On the island of Shikoku in Japan’s Tokushima Prefecture there is tiny village called Nagoro. It’s always been a relatively small place, at it’s height, the population was only around 300 people and over the years that number has gradually dwindled to less than 30. Nagoro’s fate is not exactly unique. For the past decade, Japan’s population has been in rapid decline and, understandably, the effects are felt most keenly in rural areas as the older generations pass away and the younger folk move to the cities or to other countries. It’s such a common occurrence in Japan that there’s even a phrase for the phenomenon, “villages on the edge of extinction”.
There is one thing that distinguishes Nagoro however - though it may be devoid of people, its streets are far from deserted.
Village of Ghosts
In 2001, artist Tsukimi Ayano returned to her native Nagoro to take care of her aging father after years of living away in Osaka. Upon her return, she was shocked to find that her childhood home had become a virtual ghost town.
One day, Tsukimi was working in her garden and realised she needed something to scare away the birds that were ravaging her vegetable patch. For fun, she fashioned a life-size scarecrow (or kakashi in Japanese) in the image of her father to stand guard over her gourds. She even dressed it in his old clothes. When the other villagers reacted warmly to the scarecrow, it gave Tsukimi an idea—why not repopulate Nagoro with dolls bearing the likenesses of those that had departed?
Today, Nagoro has over 350 dolls dotted throughout the streets including a group hanging around a bus stop, a hunter sitting in a tree wielding a wooden gun, and a lone figure fishing in the river. Other villagers have even gotten involved—in 2012, before the local school house shut its doors for good, two students helped to fashion dolls in their own likeness during home economics class.
One figure sitting in front of an abandoned house depicts a woman named Mrs. Miyako Ogata who passed away in 2014. According to Tsukimi, "she's wearing the same clothes as when she was very active. I come around and greet her all the time. So it feels like she's still here."
In that sense, some of the figures act as a kind of Memento Mori—a latin phrase that means “remember that you must die”. Memento Mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of the inevitability of death. They’ve been around since at least classical times and examples of them can be found in art, literature, and music all over the world, from the post-mortem photography popular in Victorian times to the skull-shaped candies handed out in Mexico on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Though it may seem macabre at times, Memento Mori serve an important function—they honour those who have passed while reminding us that life it short and should be cherished. Whether intentional example of Memento Mori or not, this is clearly a sentiment the artist shares. “When I make dolls of dead people, I think about them when they were alive and healthy,” says Tsukimi.
Though not all of the dolls in Nagoro are based on villagers who have actually died, they still act as a stark monument to a village in decline as well as a celebration of the lives of all the people who once called Nagoro home.
Check out more pictures of Nagoro here.