Welcome to the blog of the research project “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan”. This project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and started in October 2020. Professor Cornelia Reiher (PI) and her team from the Institute of Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin investigate the impacts of urban-rural migration on rural revitalization in Kyūshū, Japan’s most southern main island. In this blog, our group will give insights into the research process and progress, present first results, share information about our field sites and on related projects and publications. It also features guest contributions by students, PhD students, colleagues and practitioners from Freie Universität Berlin, Japan and universities around the world who work on related projects focusing on urban to rural migration and rural Japan. The editor of this blog is Professor Cornelia Reiher.

Guest Contribution: Two or three thoughts about fieldwork, exhaustion and taking off the ethnographer’s hat

by Susanne Klien

Fieldwork tends to be seen as a standard tool in ethnography, at least until the pandemic. Not so much has been written about exhaustions during and after fieldwork although some vivid depictions of challenges feature on this blog and are described in detail in Kottmann’s and Reiher’s Handbook of Research Design, Fieldwork and Methods (2020). Often, as researchers being indebted to a multiplicity of people in the field, we are less aware of the physical and mental tolls that the conduct of fieldwork in fact takes on our bodies and minds. Immersion constitutes immeasurable chances for us to gain new insights into the field. Yet, immersion also means pressure to miss out, as Harvey-Sanchez and Olsen (2019) observe: “Being forced to see how all the fragments are situated in a web of significance is draining at times. I feel like a vessel and an emotional labourer at once. Taking in all of the different fragments and being forced to see how they fit into a system of meaning, while also being attuned to every pause, every silence, every conversation, and the broader rhythm of speech and movement. I want to be able to unsee it, I explained at the time. Now I’ve learned how to turn on my ethnographer mode, but I need to learn how to turn it off. I want to take off the ethnographer hat –“

Life and death
Copyright © Susanne Klien 2021

From my own experience, it is often after returning home that the full impact shows: a sense of prolonged exhaustion that continues for one month or even more depending on the length and intensity of fieldwork. With increasing age and time constraints, the extent of exhaustion seems to grow. During my follow-up fieldwork of one month in Kamiyama Town, Tokushima in April-May 2021, the different climate, insect and concerns about how to conduct fieldwork during a pandemic were just some elements that seemed to enforce my sense of exhaustion. I remember dropping into the local public bath (onsen) every other day as a means of coping with my lingering physical tiredness. Soaking in the hot water worked wonders. I had been to the small rural town six years before, but still, finding a daily pace, re-establishing a network, accessing things, people, securing food – there were many potential sources of trouble, especially because this was at the height of the pandemic. This time, I stayed with an acquaintance who had set up a guesthouse in a small mountain village – a decision that helped me to get invaluable insights into the tensions between newcomers and locals. The elevated location of my accommodation offered an impressive panorama view across the picturesque valley. It also meant, however, an exposure to a vast array of insects, most uncomfortably, poisonous centipedes and leeches. During my stay, other guests were also exposed and with every day of my stay, I felt the threat of an encounter, especially because I was sleeping on a futon on the tatami floor. I witnessed the fiancé of my host expertly catching a centipede with chopsticks, an impressive feat. Towards the end of my stay, I detected one more of my centipede fellows next to my mattress. I felt a sense of triumph when I managed to catch it (admittedly, not with chopsticks) – ironically, next to Didier Fassin’s Life: A Critical User’s Manual, which I never got around to reading during my stay.

The narrow, curvy road leading to the guesthouse
Copyright © Susanne Klien 2021

The lingering sense of tension, a stiff neck, unfamiliar humidity, the fear of driving on the narrow, winding roads are all moments of immersion. At the beginning of my stay, I was ambitious enough to think that I would cook for myself. After the second day, however, I gave in to the temptation of sharing meals with my hosts. These meals were particularly enjoyable given that there were new guests and visitors every other day and even if there weren’t, these were wonderful opportunities to ask questions about the town and its people. These meals also provided chances to support local shops: I loved going to the (only) local butcher on the main street to get some meat as it was incredibly tasty. My hosts would contribute (mostly self-grown) vegetables – a perfect combination. I also liked to buy a few bottles of local craft beer in town for my hosts, guests and myself.

Kamiyama beer, local meat and self-grown vegetables of my hosts for dinner
Copyright © Susanne Klien 2021

But let’s get back to the ethnographer’s hat and how to get rid of it for one’s own and for the sake of one’s body and mind. In retrospect, I approached my follow-up stay as an extended immersive practice, even when I was sleeping, as I expected centipedes. The only time-out in a way was soaking myself in the hot water, enjoying the moment, trying to think of nothing. There were other instances of going to public baths in rural areas during fieldwork that were more social, so the practice of going to onsen as such may be multi-faceted depending on the field, one’s stage of fieldwork and many other factors. In any case, with more experiences of fieldwork in vastly different contexts, I feel that it is crucial to make sure that one allows for such moments of taking off the ethnographer’s hat and – ideally more extended time off out of respect for one’s body and mind.

Harvey-Sanchez, Amanda and Annika Olsen (2019). “Ethnography as Obsession: On Immersion and Separation in Fieldwork and Writing”, Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics, https://ethnographylab.ca/2019/01/07/ethnography-as-obsession-on-immersion-and-separation-in-fieldwork-and-writing/ accessed on 25 April 2023.
Kottmann, Nora and Cornelia Reiher (eds.) (2020). Studying Japan: Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods, Baden Baden: Nomos.

*Susanne Klien is an associate professor at Hokkaido University. Her main research interests include the appropriation of local traditions, demographic decline and alternative forms of living and working in post-growth Japan. She is the author of Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post-Growth Society (State University of New York Press, 2020).

