June 17, 2014


Thinking about Happiness at the Local Level: JFS Symposium Panel Discussion

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter Well-Being 

JFS Newsletter No.141 (May 2014)

In fiscal 2013, Japan for Sustainability (JFS) worked on a Local Well-Being Project as one of its activities. This issue of the JFS Newsletter introduces a translated excerpt of a panel discussion with a researcher in community and public policies, a key player in community building, an official from a local government, and Junko Edahiro, chief executive of JFS, at the "Thinking about Happiness at the Local Level" symposium held on February 6, 2014 in Tokyo. See also the past articles covering a keynote speech, a case study, and presentations at the symposium.

Review and Future Directions of JFS's Local Well-Being Project
Social Vision in an Era of Population Decline from the Perspective of Local Economy and Well-being
Hyogo Prefecture's Long-Term Vision for the 21st Century and the 'Hyogo Well-being Index'
Pursuing Local Economy and Well-Being in Ama Town, Shimane Prefecture


Panelists at the JFS Symposium "Thinking about Happiness at the Local Level":

- Yoshinori Hiroi, Social and Health Policy Department, Faculty of Law and Economics (at the time of the symposium, now Faculty of Law, Policies & Economics), Chiba University
- Shinsaku Hirata, Hyogo Vision Division, Hyogo Prefecture (at the time of the symposium until the end of March 2014)
- Hiroshi Abe, president of Megurinowa Co.
- Junko Edahiro, environmental journalist and chief executive of Japan for Sustainability (JFS)

Hiroi: There is a boom in new indicators nowadays. New indicators of well-being are being developed as alternatives to gross domestic product (GDP), but I think it is important to look at carefully at what they tell us. Indicators need to link to policies to be changed or issues to be solved. Considering how the use of GDP as an indicator rules the behaviors and values of people, the very development of alternative indicators is meaningful. Indicators have the potential to change the way people see the world. For example, a region that is undervalued by an existing indicator could actually rate high according to a new indicator.

Photo: Yoshinori Hiroi
Yoshinori Hiroi

Edahiro: Looking at the objectives of [national and local governments] developing these indicators, we can sort them into different categories. One purpose is to check progress periodically toward an existing vision of a municipality or community. Another purpose emphasizes the very processes to develop an indicator. Hyogo's well-being index fits this category. The objective of having processes with local members engaged in developing indicators is to involve local citizens and others who are usually not interested or never think about it unless encouraged to think about the future of the area.

In addition, indicators are used as general criteria to screen national policies. I understand that the Bhutanese government proceeds with a new policy in any policy area only after its relevance is evaluated in the context of the country's gross national happiness (GNH) indicator. The government screens a new policy to see whether or not it would help to increase the GNH. If a particular department (or a ministry) in the government advocates a policy, but evaluation suggests that it would have adverse impact(s) on GNH, the policy will be suspended for further review. GNH is characterized as an indicator to ensure consistency toward a national vision with regard to policy measures proposed by all national government ministries.

Switching to the subject of local happiness or well-being, I see many outstanding and sensible young people migrating to rural areas or suburbs from urban areas. Some city dwellers may criticize them, saying, "They may enjoy family time while living close to nature in a rural area. But infrastructure such as roads and highways and their future pensions are supported by taxes paid by people like me, who have been working so hard in the city." If living our lifestyle at the micro level depends on individual decisions, then how can we balance or justify such migration from urban to rural or suburban areas and the needs of society and economy at the macro or national level?

Junko Edahiro

Hiroi: That is an essential question. The bottom line is how do we create a vision for the future of society as a whole, or more broadly speaking, for the whole system. Nobody has created it yet, but I think Japan needs to develop a national vision, for example, in 2050, of who lives where and how, as well as what is an ideal society for us. What I'm thinking of is a new concept called a "sustainable decentralized welfare state (or society)." We Japanese people should discuss what kind of society we want from both environmental and welfare perspectives, and local and national perspectives, including the relationship between metropolitan cities, local cities, and rural areas. As Ms. Edahiro said, every movement in different areas cannot be self-contained, but is mutually dependent on other areas. Considering how we utilize indicators leads to envisioning what kind of society we want after all.

What I call a "sustainable decentralized welfare state" is not a utopia. It seems to me that countries like Germany and Denmark have already realized a society very close to my ideal model. Those countries have solid social welfare and economic systems that grow from circulation at the local level to be competitive at the global level.

Edahiro: How did these countries realize such a society? Was there somebody who had created such a future vision at some point and led other people toward the vision?

