By Kiyoshi Takenaka
AKITA, Japan (Reuters) - On a recent weekday morning, a group of men in their 70s and 80s gathered for baseball practice just down the road from a junior high school where students were arriving to start the day.
At full strength, the Shimohama Club baseball team's 33 players outnumber the students.
Only 27 children attend the school, one of about two dozen in Akita city, about 450km (280 miles) north of Tokyo. It is the capital of Akita prefecture, the oldest place in Japan, with more than one third of its residents over 65.
The prefecture's demographic woes reflect what the nation as a whole faces, experts say.
"It's scary," said Koji Otomo, 87, a retired teacher and head of Shimohama Club. "With the population declining steadily and quickly like this, there is no way of painting a vision for the future."
Akita's population is forecast to fall 41 percent by 2045, when half of the prefecture's estimated 600,000 residents will be older than 65, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
In 2015, the prefecture crafted a plan to stop the demographic decline with steps such as expanding medical subsidies for schoolchildren, providing extra day care support and helping workers pay back student loans.
But so far little has changed.
Several cities there are redesigning themselves to provide more efficient services for the dwindling population. The prefecture is more than five times the size of Tokyo but has just a fraction of the population.
"It is quite costly to offer administrative services in an area where the population is getting scarce," Akita Governor Norihisa Satake told Reuters in an interview. "It is very difficult to maintain such communities."
As evening falls, pedestrians become scarce on the main street leading to Akita station, the city's transportation hub.
"Let's enjoy night shopping," reads a sign at a nearby department store - but it closes its doors at 7:30 p.m.
With 15.5 deaths for every 1,000 residents in 2017, the prefecture tops the country with its death rate. Its birth rate, at 5.4 births per 1,000 residents, is Japan's lowest.
"We now have more funeral parlours. There are increased instances where an old building is torn down and a new one under construction at the site turns out to be a funeral house," said Fumika Miura, a local government employee.
Although labour shortfalls persist across Japan, the issue is compounded in Akita: there are not enough workers to meet growing demand for elderly care.
Jun Numaya, director of elder care provider Fukinotou, said a lack of qualified caregivers have forced it to suspend operations at one of its three facilities last year.
"Potential clients are out there, but we cannot take them because of the labour shortage. That's what's happening in this industry," he said.
Numaya, who is also a member of Akita's prefectural assembly, said Akita's problems will eventually have a direct impact on Tokyo.
"Children born and raised in the countryside move to Tokyo, produce, spend money and get the economy moving. That's how things have worked since the era of Japan's post-war economic growth," he said.
"But the countryside is losing ability to bear and raise children and provide them (to Tokyo) because of lower birth rates," he added. "If the countryside stops functioning, Tokyo naturally stops functioning as well."
'THEY WANT YOUNG PEOPLE'
Starting this autumn, women in Kazuno, a city of 31,000 people in northern Akita, must go to neighbouring Odate city to give birth. Universities deploying obstetricians to the region are focusing on an Odate hospital partly because there were too few pregnancies in Kazuno.
"Childbirth is the very foundation of any region. This could become the primary factor to push Kazuno into a decline," said Daisuke Anbo, a leader of a citizens' group seeking to restore labour and delivery services there.
Already, one-third of the prefecture's companies allow employees to keep working after 70, the highest rate in Japan.
At Akita city's Asahi Taxi, more than half of its 148 drivers are 65 or older.
"Half of us here in this company are past typical retirement ages. Probably, people don't even think they are doing something special by working hard into an advanced age," said Tadashi Sato, head of the company's general affairs division. He is 81.
Younger adults are an increasingly precious commodity in Akita.
Sakura Nakamura, an Akita International University student from Nagasaki, in western Japan, realised that when she visited local companies to raise funds.
"I was quite frequently asked if I would be staying in Akita," she said. "I felt their expectations. I also felt slightly pressured (to stay). That made me keenly realise that they want young people."
As the population has shrunk, wildlife has moved back in, including wild bears attracted by unharvested chestnuts and persimmons and emboldened by fading signs of human activity.
Twenty people were killed or injured by bears in the prefecture in the year ended in March, a record high.
Just outside Aniai elementary school in Kitaakita city, a "Beware of bears" sign is illustrated with a menacing animal.
Apple farmer Satomi Ito got first-hand experience with bears' encroachment when his neighbour was mauled last year. As the sole hunting rifle owner in the mountainous hamlet, he finished off 11 bears caught in traps in just three months last year.
"This is unthinkable. It used to be just one or two bears a year at most that were captured," said Ito, 66.
Since Akita's population slide is probably unstoppable, drastic changes are needed, said Yutaka Okada, a senior economist at Mizuho Research Institute.
"The population in Akita will need to be consolidated as much as possible to one or two places," he said. "As Japan's total population will likely fall by 30 or 40 million by 2060, it is unlikely every municipality will stage a sharp rebound."
Metropolises such as Tokyo will not be spared, he added.
"Popular areas will survive, but it would not be surprising if areas that are not so popular will have a lot of vacant houses and turn into slums," Okada said of how parts of big cities could hollow out.
Tokyo's government expects its population to peak in 2025 at 14 million before starting a steady decline.
And by 2055, it will look a lot like Akita prefecture does now: people 65 or older are expected to account for one third of its total population, up from 23 percent in 2015.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Linda Sieg and Gerry Doyle)