Promoting crafts in Kyūshū: A market in Hasami’s old Chuo Elementary school

by Cecilia Luzi

After spending five months conducting fieldwork in Buzen, I moved to my second field site in March: the charming town of Hasami. Located on the border between Nagasaki and Saga prefecture, Hasami is renowned for its lively atmosphere and long tradition of ceramic production. Over the coming months, I will immerse myself in the daily life in Hasami to explore what makes this town such a draw for people from all over Japan and beyond.

The old school building where the event took place.
Copyright ©Cecilia Luzi 2023

On my second weekend in Hasami, I participated in an exciting event at the old Chuo Elementary School. The four-day exhibition and market was called “Thought” and featured crafts and artisans from the Kyūshū region showcasing clothing, accessories and tableware. The first two days were reserved for vendors and investors, while the last two days were open to the public. When I attended the event on a Sunday around 11 a.m., people were eating, drinking and chatting outside while children ran around blowing bubbles. As we walked up the stairs, we passed four food stalls selling bento, coffee and sweets. I couldn’t resist filling my bag with delicious treats, and I took the opportunity to chat with the friendly vendors, who were all young couples between the ages of 35 and 45. They all run restaurants and cafes in the neighboring towns of Hasami and were intrigued by my presence, especially my son’s decision to walk barefoot on the concrete and grass.

The menus from food stands at the market.
Copyright ©Cecilia Luzi 2023

As we entered the building, we were handed tote bags to put our shoes in. A friendly receptionist, who appeared to be in her 20s, asked me where we were from and greeted my son with a smile. I learned she and the other staff were mostly from Fukuoka and had come to Hasami for the four-day event. “Hasami is a fascinating place,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll enjoy the next few months here!” As we made our way inside, we noticed a large crowd milling around the various booths. With about 40 exhibitors, all younger than 45, there was a lot to see. I was particularly taken with two men from Amami Oshima who were using traditional dyeing techniques with indigo and red mud. Although I was somewhat familiar with ao-zome, indigo-based dyeing, I wasn’t sure I had understood the term “doro-zome” correctly when I heard it. Looking for an explanation, I asked, “You mean mud, as in soil?” They nodded and explained to me that mud dyeing or “doro-zome” (泥染め) is an ancient technique practiced on the island of Ōshima, where a special iron-rich soil makes this type of dyeing possible. The result is really beautiful.

The brochure of the clothing brand from Amami Ōshima.
Copyright ©Cecilia Luzi 2023

As I continued my tour, I came across jewelry reminiscent of twigs and leaves, recycled plastic bags, and modular coasters. Then I stumbled upon a booth with four cheerful boys presenting a children’s board game made of small colorful wooden cubes on a square tray. I was impressed by the inventor’s enthusiasm, and we struck up a conversation. He was about 30 years old, and when he learned that I lived in Berlin, he sighed and told me about his dream to present his game at a famous board game fair in Germany. He had finally managed to get his game produced in Japan, and now he wanted to take it abroad. He was born and raised in Saga Prefecture, and his game is now sold in big stores in Fukuoka. “Since a few months ago, it’s also available in a store in Arita, right next door, if you’re interested,” he added with a smile. I took the brochure and wished him good luck. Across the room, people were trying on clothes, sniffing essential oils, and having their feet measured for custom-made shoes or their fingers for future wedding rings. Although it was already noon on the second day, the atmosphere was lively and cheerful with a throng of people.

The flyer of the colorful wooden board game
Copyright ©Cecilia Luzi 2023

It was fascinating to chat briefly with the young craftsmen and women from all corners of Kyūshū. On the way home, I couldn’t help but think about how Hasami manages to attract such events and who the key players are behind this movement. I look forward to continuing my fieldwork in Hasami and finding out what makes this city a “very interesting place,” according to everyone I meet.

Understanding Fukushima through maps

by Lynn Ng

Maps are not only important for spatial understanding and navigation; they also tell stories across time and serve as memory aids. During my fieldwork in Japan, I arrived in a landscape that offered me no data signal and thus no GPS and no online maps. I was very disturbed. For the first time since my introduction to mobile GPS technology, I had to rely on local maps and signs and my terrible sense of direction to find my way around the countryside. On my third day in the field, I ambitiously attempted to walk to the neighboring village despite the lack of GPS. I walked for over an hour in the direction I thought the village was. I turned off a main road onto a small farm track and then onto a footpath up a hill that I assumed separated the two villages. I followed the ribbons on the trees and the location markers on the path. Finally, I reached a dead end – a sort of plateau where no discernible paths continued. I never found the village. Instead, I took a long nap in the open field until a concerned elderly couple woke me up and pointed me to the closest village – where I had walked from. The couple disappeared into the woods as mysteriously as they had appeared. I often wondered if they had been a figment of an exhaustion-induced lucid dream.

