TOKYO — When Akino Imanaka attended her junior high school graduation earlier this month, the entire community came out to celebrate. Imanaka wasn’t just ranked at the top of his class—he was class. Imanaka was the only student on Oteshima Island in Japan’s famous Inland Sea.
“It was a little lonely, but really fun,” the 15-year-old told CBS News by phone, recalling her experience as an elementary school and then junior high student in Oteshima, about 10 miles north of the main island. Shikoku, in western Japan.
Courtesy of Akina Imanaka
For the past few years tutoring of teenagers has been a team of less than five tutors, each responsible for two subjects. Among them is Kazumasa II, 66, who taught Japanese language and social studies. Trying to create any semblance of normal classroom life inspired staff to take on some unusual responsibilities: in addition to lesson plans and grading papers, they sometimes had to stand in as classmates.
“We expressed our views and offered opposing views” so their star students could experience class discussion, Ii told CBS News.
Much like rural Japan, Oteshima Facing almost certain oblivion. When Ii moved to the island with her young family 30 years ago, her children had plenty of playmates, all watched over by village elders. These days, the stray cats — which greedily flock to the docks three times a day when the ferries arrive — outnumber the several dozen permanent residents, most of whom make a living by fishing for octopus and sand eels.
Tourists come every spring to see the abundant pink and white peach blossoms that blanket Oteshima, but there are no shops or hotels, and even teachers at Oteshima Junior High are forced to return to the mainland on weekends for groceries.
Most of the islanders are senior citizens, and the average age of Oteshima’s small population is about to increase soon, as Imanaka moves to attend a mainland high school where he will be one of 190 students.
Ii recognizes that outsiders might reasonably question the utility of putting an entire school and its staff on the clock for one student.
“Of course it’s inefficient,” he said, speaking from Oteshima Junior High as it prepares to close its doors, possibly for good. But the rural school, he argued, was much more than a place of learning.
“A school gives its community vitality,” he said, adding that Islanders would faithfully show up not just for graduation, but to attend sports and other school events.
“When a community loses its last school,” he said, “it’s like a light goes out.”