ProjectsPast and current JFS projects

 

November 30, 2007

 

Bring Out Community Power, Bridge to City

soneharasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Hisashi Sonehara, representative head director of the NPO "Egao Tsunagete" and a visiting associate professor of the University of Yamanashi

In 1995, I moved to Yamanashi Prefecture, which was a completely alien place for me, and I bought land and a house, and started a new life. As Yamanashi is about two hours away from the Tokyo area by car, and I was able to return within a day, I thought it was appropriate location for an activity that encourages urban-rural coexistence through interaction between agricultural communities and cities. I established the NPO "Egao Tsunagete" (literally means "connect smiles") in 2001 and have since been working on the revitalization of rural areas. I would like to tell you about my experiences.

Started with "Terminated Settlement"

Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture, where we work as a base, is located at the prefecture's border with Nagano, and it was merged with the surrounding depopulated towns and villages three years ago. The city includes Masutomi, an area called a "terminated settlement." The phrase "terminated settlement" refers to an area where peopled aged 65 years or over account for over half of the population. A survey of 2006 showed that 4.2 percent of agricultural villages in Japan are terminated settlements. According to the data from Masutomi, the percentage of the people aged 65 or over was 58.4 percent in 2003, and the local junior high school, which had 220 students between 1955 and 1964, drastically lost student numbers over the next 30 years, falling to a low of eight, before closing four years ago.

As inhabitants get older, they cannot cultivate crops, even on agricultural land. The rate of abandonment of cultivation is 63.2 percent in this area, which means that nearly two thirds of agricultural land is not used at all. Such villages are now increasingly common all over Japan; therefore, Masutomi is the face of things to come for Japanese agricultural villages, and it is likely that most agricultural villages in Japan will experience this problem.

I have tried to revitalize this area by promoting interaction between agricultural villages and cities. If we could revitalize this area, it could act as a model for terminated settlements all over Japan, and so we are now conducting various experiments.

Needs for Farm Villages from City-dwellers' Viewpoint

The pillars of our activities in this area are as follows: (1) cultivation of agricultural land and farm management by volunteers for the agricultural village; (2) green tourism in cooperation with the area; (3) creating jobs for the agricultural village in cooperation with companies; (4) research and development of natural energies in cooperation with colleges; and (5) conducting dietary experiences related to the traditional culture of the agricultural village.

Before starting this project, we had to cultivate idle fields. We created a volunteer system for the village, and young people from various cities helped in the cultivation activities. Thanks to about 500 participants every year, three hectares of idle fields, which is three times as large as Tokyo Dome (Tokyo Dome is 46,755 m2), were cultivated in three years. Now, various crops are being grown based on environmentally conscious, organic techniques that are completely chemical free. As these crops are extremely well received, all of the crops produced in these fields are able to be sold to the public.

When we first planed to create the volunteer system for the agricultural village, we were concerned about whether people would join. However, we were overwhelmed by the response, and far more people participated than we expected. The reason for people coming to a place that is not even a tourist destination is that many people identify with the needs of such rural villages.

I feel that what cities need from agricultural villages is as follows: (1) food and agriculture; (2) environmental education and experiences in nature; (3) rural, slow-placed life; (4) health and comfort; and (5) culture and art. As agricultural communities have such elements, the number of people in cities who seek strong ties appears to be increasing.

Mechanism for Utilizing Community Resources

Yamanashi Prefecture has very abundant resources, and not just in the agricultural area. However, as there are no systems to utilize the resources, they are not currently exploited.

For example, according to research into forestry biomass resources (biological resources) conducted by University of Yamanashi, forests in Yamanashi are rich sources of biomass. Because the forests have scarcely been used over the past few decades, more and more resources have accumulated. Furthermore, although subsidies pay for annual tree thinning, the obtained wood is almost never used. In spite of the increasing need for domestic timber in urban areas, there are no systems for this wood to reach consumers. Because the loop of industry, from production to consumption, is vanishing in Japan, such resources cannot be utilized unless the loop is repaired. Therefore, we have encouraged urban architects to cooperate with our efforts, and have succeeded in starting a small production loop.

Forests are utilized not only as lumber but also as fuel for biomass power generation. Mineral springs that are 15 degrees Celsius are plentiful in the area, and when we create a business model using biomass energy for boiling water, many of the detrimental effects related to the soaring kerosene prices at present can be alleviated.

Affluent forests are also abundant water sources. Mineral water from Yamanashi Prefecture accounts for an overwhelming 50 percent of the national market share.

In addition, we found that Yamanashi Prefecture has vast natural energy resources, as it has the most daylight hours in Japan. This is beneficial for solar photovoltaic generation. Together with Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, we are currently planning a project that aims toward energy independence by utilizing natural energy sources that have not yet been effectively utilized.