Exhausted, lost and defeated, I took a long nap under these beautiful skies.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

In my next field site, I tried to walk to a distant monument near the reconstruction zone. Even though my GPS was now working, many parts of the Fukushima coastal region have not yet been updated on digital maps. I asked a bus driver about the region – whether it was already walkable or whether it was dominated by construction vehicles. He looked at me, frowned, and asked me for paper and pencil to explain the route. He drew me a map and explained the individual landmarks to look out for. It was drizzling that day. The bus driver asked me why I wanted to visit this place. I explained my research and he told me his story. I was the only passenger on the bus, and during the almost fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure of the bus, the driver described the city – his hometown – to me. I commented on the beautiful reconstructed coastlines. He expressed deep disgust, “You don’t know how it used to be.” He complained about regional politics and about the intended preservation of the monument. I chuckled nervously and he started the bus. After just five minutes of turns around barricaded roads and empty fields, I alighted the bus into increasingly heavier rain. He sighed at my insistence on visiting the monument and wished me luck. I never reached the monument. The rain had become immensely heavy and the roads were occupied by large construction trucks. Before I had even reached the first turn, I was drenched and my shoes soaked despite the umbrella I had in hand. Instead, I sought shelter in a facility nearby, where I, coincidentally, bumped into one of my research participants who was also seeking shelter from the rain.

The map the bus driver drew for me.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Maps are also often especially important in times of crisis, i.e., evacuation. “Look how silly this is,” one research participant laughed excitedly, pointing to an evacuation sign. From the main train station (Ono) in the city of Okuma, the nearest evacuation point at city hall is five kilometers (or a 70-minute walk) away. She pointed to the distance and joked that we would all die instantly if something happened. I chuckled nervously, not because of the distance and the potential danger we were in, but because of the somberness of her joke and whether it was appropriate for me to make fun of it. She explained to me that City Hall was the first to be reopened, and that subsequently important facilities and plants were built in the region. She showed me her hometown, the barricaded streets, and the upcoming new construction near the train station. People working near the station would have to evacuate five kilometers away in an emergency. I wondered if the Ono Station evacuation map would be updated in the future, and if so, when.

The evacuation map at Ono station.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Indeed, maps are critical to my understanding and memory of Fukushima and events during fieldwork. I watched as maps were drawn and redrawn at Fukushima to reflect new facilities and new reopenings. Looking back now at Ono’s evacuation map, I recall the emptiness of the immediate area around the station and the isolation of City Hall. I would look back at the bus driver’s hand-drawn map and remember his scowl and concerned eyes for a small explorer traveling in the pouring rain. I would look at the online maps of the mountainous village and realize that all along I had been heading southwest instead of north.

Voices from the backrooms: government advisors for rural revitalization

by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)

In my previous blog post, I have shown that the lack of resources and politicians’ attention to elections creates room for other policy actors to step in. A group of actors that carries sway in making rural revitalization policies is external experts who advise the government. In Japan, there are two types of external advisors who advise the government: officially recognized government advisors and informal government advisors. In this blog post, I will explore the roles and profiles of officially recognized government advisors.

Officially recognized government advisors are experts acknowledged by the Japanese government to advise on rural revitalization among many other policy fields. In the field of rural revitalization policies, these experts specialize in various fields such as tourism promotion, transportation, attracting young people to the countryside, marketing or digital transformation. As of April 2023, there were 531 officially recognized Advisors for Regional Vitality (Chiiki ryokusōzō adobaizā) at the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC 2023). They are compensated with public funds and play a critical role in providing valuable insights and recommendations to the government.

Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) – the patron of MIC Advisors for Regional Vitality
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

During my fieldwork, I had the chance to talk to several officially recognized government advisors. They have diverse educational backgrounds and professional experiences. The majority of advisors hold at least an undergraduate degree. Most of the advisors have extensive leadership experience. All advisors I have talked to are leaders within their respective organizations, some serving as directors and/or presidents of their companies, others holding top leadership roles in several NPOs. These leadership roles provide advisors with the necessary skills and experience to make sound recommendations to the government. However, this raises concerns about conflicts of interest, as advisors might push for policies that benefit their businesses. Advisors also have extensive experience working with various government ministries and agencies at both national and local levels, as well as hands-on experience in regional revitalization projects. One advisor I talked to has served as the Chief Digital Officer in a prefectural government and advised government agencies such as the Cabinet Office and the Digital Agency on various issues, including regional revitalization, gender equality, immigration and depopulation. Another advisor previously worked as a policy bureau member of a large municipal government and was a member in the Tourism Strategy Implementation Task Force of the Cabinet Office. She has also been involved in various theater planning and art policy promotion initiatives. Yet another advisor has created promotional videos for government organizations such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and MIC.

This is the office of an NPO where an advisor works as leader
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

Testimonies from the government advisors show that they have a rather limited influence on policy agendas but may have sway in providing technical advice. This finding supports the similar argument made by Romann (2020) that advisory committees and advisors (shingikai) might have limited influence. However, one advisor who specialized in digital transformation provided an anecdote about how he proposed ideas to eliminate fax machines to Digital Minister Konō Tarō in a meeting; the Minister agreed, and his ministry actually implemented a similar strategy a few months later. This particular advisor has been known as a proactive leader who also wants to reform rigid administrative procedures in Japan. This indicates that when there is less conflict over the political nature of policies with key decision-makers, advisors’ technical advice may be quite influential.

In summary, government advisors offer diverse experiences and extensive knowledge of rural revitalization. Advisors can also work on policy implementation at the local level. Besides, while their influence over policy agendas may be limited, their technical advice may provide great value for policymaking at the national level, if political conditions are met.

