesting that the example of Japan's rural communities presents Japan's regional cities with the occasion to consider life ‘beyond growth’, as their populations also begin to shrink in the years to come.

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