December 28, 2015


Aiming for Happiest Marginal Community in Japan through Renewable Energy

Keywords: Aging Society Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter Renewable Energy 

JFS Newsletter No.160 (December 2015)

Photo: Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University
Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

Japan has entered a period of rapid population decline. If the trend continues, about half of the 1,799 municipalities in Japan will be "at risk of vanishing," meaning the population of young women aged 20 to 39 is predicted to decline to less than half by 2040. In response, various efforts are underway to keep local municipalities alive and create happy, sustainable communities despite shrinking populations.

Japan is one of the world's first countries to face significant population decline. This issue of the JFS Newsletter will introduce sustainable community building initiatives undertaken by a local Japanese community, a front-runner in terms of coping with depopulation.

The small community of Mizumasari in Yamato, Kumamoto Prefecture, is located in a semi-mountainous area about a 60-minute drive from Kumamoto Airport. The community has an 800-year history dating from the Heian Period (794-1192), but its population is aging due to a low birth rate. More precisely, Mizumasari has a "zero" birth rate. The community has had no children at all for 20 years.

Now, Mizumasari consists of 18 people in 10 households. I asked the residents who had gathered at the community center who the youngest person among them was. One person raised a hand shyly and said "60", and the next youngest was 65. A community where people 65 years or older account for over half of the population is called a "marginal community." Thus Mizumasari, the average age in which is 72, may be a front-runner among marginal communities.

Mizumasari is a relaxed, warm community where people are cheerful and laugh a lot. Community leader Kazuhisa Araki says, "After the great earthquake in March 2011, we came to think that renewable energy was necessary. Meanwhile, all the residents of Mizumasari burn off one field each year to maintain common land, but the work has become increasingly difficult as the population ages."

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

In response to this, people proposed ideas: "How about installing solar panels on the common land, since it has a lot of sunshine?" "We have no funding, so is there anyone who could rent the land from us?" While the residents continued discussing their ideas, the town office gave them information on a web-based matching program run by Kumamoto Prefecture. It connected people offering potential sites for mega solar power generation with private businesses interested in selling electricity. After discussing this, the community decided to give it a try. Mizumasari then offered its common land as a candidate site on the prefecture's website, and got responses from more than 10 companies.

Araki says, "We all puzzled over which company to select. Finally we decided to ask the companies to make presentations for their bids. Most companies told us only how much we could earn. Only Take Energy Corporation (TEC), a venture company, talked to us about how to develop our farming and how to maintain our community in the future. The company proposed having TEC return 5 percent of the income from its power sales to the community. The community could then use the money for community building to hedge its risk against becoming a vanishing municipality. Only TEC's presentation met our expectations, so we decided to make a contract with TEC."

Installation of solar panels on a steep mountain slope started in September 2013 and was completed in May 2014, after which power generation commenced. TEC pays about five million yen (about U.S.$42,000) per year as rent for the land and the same amount, equaling 5 percent of its income from power sales, to support creation of a community conducive to children's return.

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

"Last year, we discussed a grand design," says Araki. "We have seven goats for our future goat park, and 10 locally raised chickens, too. We are planning to build cribs for them soon. For cultivating shiitake mushrooms, we took konara oak logs and inoculated shiitake mycelium into about 10,000 holes drilled in them. We have started composting to promote safe farming. This year we began growing black rice that sells at higher prices than ordinary rice. We are cultivating a native Japanese soy bean variety called 'Hattengu' in a field of about 5,000 square meters. We are considering opening a small zoo with sheep, ponies and cows, and a farm cafe where we can sell local farm products."

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

With a serious face, he says, "Since it would be difficult to maintain many projects with the present population, we are considering economically viable ones." Then he smiles, saying, "So we frequently gather to discuss what to do."

Kazuma Takemoto of TEC has been not only refunding part of the income to communities but also supporting community marketing initiatives such as branding rice produced in terraced paddy fields that were selected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAFF) as one of Japan's 100 Top Terrace Sites and developing processed goods that use local products. "Natural energy projects are just a start. We are planning two decades ahead, laughing that we have to reach the age of one hundred years," says Takemoto with a grin.

When the solar park power sales contract period ends, TEC will hand over the power generation facilities to the community. Then Mizumasari will use the energy generated for local applications. Takemoto says, "Mizumasari has its own independent waterworks. They produce and manage their own water. If they can store the excess electricity produced by day in energy storage batteries and use it at night, they will also be self-sufficient in electricity. I keep telling the residents, 'Let's make Mizumasari the happiest community in Japan.'"

Incidentally, the author has been teaching at the Faculty of Environmental Studies of Tokyo City University since last year. (In Japanese)

I run the Edahiro Laboratory with 18 students, conducting research and leading activities with the motto of "Transforming society while fostering human resources capable of transforming it." We hope to develop the strength to live and the power to change ourselves, our organizations and society by observing real society, talking with various people and thinking for ourselves, instead of shutting ourselves off in our university. We have held off-campus seminars called "Let's Jump out, Edahiro Laboratory." Thinking that we could go farther if it were a summer study camp, I visited Mizumasari with my seminar students for three days at the beginning of September 2015.

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

My students interviewed the local people and experienced the farm work, so that they could come up with suggestions for Mizumasari's future and give a presentation on the last day. The people of the community were delighted to hear it.

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

One of this community's specialties is an indigenous soybean called "Hattengu." Through genome analysis MAFF proved it to be a traditional Japanese soybean. Actually, it is a relict soybean that did not exist in MAFF's soybean database. It has been handed down from generation to generation by organic farmers who continue to grow it for their own use. The community is raising it on three hectares of land this year as one of community's primary revitalization campaigns.

The Hattengu soybean has a strong, very delicious flavor. The cooked beans were offered for supper, and my students ate them up hungrily. The soy milk and lees from extracting the soy milk ("okara" in Japanese) were also extremely delicious. The community's housewives have also developed a chiffon cake made using Hattengu soy milk.

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

Edahiro Laboratory will continue its relationship with Mizumasari as a front-runner among marginal communities by providing support for marketing Hattengu soybeans in metropolitan areas and to young people. My students can also benefit from important experiences that they cannot obtain in Tokyo. We hope that we can cooperate with the residents to make a bright, enjoyable future for this marginal community of 10 households with 18 people, averaging 72 years in age.

Copyright Edahiro Laboratory, Tokyo City University All Rights Reserved.

Written by Junko Edahiro


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