Michalowitz, Irina. 2007. “What Determines Influence? Assessing Conditions for Decision-Making Influence of Interest Groups in the EU.” Journal of European Public Policy 14 (1).
MIC (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). 2023. “Chiiki Jinzai Netto (Chiikiryoku Sōzō Adobaizā),” https://www.soumu.go.jp/ganbaru/jinzai/.Accessed April 20, 2023.
Romann, Eric. 2020. Nonmarket Strategy in Japan: How Foreign Firms Lobby “Inside the Castle.” Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

It’s festival season in Japan! Field research in springtime Kyūshū

by Cornelia Reiher

In March and April, I again had the opportunity to travel to Japan for field research. Spring is not only the most beautiful season with its cherry blossoms, but also a time of festivals to celebrate them. As the number of covid infections has been declining for some time, many of these local festivals were held for the first time since the pandemic began. I attended cherry blossom festivals (sakura matsuri) and markets, and although most people were still wearing masks, it was wonderful to see people once again doing hanami, enjoying food and drink, listening to live music, watching plays, and taking photos of the most beautiful cherry trees in the area.

Cherry tree in full bloom
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Most of the festivals I attended were rather small matsuri organized by individual villages and usually attended by locals. At one of the sakura matsuri, there was not only food and drink, but also kagura, a ceremonial dance theater that recounts the myths of ancient Japan. In the play we watched, the hero had to fight two dragons and planned to get them drunk on sake so they would fall asleep. He put a big barrel of sake on the stage, and when the dragons drank it, they fell asleep. The hero came back to kill them in their sleep, but they woke up and started a fight. In the end, the hero succeeded in cutting off both of their heads and celebrated himself quite a bit. The performance was characterized by great costumes, pyrotechnics and colored smoke. The dragon actors really enjoyed suddenly running from the stage into the audience to scare the few small children watching with their parents and grandparents. Although most of the festival attendees were older, the actors were quite young. I enjoyed the kagura, the music, and the relaxed atmosphere while eating strawberries and drinking sake with the locals very much.

Kagura at a local cherry blossom festival
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

While literally everyone wore a mask at this sakura matsuri, another festival I attended was a mask-free area. The Deera Matsuri was a small market-like festival in a beautiful private garden in the mountains owned by ijūsha. It was idyllically situated on a mountain overlooking fields with flowers everywhere. When we arrived, live guitar music was playing on stage, and before we could enter, we were asked to exchange Japanese yen for a local currency (chiiki tsūka) called deera, which inspired the name of the event. Equipped with deera, we walked around and met many friends and acquaintances, most of them ijūsha. There were about ten stalls selling pastries, tea, knickknacks and bread. I bought tea from a young couple who had just moved to Taketa from Tokyo. The tea was picked during the full moon. Coffee and chai were served in the house where many children were running around screaming happily. There was a boisterous and relaxed atmosphere in the beautiful surroundings and with guitar music playing. At the end of the event, we looked at the organizers’ artwork in the gallery they run in a former warehouse next to the building where they live.

The Deera Festival in an idyllic garden in the mountains
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

One of the larger festivals I attended was the Okajo sakura matsuri, which features a parade of residents dressed in Edo period costumes. In the morning, all the participants gathered in their robes at the ruins of Oka Castle in Taketa. The parking lots nearby were crowded, and the city government staff had to show the visitors, who had traveled from all over Kyūshū, a place to park. We joined the crowd and walked up the hill to arrive just as the parade was to begin with a taiko performance. The parade then moved from the castle ruins down to the old castle town, where it was enthusiastically greeted by residents, tourists and friends of the participants. The colorful customs and music were very impressive.

Before the parade: Gathering for the Okajo Sakura Matsuri
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

When I returned to Arita at the end of my fieldwork, I was very surprised to see that preparations for the Ceramic Fair (tōki ichi), the biggest festival of the year, were already underway, even though it did not begin for another two weeks. We already saw tents selling porcelain at a discount. In the parking lot in front of the guest house where we were staying, there was a tent and the staff from the kiln across the street was setting up shelves and racks. Everyone told me that this was only the second tōki ichi after the two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, and that everyone was very excited to enjoy the Ceramic Fair. Since there was no food and drink sold last year due to the pandemic-related restrictions, it was not as much fun as usual. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend the tōki ichi this year due to teaching obligations, but I hope it will be as nice as it has been in the past.

Getting ready for the Ceramic Fair during Golden Week
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Visiting festivals and talking with people who were preparing for and looking forward to future events made me aware of the importance of these festivals for communities, social relations and cohesion, local businesses, tourism and local identity. The excitement about the festival’s return showed how much people had missed working together to prepare the food, organize the program, and set up the stage and booths. But even more important was the opportunity to meet people they hadn’t seen in a long time. I heard so many people shouting: “O hisashiburi!” (Long time no see!) and catching up on the last three years. On the other hand, I also heard of villages where the pandemic served as an excuse to abandon festivals because of the aging of the population, which made it very difficult to find people to organize local events. Since local festivals are important for rural areas and their residents, I hope they will survive, and I am very much looking forward to participating in more festivals next year.

PhD research with a kid, part 3: The ethnographer at the park

by Cecilia Luzi

From the very first day of my fieldwork in Japan, I knew that this would be a great adventure. After a long ride on the Shinkansen from Kyoto, I found myself tired in a hotel in Buzen, but my child was crying to go out and play somewhere. This was just the beginning of a series of intense months spent between field research and the need to create a new routine for myself and my child. Soon I was spending endless hours in public parks in rural Japan and making some interesting discoveries. First, I noticed that there were public parks that were only for the elderly, with equipment for back and leg exercises. This is a clear sign that the Japanese population is aging at a dizzying pace, especially in rural areas. Second, in rural Japan, there are some stunning parks! Having lived in Berlin for two years, I thought that Germany held the record for the most spectacular public parks, but I had to revise my opinion. The parks here in Japan are generally well maintained, with beautiful gardens and large playgrounds for children. I also noticed that parents often play with their children, whereas in Europe, parents often sit on benches and watch their children play. But in Japan, parents climb the slides together with their children, and everyone seems to be having a good time. However, this can also lead to some awkward moments when you’re stuck on a slide tower with another parent that’s meant for kids between the ages of 5 and 10! But in the end, it’s all part of the fun.

