FURUSATO REVOLUTION VII: Settlers “Go with the Flow” in Irokawa

The marginal community of Irokawa in Wakayama Prefecture has successfully introduced and integrated newcomers to the community without the need for major incentives. Katayama Osamu visited the mountain village.

The remote mountain village of Irokawa in Wakayama Prefecture

Regional towns all over Japan are currently competing with incentives to acquire immigrants and returning settlers, that is, I-turners and U-turners, as one of the triggers for regional revitalization.

One town has succeeded in acquiring I-turners without major incentives: the marginal community of Irokawa in the region of Nachikatsuura, Wakayama Prefecture.

Irokawa is more than 40 minutes’ taxi ride from Kiikatsuura Station on the JR Kisei Line in a northwesterly direction along a mountain road. Irokawa is dotted with nine large and small communities on a steep mountain with a forestry rate of 99%.

Irokawa’s main industry is organic agriculture, forestry and tea cultivation, and it is often damaged by animals and birds, such as monkeys, deer and wild boars. There are just two stores dealing in food and daily commodities in the area. There are three town-run bus services for nine passengers to Kiikatsuura Station each day. For medical care, there is a clinic that is operated by a part-time doctor on Tuesday afternoons. It is truly a marginal community.

The population of Irokawa is about 370; about 170 are I-turners.

The core organization in assisting Irokawa to accept I-turners is the Irokawa Village Promotion Committee, an autonomous organization that was established in 1991. The committee is chaired by Hara Kazuo, an I-turner.

Hara has a unique background. He entered the Faculty of Agriculture at Kyoto Prefectural University to study agriculture, with a dream of saving poor Bangladeshi children. While working as a salaried worker in landscape gardening for two years, he began to look for agricultural land to build up his practical agricultural skills.

But Hara faced the obstacle of the Agricultural Land Act. When he was having problems, he got to know Kojinsha in Irokawa, Nachikatsuura, and settled in the area as an I-turner at the age of 26 in 1981.

Irokawa had originally thrived due to the copper mine and mining industries, as well as forestry. Its peak population was about 3,000. But its mines were closed in 1972 and its forestry also declined, which caused people to leave the area.

Terraced rice fields in Irokawa. Potential settlers have a variety of opportunities to experience farming and the “country life” in Irokawa before moving in.

Kojinsha, which consisted of seventeen members (five families), moved to Irokawa in 1977 to carry out organic agriculture. This was the start of the story of the revitalization of the village.

At that time, the members of Kojinsha had discussions with local volunteers for about two years and thought together about what they should do to maintain the village. Precisely because they developed a mutual understanding, the local people accepted people who hoped to settle in the area and trainees as well as the members of Kojinsha.

Hara says, “I was impressed by the courage and energy of Irokawa’s local volunteers in accepting the members of Kojinsha and people who came from other regions.”

Overwhelmed by local people’s vitality, Hara has lived in Irokawa for thirty years and currently engages in cultivating green leafy vegetables and egg collection and poultry farming.


Promises to Keep

The Irokawa Village Promotion Committee developed a system for accepting people who were hoping to move to the village. Kago Furusato Juku (Kago hometown school), which was built by refitting the building of what used to be Kago Elementary School, is an example of this. It includes a facility for home users, who pay 20,000 yen a month to stay there, and a facility for singles, who pay 1,500 yen a day or 15,000 yen a month to stay there. These are base facilities for enjoying experiencing village life and agricultural activities.

The Irokawa Village Promotion Committee is commissioned to manage Kago Furusato Juku by the Nachikatsuura municipal government. To help people who hope to settle in the village to gradually understand the realities of country life and to immigrate and settle there easily, the committee offers the following three programs: (1) the experience (tourism) program of providing people with the opportunity to enjoy experiencing rice cultivation and field work; (2) the exercise program of providing people with the opportunity to experience agricultural activities for one week to one year; and (3) the settlement program of providing people with the opportunity to experience settlement for five days.

The settlement promotion team of the Irokawa Village Promotion Committee plays a central role in introducing empty land and land that is not currently being cultivated to people hoping to settle in the village who have participated in the programs and people hoping to engage in agriculture and forestry.

The Irokawa Village Promotion Committee’s stance of hoping to attract people who are suitable for Irokawa is interesting. Hara says, “Country life is tougher than people think. Country life has many obstacles that they need to overcome on their own. There are cases where people have to go to other areas where they will be provided with substantial support.”

Through efforts to secure “indigenousness,” the villagers of Irokawa have been able to maintain an elementary school, a junior high school, a post office and a fire brigade.

Hara expects people hoping to move to and settle in the village to keep the following four promises: (1) to fit in with the other villagers and adapt to their flow; (2) not to make trouble; (3) not to put the blame on others and overcome the many issues and problems that occur in their lives on their own; and (4) to accept what they are asked to do by the villagers as much as possible.

Hara argues that it is necessary to take a long time to fit in with the other villagers by adapting well to the flow of the lives that the other villagers have led for many years.

About forty years have passed since Irokawa began to accept people hoping to move there. The villagers have maintained an elementary school, a junior high school, a post office and a fire brigade. This is precisely because the villagers tried hard to secure indigenousness without having to live with temporary immigration and settlement.

Hara says, “It is not until our children continue to live in Irokawa permanently that immigrants can play a role in the village.”

What is suggested by Irokawa, which achieved an increase in the number of immigrants and settlers without depending on incentives, is extremely significant.

Irokawa also shows us that regional revitalization by promoting immigration and settlement necessitates that extremely long, hard measures be taken.

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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