Furusato Revolution II: Kamiyama-cho — The Power of the People

Why are young people heading for Kamiyama-cho, a small town in rural Tokushima Prefecture? Katayama Osamu investigates.

Japan is a society with a declining population. For regional cities that are experiencing issues such as serious depopulation and aging, one way to turn the tables is to attract migrants and permanent settlers; in other words, to encourage people working in big cities to come and live in a local town as well as those who once moved to other cities for work to return to their hometown.

Attracting migrants not only contributes to the increase in population but also leads to new growth possibilities by attracting outside attention.

Local governments have many incentive systems and compete in trying to appeal to migrants and permanent settlers.

What is the point of motivating people to migrate?

A major factor is the local town system where they would live. While a lot of government-driven policies exist for migration, some cases can be found of successful resident-driven efforts to attract migrants. One is Kamiyama-cho, Tokushima Prefecture, a town which has recently been featured on TV and other media.

Kamiyama-cho is about 40 minutes from Tokushima Station on the JR Kotoku Line, along Route 438, going southwest.

It is a small town spread along the banks of the Akui-gawa, a clear stream in the Yoshino-gawa river system. After its population peaked in 1950, when the town had 21,000 residents, the number has continued to fall. As of September 2016, its population was just 5,704.

From a numerical perspective, it is a typical depopulated mountain village.

However, Kamiyama-cho neither looks dark nor does it have the atmosphere common to depopulated towns behind the times. Instead, the town is full of energy.

The leader of the Furusato Revolution in Kamiyama-cho is Ominami Shinya, director of Green Valley, a non-profit organization founded in 2004, whose parent organization is Kamiyama International Exchange Association, established in 1992. He returned to Kamiyama-cho, his hometown, after completing graduate school and has been engaged in the resident-driven efforts for town development.

Green Valley has promoted a variety of initiatives, including artist-in-residence programs and the restoration of empty houses, revitalization of shopping streets and encouragement to set up satellite offices, to fulfill the following three visions:

• Develop creative rural areas in which people constitute the main content

• Develop “The World’s Kamiyama” by integrating the wisdom of diverse people

• Develop a sustainable community through “creative depopulation”

For example, sixteen IT venture companies based in Tokyo or other big cities have used old private houses or other facilities as satellite offices. The young people working there have energized Kamiyama-cho. (Ed. See TJJ Online, Tokushima vs Tokyo.)

“We can enjoy rich nature in this town. Various people live with a relaxed mood at their own pace. I find it nice,” an employee working at one of the satellite offices said with satisfaction.

They do not consider the countryside to be “inconvenient,” “boring” or “a tough place to live.”

What led Green Valley to the concept of “Develop creative rural areas in which people constitute the main content?”

According to Ominami, he was inspired by an anecdote about the origin of Silicon Valley while attending graduate school at Stanford University in the late 1970s.

As is well known, it was originally an agricultural area. The father of Silicon Valley is Frederick Terman, a professor at Stanford University, who was disappointed with the fact that many excellent students had moved to big cities on the East Coast. Taking advantage of the US military budget, he helped brilliant students, such as William Hewlett & David Packard, who would become co-founders of Hewlett-Packard, launch new businesses from his garage and also gathered outstanding researchers to establish a major military-industrial area.

“Even in an agricultural village, you can accomplish big things if you gather creative people (as is the case with Silicon Valley). Based on this idea, I formed a hypothesis that even in an intermountain region like Kamiyama-cho, we have the possibility to create something new if creative people come here,” said Ominami.

Needless to say, Green Valley is a derivation of Silicon Valley.

Green Valley is now considered to be a rare case in which immigrants have been attracted successfully through the efforts of the private sector.

“What counts is that we have carried out activities from the standpoint of katteren. Use of an administrative budget requires efficiency and achievements, but it has been possible for us to work on specific projects over time without feeling too much pressure, since we are a private organization,” Ominami added.

Incidentally, “katteren” means a flexible group in which citizens with a certain shared goal or theme voluntarily gather and engage in supportive activities toward its realization. Ominami and his fellows’ voluntary activities are a kind of katteren.

Moreover, based on the idea of “being flat, open, and flexible,” in Ominami’s words, they have accepted diversity of migrants in a very flexible manner.

“We don’t say ‘this is the way you should be” to the new young people who come [to live in this area]. For example, if they bring their ideas and say, ‘We’d like to try something like this,’ we humbly give our full attention to them in an equal relationship. Instead of saying, ‘We cannot accept it,’ we say, ‘We cannot understand what you are saying.’ And we give them a supportive push saying, ‘Anyway, you should try it first,’” Ominami says.

Yamana Yoshiyuki, a professor in the Department of Architecture at Tokyo University of Science, who served as a curator of the Japanese pavilion at the 15th Venice Biennale, had the theme of “en: the art of nexus (art of connection)” with the keyword of creative depopulation.

In collaboration with Ominami, the concept maker of creative depopulation, Yamana invited BUS, a construction unit which worked on designs of the Engawa Office and Kamiyama Valley Satellite Office Complex in Kamiyama-cho.

The exhibition at the Japanese pavilion won the Jury’s Special Award, the second prize among about sixty countries in the division of participating countries.

Many countries including Japan are faced with problems such as depopulation and aging. The Kamiyama Model could be a guide for depopulated areas throughout the world, as well as in Japan.

KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai(Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).


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