Playing with leaves in autumn
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

I also had many interesting encounters during my stays in parks. In front of the hotel where I stayed during the first days of my fieldwork, there was a clearing with a pavilion and some benches. On the evening of my arrival, I decided to take a walk and came across some strange fitness equipment in the park (which I later found out was for elderly people). While I was trying to make sense of it, a man walking his dog approached me and my son. He seemed intrigued by our presence. We exchanged a few words, and after 10 minutes we were sitting in his living room eating cookies and talking with him and his wife about the increasing desolation of the city with more and more empty houses and a rapidly aging population.

Collecting acorns in fall and enjoying springtime in public parks
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022, 2023

During fall, the parks turned into a veritable sea of color. Every day was like discovering a different landscape, and my son filled my pockets with colorful leaves, acorns and chestnuts at every turn. On a sunny December day, we met a family at the slide who had recently moved from Tokyo to the nearby village. The mother was Japanese, the father Senegalese, and they had a 5-year-old daughter who was cheerful and lively and quickly gained my son’s trust. We immediately struck up a conversation as we were curious about each other. I soon discovered that their move to the countryside was more challenging than expected, as the mentality was different than in the city and communication, especially in the workplace, was less direct. “At the moment we are saving, and as soon as our daughter starts elementary school, we have decided to move to Senegal,” explained the mother.

Public parks in Japan are often shaded by large cherry trees of all kinds. This year, they bloomed between late March and early April at my field site. So when I had to organize a meeting with one of my research participants, we did not hesitate to organize a hanami with our children. She came with her parents and we spent an hour eating strawberries and talking about her ten years in Japan as a potter, while the children played and screamed non-stop.

Slides in Japan are very long
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

When I moved to my second field site, I stayed in a trial house provided by the municipality for the first ten days. It was only a two-minute walk from the largest park and playground in town. Every day we went to the slides and met many different families. What surprised me most was that many people I spoke with were not from the city, but had moved here after marriage because their spouse was originally born here. Whether they were men or women, whether they came from nearby cities or from big cities like Nagasaki or Fukuoka, many moved to this small town of 15,000 people after deciding to get married and have children.

The beach is our second option if we don’t want to go to the park.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

When I arrived in the field months ago, I quickly realized that I had to face many challenges: finding the right people to socialize with, adapting to a new place, and most importantly, finding a way to give my child the serenity he needed in a completely different context than he was used to. All the initial phases of participant observation, which were very important to my research, took a back seat to the need to make the move as easy as possible for my child. Anyone who has dealt with babies and toddlers, as well as older children, knows that they need constant attention, constant presence, and a good dose of daily entertainment. And when you just want to flip open the futon and enjoy an episode of some show before you start preparing dinner after a busy day of meetings and interviews, you need to get out and play. Doing fieldwork with a young child in tow means leaving the house every day, even when you’re tired and exhausted. Some days this can be very exhausting, but there are also positive aspects to this situation. I have spent many happy hours in the parks watching my son play, grow, and interact with adults and children, but most importantly, even on days when I would have preferred to stay home and avoid people, my child has forced me to go out. As time went on, I became more and more confident in going out every day. Now I enjoy chatting with the other moms and dads in town, and what is just a playground for my child has become a new source of observation for me every day.

Politicians’ interests and their influence on regional revitalization

by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)

National politicians play an essential role in the making of rural revitalization policies. However, their competing demands for limited resources can lead to conflicting priorities. Through interviews with Diet members in Tokyo, I found that politicians’ responsibilities include establishing directions for rural revitalization, revising laws and debating the effectiveness of particular policies. They can also use their influence to shape proposals from the Cabinet Office and relevant ministries. Studies by McElwain (2012) and Sasada (2013) suggest that rural areas tend to be overrepresented in the Japanese Diet. The large number of rural representatives might lead to fierce competition between politicians at the national level, who try to procure more funding and policies favorable to their constituencies, given that municipalities prioritize different revitalization strategies based on their specific needs.

The office where I conducted an interview with a Diet member in Tokyo
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

Leading and opposition parties in Japan have many conflicting interests when it comes to rural revitalization policies. A Diet member from the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) strongly criticized the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) approach to rural revitalization in our interview. Unlike the LDP, he and his party emphasize the importance of a bold immigration policy to revitalize rural areas. However, this puts the CDP at odds with the LDP, which has traditionally been conservative on immigration policy to appeal to older voters who tend to be more conservative. My interview partner’s criticism of the LDP is especially aimed at the Technical Intern Training Program (gaikokujin ginōjisshū seido) that recruits immigrant workers to compensate for the lack of labor in rural areas and at the LDP’s lacking vision to attract and retain foreign talent from other Asian countries. He believes that the LDP’s reliance on cheap labor is hindering rural revitalization efforts.

He also criticizes the LDP’s current policies, which tend to provide a large amount of funding for public works which are not effective in revitalizing rural areas. Overinvestment in public works has resulted in the construction of unnecessary infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, which do not directly address the underlying economic and social issues facing rural areas. This practice is often referred to as pork-barrel politics. Pork-barrel politics is a recurring theme throughout my fieldwork at all three levels of government. This type of politics involves politicians using their power and influence to bring government money and projects to their own districts or states, regardless of whether those projects are necessary or not, to win over voters.