Hiroi: I suppose it was not a particular person who led the society towards the vision. Instead, collective consciousness or aspiration to create an ideal society among people creates momentum for change. And I think people's consciousness and sense of value reflect their times.

Hirata: Regarding the momentum, I'd like to ask Mr. Abe, what do you think triggered Ama Town's change for the better?

Photo: Shinsaku Hirata
Shinsaku Hirata

[Ama Town is located in the Oki Islands, about 60 kilometers offshore of Shimane Prefecture, in the Sea of Japan. Its population is about 2,370.]

Abe: I think it was the future forecast of what is going to happen under the business-as-usual scenario. As for finances, a forecast predicted in 2003 that the town would face a financial deficit by 2006 if it kept on spending as it was. And the town officials had high enough sense to take the future outlook seriously.

Photo: Hiroshi Abe
Hiroshi Abe

Hiroi: Mr. Hirata mentioned the role of the prefectural government earlier. In a larger sense, I think the relationship between urban areas and rural villages [in Japan] was disrupted after World War II. Urban and rural areas are basically interdependent, but I wonder which is more self-sufficient. Normally, it is said that local cities and rural areas are economically dependent on urban areas, and that metropolitan cities, including Tokyo, are independent. But from the perspective of material flow, things are totally different because urban areas are completely dependent on rural areas to procure food and energy at a low cost. People rediscovered this fact after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, but they seemed to have forgotten it during the years of rapid economic growth after the war. Therefore, I assert that it is important to think about how to establish such relationships between urban and rural areas.

Hirata: "Urban-rural interchange" is one of the major keywords in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture. Kobe City, in that prefecture, for example, is an urban area; but it actually has rural landscapes a relatively short distance away from central Kobe, with close interconnections with the urban area. Making use of the location, we are thinking of having an urban farm or implementing an on-site program for urban dwellers to experience farming and nature through communication with farmers. We can start promoting tourism in rural areas, then gradually encourage people who were born in rural areas in Hyogo to return to their hometowns or to move there from outside the prefecture. Additionally, we are attracting information technology companies to these areas, because they do not necessarily need to locate in urban areas to run their businesses. We want people to know that a variety of jobs can be undertaken in rural areas as well.

Hyogo is affected by typhoons every year, people generally are not really conscious of how closely things are interconnected in the river basin. Forestry in upstream villages is a declining industry, so planted forests are not being maintained properly. As a result, flood disasters and driftwood may cause troubles in downstream areas and along the coast. In this situation the local connection is actually based on interdependence. Therefore, it is important for companies in urban areas to be responsible for and join in forest management. It is not that one depends on the other, but that both sides need each other's help. Prefectural governments have an important role in spreading this kind of information.

Edahiro: This JFS project has dealt with the monetary side for local regions to be happy. It is important to consider not only the level of income and living, but also regional money flows. Local money circulation has not been given enough attention. It is important to examine whether money stays in the area and circulates locally, or flows quickly out of the area.

Abe: Talking about local economic circulation in Ama Town, it has been about 10 years since the town introduced a local currency. A portion of the bonus for municipal office workers is paid with this local currency, and it is accepted at nearly 100% of all stores in Ama Town, which has the advantage of being an island, so the money flow is visible. I think Ama Town should carry out a pilot program using this advantage.

For example, is it possible to consider the local multiplier effects in the procurement of public works projects? Though, admittedly, it may be difficult to analyze this in complete isolation from the rest of the economy. Local companies are struggling. Amid growing concerns over the declining volume of public works projects nationwide, major construction companies from the mainland come to Ama to make bids at a much lower cost. Local companies in Ama are much smaller in size [without the advantages of economies-of-scale], so they are unable to lower their bid prices. Furthermore, as local companies have the additional cost of using ferry boats for material purchases, they often end up losing business. Some local companies are now working hard to get contracts in the town, even if they face a possible deficit. They say they have to get business to make the local economy function. Seeing such a situation, I think we can stimulate local economic circulation by creating an indicator that gives an advantage to the area even if the bid price is 20 percent higher, and by providing standards for placing an order for public works projects in Ama Town.

Edahiro: It is almost time to close. As mentioned earlier by Prof. Hiroi, Germany and Denmark had created their own models of social systems by gathering the people's collective awareness, and not by a handful of individuals who worked to change the system. It will be a great hope if we can create our ideal society by building a broad public dialogue. Thank you for sharing your time for the discussion.

Edited by Junko Edahiro