New Schemes to Create Jobs

In order to revitalize fundamentally agricultural villages, we have to revitalize businesses. To put it shortly, we have to create jobs. The major reason for the decline of agricultural villages is the disappearance of industries such as agriculture and forestry. Agricultural villages cannot continue until businesses are revitalized, even if people want to live in rural areas. Even though country-conscious people are increasing, they cannot live in the countryside without jobs, and frequently, they only visit such areas as tourists. Therefore, we emphasize the importance of creating jobs.

We participate in a business scheme called "fields for companies." When companies move to new areas, obtaining land for their activities can be very difficult. Therefore, our NPO borrows land from farmers, and the company carries out production as a part of a training program. Of course, as such companies cannot conduct daily cultivation management, we do it for them. Thanks to our scheme, several well-known pastry chefs from a confectionary company in Tokyo have started a private farm to grow pumpkins and sweet potatoes.

The Problem is Cultivating Coordinators

There are five effective results of our activities: (1) For the areas surrounding agricultural villages, clearing up of idle lands and forest conservation are accelerated, depopulated areas become vigorous through interaction, regional jobs are created and new settlement begins: (2) For local governments, there is a possibility that policy concerns related to agricultural areas will be solved, and this will allow citizens to participate in town development; (3) For companies, they can promote visible CSR (cooperate social responsibility) both internally and externally, company image is improved, the effectiveness of employee training increases (improvement of environmental awareness, teamwork is fostered, employees get a broader point of view, etc.), and the possibility of new business is developed; (4) For colleges and other related facilities, they can actually verify research achievements at fields, which benefits students, and this can be used to promote future student enrollment; and (5) For city-dwellers, they have the possibility of moving to rural areas, where they can find jobs in agriculture, their kids can learn on-site training and environment education, and the health problems associated with city life can be alleviated.

On the other hand, the biggest issue at present is human resources. Cultivation of coordinators, who can work on promoting cooperation between various bodies and who can work to set up and run businesses, is urgent.

Residents, companies and colleges in cities are becoming strongly conscious of agricultural villages, while the villages themselves are dying out. Although needs of both sides can be met, they cannot communicate freely without coordinators in this situation, as there are largely elderly people in agricultural villages. I currently plan businesses that connect both sides, and this means that I'm playing the role of a coordinator. I have created this organization by connecting cities and villages over the past seven years. If the number of coordinators increases, interaction between cities and agricultural villages will be more active.

Coordinator experience and knowledge are acquired at the site of agricultural villages, and both of these are vitally important. For example, if you do not know about rice cultivation or if you do not understand the difference between broad-leaved trees and needle-leaved trees, you cannot plan rural businesses. You must acquire a minimum of experience of such things.

In addition, as a coordinator, you would need to grasp the market situation of resources in the agricultural villages, have management skills from production to distribution and consumption, and more importantly, communication skills. Values differ between agricultural villages and cities. In the former, people tend to have a sense of community, while in the latter, individualism tends to be predominant. To connect those two, communication is needed.

We conduct a training program called "school for smiles" to teach such skills, and many people have participated.

Acting instead of Simply Criticizing

If you remain a critic, you might have a situation that trips you up in one or two decades. Taking the first step is very important, even if it is small. Love comes while doing things you like, and you should do what you enjoy, taking it easy at first.

I keenly feel that agricultural villages now also need city economies. In contrast, cities need life in agricultural villages. When I conduct camps in the wilderness, I realize that children in cities are less active, and I am worried about their future. In a corporate community, people increasing suffer from depression due to stress, and their energy levels are also lowered. I'd like to believe that we can reverse this trend in agricultural villages. I suggest that people make a "barter contract" between the economy in cities and life in agricultural villages, and create a society in which both can live in affluence.

Foreign exchange of resources will also change more in the future, and negative impacts might appear in about 2015. Future indications are already showing widening gaps in economic structure or lifestyle, for example. My concern is that negative trends will be seen, such as slumism in cities. Thus, we believe that the interaction between cities and agricultural villages is very effective as a means to alleviate such situations, and we would like to continue our activities.

Profile

Hisashi Sonehara, representative head director of the NPO "Egao Tsunagete" and a visiting associate professor of the University of Yamanashi After working as part-timer and musician, he worked as a business consultant. He grew concerned about the future of the Japanese economy during his time in management services for banks, and moved from Tokyo to a rural district in Yamanashi Prefecture to create an aid model. He developed NPO activities aiming at the realization of interaction between cities and agricultural villages based on the concept "create village, people, and era", and by working in forestry and agriculture. In addition, he is the managing executive of Kanto Tourism University, and president of the NPO Minamiarupusu Yamano Gakkou, which literally means "Mountain School in Southern Alps", and the Biomass Industrial Society Network.
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