The construction of new roads and bridges has been criticized as pork-barrel politics
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

This interview with a member of the national diet highlights the tensions between the ruling party and opposition parties over how to revitalize rural areas. In addition, research on political behavior indicates that politicians are often motivated by self-interest, which is most importantly to win elections (Callander 2008; Fredriksson et al. 2011). This view is also supported by bureaucrats involved in rural revitalization at the Cabinet Office I have interviewed. One of my interview partners said that politicians are more concerned with campaigning than with legislation. In some cases, politicians may not prioritize rural development but still feel the need to present themselves as doing so and tend to make empty promises before elections and neglect them after getting elected. This election-focused behavior creates a void for other policy actors, such as bureaucrats and interest groups to step in.

In conclusion, conflicting interests among politicians can hinder effective policymaking for rural revitalization in Japan. The competition for limited resources can result in pork-barrel politics and overinvestment in public works projects that do not address the underlying economic and social issues facing rural areas. Moreover, politicians’ self-interest and election-focused behavior allow other policy actors to step in. In my PhD thesis, and upcoming blog posts, I will also explore the interactions between politicians with policy secretaries, bureaucrats and interest groups.

Callander, Steven. 2008. “Political Motivations.” Review of Economic Studies 75: 671–97.
Fredriksson, Per G, Le Wang, and Khawaja Mamun. 2011. “Are Politicians Office or Policy Motivated? The Case of U.S. Governors’ Environmental Policies.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 62 (2): 241–53.
McElwain, Kenneth. 2012. “The Nationalization of Japanese Elections.” Journal of East Asian Studies 12: 323–50.
Sasada, Hironori. 2013. “The Impact of Rural Votes in Foreign Policies: The FTA Policies under the DPJ Government in Japan.” Asian Journal of Political Science 21 (3): 224–48.

Consuming Fukushima: The food, the rurality, the warmth

by Lynn Ng

In December 2022, I wrote a post on the struggles of my first week back in the field – the countryside with shivering winds and empty phone signals in Fukushima. I worried gravely what returning to the field would be like and how ill-prepared I had been. To come full-circle, I want to share the last week of my field work in Fukushima here. During this week I had a starkly different experience in a different but deeply similar site (countryside, mountainous, cold). In January, I participated in a farm-stay in another part of rural Fukushima. Given that it was mid-winter and taking place just after Japan’s worst snowstorm in a decade, I worried that this farm experience would be cancelled, or worse, unfruitful.

The snow-covered vegetables, from which we freely picked out our vegetables.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Luck would have it that the days immediately after the storm were sunny and bright. While still cold enough for the snow to stay, I was immensely glad to see blue skies. Regular farm work aside, my research participant was also hosting a community hotpot party in the evening and our task for this day in particular was simple: salvage and harvest whatever vegetables we could get from the snowy fields. Booted and gloved up, I walked hesitantly towards the row of lettuces, wondering what could actually have survived the snowstorm. I knelt down at a bundle of lettuce, poked its frozen leaves, sighed, and prepared to get up and abandon this section. At that moment, an old lady from the neighborhood trudged over and squatted beside me, telling me in slurred Japanese to pluck them out. I was confused but tried nevertheless, but alas the soil itself was frozen and the lettuces would not budge without me completely ripping the ball apart.

My little lettuce baby and our delicious yield
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

The old lady muttered impatiently, conjured a knife from out of nowhere, and started stabbing the frozen soil to dislodge the lettuces. She showed me then how to gently peel apart the frozen outer leaves to reveal fresh lettuce cores. I was in awe. I had fully planned for the dinner party to be of scraps, since it was mid-winter. Yet, now I knelt on frozen soil cradling a palm-sized lettuce core so fresh I wanted to bite on it there and then. Midway through our farm efforts, a middle-aged man drove up along the driveway and, with some distance from us, started poking his knife at the tree roots. What could it be now? I was curious and excused myself from the group and walked over to the man, all the while hoping he would not turn around and stab me with his knife. “Ah, look, Daikon,” he said. I crouched cautiously and saw what he was poking at– the frozen soil around a tiny sprout of what appeared to be radish leaves. He told me that tiny leaves meant larger radishes, and so together we plucked at the tiny sprout and heaved and dug. Our strenuous efforts were rewarded with a stick of thin, palm-sized radish. “Maybe this can just be grated,” he comforted himself. After hours of harvesting, we were pleased with our yield – a healthy mix of lettuces, cabbages, onions, and other greens I could not identify. We wheeled our finds to the car and set off to prepare for the hotpot.

Food somehow tastes best when made with self-sourced ingredients.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Now back in Berlin, I reflect upon those three months in Japan and how things have come full circle. I look back at those pictures of lettuces and hotpots, and wonder how little I thought about radiation at all during the whole farm-to-table process, even though I spent hours harvesting vegetables grown in the soil of the former exclusion zones. I wondered again if that’s what the newcomers here experienced too: the forgotten radiation displaced by the warm hotpot parties and cheeriness of the rural wide blue skies.

