KYOTO, Japan - If you want a glimpse of the future, go to Japan. Forget the Shinkansen, the high-speed bullet trains that have been around since 1964. And don't get distracted by the cat cafes or the caregiving robots - solutions to loneliness and labor shortages, respectively, that could have far easier remedies if people were willing to, say, rescue stray animals or open the borders to immigrants.
Where you will see what lies ahead for many other countries, including the United States, is in rural areas and regional cities outside greater Tokyo: lots of people aging and dying, and relatively few giving birth and raising kids. In small urban centers such as Katori, this means the playgrounds are empty and elementary school classrooms have only a fraction of the students they had a generation ago. In rural areas of the Tohoku region, where the March 2011 earthquake displaced entire communities, this means a dearth of well-trained doctors and nurses who can treat the elderly as they near the end of life. In today's Japan, the young and middle-aged are consumed by caring for the old, and small-town resources are overstretched. In some places, family gravesites lack descendants to tend them, and sacred festivals carried on for generations are in danger of dying out.