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How Japan's low-birth rate threatens centuries-old traditions and skills

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Japan, decades of declining birthrates have put tens of thousands of family-owned businesses in crisis. Many have to shut down because there's no one to take over from the aging owners. Now the government there is trying to reverse the trend. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports from Kanazawa, Japan.

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JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Shinichi Netsuno sits cross-legged on a thin mat and carefully guides a heavy-duty press as it strikes a thick stack of paper. In between each sheet is a small square of gold leaf. The stack will be beaten over the course of several days until the gold leaf is whisper-thin.

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NORTHAM: Everything about gold leaf requires a great deal of skill and time. It's almost all done by hand, even making the paper, says Yoshikazu Netsuno, the owner of this small family-run company.

YOSHIKAZU NETSUNO: (Through interpreter) We soak the paper in a mixture of lye, egg whites and ashes made from rice. Then we soak and dry the paper repeatedly for one year. That helps make it durable. The paper is then hammered out for about three months to make it smooth.

NORTHAM: Netsuno says the smoother the paper, the better the gold leaf. He's been working with gold leaf for six decades, following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. His tiny factory is really nothing more than a small hut behind his home here in Kanazawa. This western Japanese city produces nearly all of the country's gold leaf. But now the industry is threatened because there aren't enough people to take over the businesses.

NETSUNO: (Through interpreter) In the past, when I was small, it was quite natural for sons to take over the business from the father. My son is going to take over this business. So in our case, we had a successor. But other artisan's families were not so lucky, and they went out of business.

NORTHAM: Netsuno says when he was young, there were more than 300 gold leaf craftsmen in Kanazawa. Now, he says, there are less than 20.

NAOHISA YAMAGA: (Through interpreter) The craftsmen are getting older, and there's not many successors to this technology.

NORTHAM: Naohisa Yamaga heads the cooperative for the gold leaf industry. He says there are several reasons for the falling number of craftsmen.

YAMAGA: (Through interpreter) Demand for gold leaf is going down. It used to be for Buddhism temples and altars, but not so many anymore. Also, many young people want white-collar jobs instead of being craftsmen.

NORTHAM: But what's happening with the gold leaf industry is indicative throughout Japan. Everything from restaurants and garages to repair shops and small factories are going under at an alarming rate because of the issue of succession. A recent government report found that roughly 40,000 small and medium businesses were closing each year.

YASUHIRO OCHIAI: (Through interpreter) If this continues, it will create a large impact on Japan's economy.

NORTHAM: Yasuhiro Ochiai, a professor at the University of Shizuoka, specializes in the succession issue. He says smaller businesses are the economic engine of Japan. And many of them are run by people more than 70 years old.

OCHIAI: (Through interpreter) In Japan, the small- and medium-sized enterprises make up 97% of entire operating companies. When these businesses close because there is no successor, the skill and technology are lost. It also hurts the local economy.

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NORTHAM: But there are moves to stem the tide, including a new program to train craftsmen in Kanazawa. Twenty-four-year-old Mio Oketani is doing her apprenticeship at the Netsuno factory. That includes navigating the hammering machine, where one slip can cost you a thumb.

MIO OKETANI: (Through interpreter) I was majoring in Japanese painting at university and discovered that gold foil is used in paints and artifacts. It's beautiful. And so I wanted to become a craftsperson to make gold foil, to keep these skills alive.

NORTHAM: But there are only four new applicants allowed into the training program every three years. And Yamaga, with the gold leaf cooperative, says it can take at least a decade to become a full-fledged craftsman.

YAMAGA: To be honest, we don't know what will happen in the future. It all depends on the willingness of those four interns, whether they want to stay on in this business. But we hope they can help save the industry.

NORTHAM: But like many other small and medium businesses in Japan, they're up against the clock, as more aged owners retire with no one to fill their shoes.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kanazawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.