Conference report: Urban rural migration in Japan and Europe: Transnational and Comparative perspectives

by Cecilia Luzi and Frank Tu (Ngo Tu Thanh)

Rural areas in many places around the world are struggling with economic and demographic problems and are often faced with the migration of rural populations to urban centers. This is particularly true for communities in rural Japan, which have been affected by declining birth rates, aging and out-migration for decades. Over the past decade, however, there has been a sharp increase in both the number of people interested in moving from urban to rural areas in Japan and the number who actually move. A distinctive feature of Japan is the numerous programs and subsidies initiated by various actors to encourage people to move to or return to rural Japan in order to revitalize the local economy and agriculture. Shortly after the Japanese government launched new financial support measures in early 2023 to encourage people to leave Tokyo and move to the countryside, the symposium “Urban rural migration in Japan and Europe: Transnational and comparative perspectives” was held on February 2-3, 2023 at the Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB). The aim of the symposium, organized by Cornelia Reiher (Free University of Berlin), was to compare empirical results from her DFG project “Urban-Rural Migration and Rural Revitalization in Japan” with urban-rural migration within and outside Japan and to analyze connections between urban-rural migration, revitalization practices and support measures. Anthropologists, architects, area studies specialists, consultants, geographers, municipal officials, political scientists, and sociologists from various European countries and Japan took turns on the panel to discuss the challenges of urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan and European countries, highlighting similarities, differences, and transnational trends.

The audience at the Japanese German Center Berlin (JDZB)
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

After the opening speeches by Tokiko Kiyota (JDZB) and Cornelia Reiher, two keynote presentations focused on counter-urbanization in Japan and Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Susanne Klien (Hokkaido University) focused on self-determination and subjective well-being, but also on loneliness and precarity in the lives of migrants after relocation to rural Japan. Introducing the term “urban rural,” she emphasized the increasing hybridization of urban and rural areas, especially at a time when people can transcend space through digital media. Keith Halfacree (Swansea University) presented the case of rural England and Wales, emphasizing that the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the food production crisis will have long-term effects on these areas. While counter-urbanization can provide an opportunity for rural revitalization and renaissance, it can also widen the gap between urban and rural areas.

Speakers and Chairs of the Symposium
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

The first day ended with a roundtable discussion led by Cornelia Reiher. The two keynote speakers were joined on stage by consultant Taichi Goto (Region Works LLC Fukuoka) and Annett Steinführer (Thünen Institute for Rural Studies). After their brief opening statements, the discussion focused on the impact of the Covid pandemic on rural areas in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom; the challenges and promise of urban-rural migration and counter-urbanization for rural revitalization in the three countries; and addressed issues such as housing, relationships between locals and newcomers, and how to create places where diverse rural residents can meet. Panelists emphasized that there are more dividing lines than those between “locals” and “newcomers” and that research should pay more attention to more fluid forms of migration and mobility, such as second-home owners or people with multiple residences trying to enjoy the best of many worlds.

The panel discussion on the first day
Copyright © Maritchu Durand 2023

The second day comprised four sessions, each with three presentations. To allow for cross-national comparisons, each panel consisted of a presentation on Japan, a presentation on Germany, and a presentation on a European country. The first session, devoted to the experiences of urban-rural migrants and their contributions to rural areas, was opened by Wolfram Manzenreiter (University of Vienna), who presented findings from collaborative research on community well-being in Greater Aso. He focused on the notion of belonging and the importance of personal background for community engagement. Tim Leibert (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography) presented the example of the district of North Saxony, showing the influence of individual social networks on the decision of urban residents to move from Leipzig to rural areas. To conclude the first panel, Anja Decker from the Czech Academy of Sciences presented her research on urban-rural migrants in western rural Czechia and on cooperations and conflicts between newcomers and the local population facilitated by alternative food practices.

Panelists of the panel “Urban rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan”
Copyright © Maritchu Durand 2023

In the second panel, the DFG project “Urban rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan” was presented. First, Cornelia Reiher, the project leader, introduced the research project in general and reported some preliminary findings from her own field research in two communities. She spoke about topics such as the role of local governments in migration decisions and rural revitalization, changes brought about by new practices linking online and offline spaces, and increasing diversity in rural Japan. The project’s two research assistants then presented their research. Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu) discussed the case of Buzen City from a public policy perspective, emphasizing the important role of international migration and cooperation in rural revitalization. Cecilia Luzi also spoke about Buzen City, but from the perspective of urban-rural migrants. She showed that rural revitalization is not a uniform process, but a multifaceted phenomenon that takes different and sometimes contradictory forms.

Panelists of the panel “Urban-rural Migration and Rural Revitalization in Japan”
Copyright © Maritchu Durand 2023

The third panel focused on the role of politics and policies in urban-rural migration and rural revitalization. Participants included both scholars and practitioners. Ken Hijino (Kyoto University) provided information on general trends in policies to attract new residents to rural areas in Japan and the role that depopulation and attracting new residents play in mayoral elections. Mayor Dietmar Henrich from Hamm (Sieg) in Germany presented his municipality and the challenges it faces due to population decline, and discussed creative solutions to promote in-migration. Finally, Angel Paniagua Mazorra (Spanish Council for Scientific Research), who participated online, spoke about his twenty years of research on natives and newcomers in remote rural areas in Spain, addressing some methodological challenges and personal perceptions of change in these areas, including infrastructure improvement.

Panelists of the panel “Urban-Rural Migration and the State: Policies and Politics”
Copyright © Maritchu Durand 2023

The fourth panel focused on the future of rural areas and urban-rural migration. Tadashi Saito (Yamaguchi University) introduced a new research method called “Verbs-Extracting Research Method, VERM” to analyze and explore new opportunities for tourism in rural Japan by focusing on the actions of research participants. Annett Steinführer discussed terminologies and presented findings on the reasons, motives and social structure of people who move from urban to rural areas in Germany. Finally, Susanne Stenbacka (Uppsala University) discussed three aspects of migration in rural Sweden, namely the increase in international migration, the immigration of socio-economically weak households, and the increased demand for vacation homes and permanent housing in rural areas.

Panelists of the panel “The Future of Rural Areas and Urban-Rural Migration”
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

In the final discussion, Cornelia Reiher, Susanne Klien, Tim Leibert, Anja Decker, and Keith Halfacree reflected on the issues discussed during the symposium. The central themes they identified were the incompatibility of local needs and national funding plans for rural areas, the incongruence of administrative and social boundaries, and competition between local governments. Conflicting representations of rural areas, access to land, land prices, finding suitable housing, and building a home were important issues for newcomers and long-term residents of rural areas that led to conflicts and political disputes in both Japan and European countries. The main target group of policies for developing rural areas and attracting new residents were surprisingly similar in all countries, where young families were to be attracted to move to the countryside through relocation fairs, financial incentives and the provision of housing. Panelists discussed whether attracting new residents is really a solution to rural problems, and suggested that depopulation could also be seen as an opportunity from a posthuman perspective. Considering all these aspects, depopulation in rural Japan seems to be more serious than in other countries, but perhaps it is not so unique after all. Overall, the symposium encouraged all participants to continue this conversation, to pay more attention to more unstable types of mobilities, and to reflect more on the terminology used when discussing mobilities to rural areas.

Guest contribution: Greetings from Omori-chō

by Shunichi Ito

Hello to all in the “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan” Blog community! My name is Shunichi Ito, and I am very happy to be able to participate and share my experiences working and researching the Japanese countryside with you all.

That’s me!
Copyright © Shunichi Ito 2023

To introduce myself, I am currently leading a nikyoten seikatsu (a two location lifestyle) between Chiba Prefecture as a soon-to-be second year graduate student at Sophia University and Shimane Prefecture as a member of a RMO (regional management organization) for a small town called Omori-chō (大森町). As for my personal background, all I can say is that I have lived a quite mobile life. I was born in Los Angeles, but immediately moved to Japan until 4th grade, then moved back to the US (New Jersey), then to California for college. After graduating, I moved to Shimane Prefecture and lived and worked in a town called Omori-chō for three years, then moved to Chiba for graduate school, and here I am.

My graduating thesis at UC Berkeley was “Reimagening a New Generation of Hopeful Lifestyle in Japan: An Ethnographic Study of How a New Generation is finding Alternative Lifestyles in the Countryside” which I admit is quite a mouthful of a title. In the thesis, I conducted ethnographic research of I-turners and U-turners in my field site of Omori-chō. Specifically, on the conditions that acted as the push and pull incentives for moving, as well as their personal experiences comparing their lifestyles in urban Japan and now in the countryside. I was always interested in what constituted as a mainstream and hopeful lifestyle in contemporary Japan and how people who were disenchanted or could not realize those lifestyles were getting by in life.

My graduating thesis on “Reimagening a New Generation of Hopeful Lifestyle in Japan”
Copyright © Shunichi Ito 2023

I would now like to introduce my field site of Omori-chō to you all. To be more formal it is Omori-chō, Oda City, Shimane Prefecture (島根県,大田市,大森町)

The streets of Omori-chō
Copyright © Shunichi Ito, 2023

The village is surrounded by mountains on both sides forming a valley, where houses are stretched vertically along a straight road and the Ginzan River that runs through it. The valley, which is 3.1 kilometers long, is dived into two sections with the first 0.8 kilometers called the machinami or the townscape, and the rest of the 2.3 kilometers leading into the mountains is called the Ginzan District. This informal division of the town represents where the samurai bureaucracy/ commercial district was and where the silver miners lived during the Edo period.
Omori-chō is where the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines is located, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Heritage tourism make up a large part of its economy as upon its initial designation, close to 800,000 people visited the village in a year. The main location of visitation is Ryugenji Silver mine, which is a silver mine tourists can enter at the top of the Ginzan District.

The Silver mines
Copyright © Shunichi Ito 2023

As of 2022 there are 393 people living in the village, where 40% of its population is over the age of 65, 9.67% between the ages of 20-30, and 14.76% are under the age of 14. While Omori has maintained its population of around 400 for the last 10 years, it is part of the population decline and super-aging society like the rest of Shimane and rural Japan. A unique characteristic of Omori-chō is that there are two companies in the village which employ around about 100 residents who live in Omori-chō. One is a clothing and apparel and lifestyle brand called Gungendo, and the other is a prosthetics maker called Nakamura Brace. These companies also finance the rebuilding of many Japanese folk houses called kominka for its employees to live in.

Rice paddy in Omori-chō
Copyright © Shunichi Ito 2022

For my masters I am interested in conducting research on RMO’s (chiiki unei soshiki) or regional management organizations, which are organizations of proactive local self-governance run by residents of the town. This is an important area of study because RMO’s can act as a hopeful civic space of strategic planning coupled with implementation towards an uncertain/ precarious future. This is in contrast to the more nostalgic functions of rural as furusato by Marilyn Ivy [1], or the “Treasure Hunts” of neoliberal decentralization of responsibility by Bridget Love [2]. Omori-chō has created a RMO of its own two years ago called Iwami Ginzan Mirai Consortium and current is going through a period of critical self-analysis where residents are reconceptualizing their position and identity as a town in postgrowth contemporary Japan. I am hoping that my research will reveal how the rural is becoming a location of postgrowth values through the critical engagement with the future, rather than simply protecting or rediscovering the past.

I’m looking forward to continuing sharing my research, as well as my “day in my life” in Omori-cho on this blog, thank you!  

[1] Ivy, M. (1995), Discourses of the Vanishing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[2] Love, B. (2013), „Treasure Hunts in Rural Japan: Place Making at the Limits of Sustainability”, American Anthropologist 115, 1, S. 112–124.