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. Over the next three years, a team of two pre-doc researchers and Professor Cornelia Reiher (PI) from the Institue of Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin will 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 and PhD students from the Institute if Japanese Studies and the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität Berlin who work on related projects focusing on urban to rural migration and rural Japan.
By Sarah Bijlsma
A little over a year ago, Ryutaro Hagi decided to quit his Tokyo job, to move back to his birthplace in Mie Prefecture, and to become an organic farmer. While growing up on a farm as a child, he had never considered this kind of life for himself. Quite the opposite; Ryutaro studied transnational communication in Kyoto, spent a year in the U.S., has friends living all over the world, and started his career successfully at an international travel agency in Osaka.
Interestingly, it was exactly Ryutaro’s interest in people and media from outside of Japan that inspired him to go local. His business partners, who politely refused Japanese meat and fish-based dishes, the Netflix documentary Cowspiricy (2014) on the global meat industry, a 2018 keynote speech by Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia at the time, made him aware of the large part the food industry plays in contributing to global warming.
Ryutaro tells me that what struck him the most in Marcario’s talk, was that she mentions that soil acts as a sponge for carbon and that if agriculture would be fully organic, the CO2 emissions annually produced would be completely sequestered in the soil. Over time, he became aware that organic farming offers a solution to a wide variety of environmental threats, both globalized issues and those particular for Japan, like water pollution and the countries dependency on foreign food supplies. Being unable to travel because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he took the opportunity to change his life and started Aina Farm on a small plot of land that he borrows from his father. Aina, as he explains on his website, means “soil” or “land” in the Hawaiian language—producing healthy soil without chemicals is what organic farming is all about.
On the website of Aina, people can learn all about Ryutaro’s new life. In a promotion video for the farm, he talks in English about nature and his own dreams of becoming a farmer. Aina Farms Instagram page, which has more than 1000 followers, shows colorful pictures of growing crops, children playing with vegetables, and Ryutaro himself working the fields. In addition, he publishes long articles on his blog sharing his own experiences while referring to American films, books, and theories of human-nature entanglements. Looking at these posts, I think to myself that his life looks very different from the image of a farming life that I know from the Netherlands. Rather than a simple life, it looks like out of a fashion magazine.
When I ask him about this, Ryutaro explains that this is exactly what he is strategically aiming for. In Japan, there is a fundamental need for more agricultural businesses. But farming suffers a negative image; it is difficult, badly paid, and perhaps even seen as backward. Making use of social media, he wants to change this image and show young Japanese that farming can also be fashionable, fun, important, and rewarding. That farmers are “cool” and can speak multiple languages, that they also travel the world.
Furthermore, since Ryutaro moved to Mie he realizes that the older generation of farmers—including his father—have their very own ideas about best practices. Growing crops without chemicals does not make any sense to them. in his heart, he wants to tell them directly to stop destroying the earth. “But that generation is very stubborn,” he says. “And also, this is everything that they know and grew up with. Picking a fight is not the way to reach them. But in the end, it is all about supply and demand. They do not listen to me and do not care about the environment, but if more people choose to buy organic products, also that generation will have to change. That is why I do my best to grow healthy vegetables and post those cool pictures on Instagram.” He pauses and smiles, “you know, I do not want to be negative and against everything. I just want to be an inspiration to others.”
What I find so fascinating about Ryutaro’s story is that it is defined by a variety of interwoven scales. On the one hand, his practices as a farmer are fundamentally local; the crops that he grows and the physical work he performs all depend on the conditions of this one plot of land somewhere in the middle of Mie prefecture. On the other hand, Ryutaro’s story is largely shaped by events and thoughts originating outside of Japan. And on his turn, social media allows him to spread his message to people living in very different parts of the world. This illustrates that the global and the local are neither easily defined, nor simply dichotomous. Rather, Aina Farm can be seen as a place where different sets of relations intersect, and where nature and technology collaborate.
By Cornelia Reiher
The idealized notion of rural Japan inherent in the term furusato is characteristic of discourse on rural Japan. It connotes beautiful nature and traditional lifestyles, nostalgia, warmth and a feeling of security that is constructed in opposition to urban spaces . Although this idealized notion of rural Japan has been mobilized in regional revitalization discourses since the 1970s, the success of such portrayals has been rather limited when it comes to attracting capital, people and jobs to the countryside .
But with the increasing popularity of urban-rural migration it is not only the countryside that is represented in such an idealized manner. As prefectures and municipalities compete for newcomers and return migrants (ijūsha), they promote idealized images of their prefectures and of the migrants who should settle down in the respective areas. Prefectural and local governments have specific ideas about who should relocate to their towns. When looking at promotional material prefectures issue, it is striking how they attempt to appeal to different audiences. While some prefectures present themselves as the ideal place to raise children, others target women who want to realize their dreams and yet other prefectures are mainly interested in u-turn migrants.
In promotional material found on- and offline, ijūsha share their experiences and praise their new places of residence for beautiful nature, delicious food, a slow lifestyle or the support infrastructure provided by the prefecture or the municipality. Against the backdrop of population decline, it is not surprising that many prefectures target families with young children. Ijūsha featured in these prefectures’ promotional material stress how easy it is to raise children in the countryside, how children benefit from growing up in close contact with nature and how much easier it is to get access to childcare. Images of laughing children running around in paddy fields, feeding chicken, enjoying outside activities or harvesting vegetables and fruits they have grown in the family garden accompany these accounts. Their parents share their experiences with support for buying or renting land and house construction and talk about how they connect easily to locals through their children. The ijūsha depicted in such a manner mostly have three or four children and women mainly speak as mothers.
But the promotional material does not address the many problems related to education in Japan’s countryside. These include the closing of schools, the small size of classes in some rural schools or the difficulties of long distance commuting to a high school that prepares children for the university entrance exams. When I interviewed ijūsha in Ōita in 2018, many had smaller children and some complained that the number of students in the local elementary school wasn’t even large enough to open a baseball team. Many worried about their children’s future and wanted to move back to urban areas as soon as they would start high school. Nevertheless, after being stuck in an apartment in Berlin with my family during the Covid-19 pandemic for one and a half years, I can imagine that people from urban areas feel attracted to the imaginary of a happy life in the countryside presented in the promotion material by prefectures across Japan. It will be interesting to find out how people considering relocation perceive such material, what questions they ask staff at local support desks and how the imaginaries presented in promotional material affects their decisions when selecting a place to relocate to.
Ivy, Marilyn (1995), Discourses of the vanishing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.105-106.
Reiher, Cornelia (2014), Lokale Identität und ländliche Revitalisierung. Die japanische Keramikstadt Arita und die Grenzen der Globalisierung, Bielefeld: Transcript.
By Ngo Thi Nhung
Translated by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)
Xin chào mọi người, tôi tên là Nhung, đến từ Việt Nam. Rất vui vì đã có cơ hội gặp và giao lưu với mọi người. Tôi đến Nhật từ năm 2013 sau quá trình học tập và tham gia các hoạt động xã hội tại Nhật năm 2021 tôi tốt nghiệp Master tại Nhật vào tháng 3, và bắt đầu tới Tòa thị chính Buzen (tỉnh Fukuoka) làm việc từ tháng 4 tới nay.
Hello, my name is Nhung and I’m from Vietnam. It’s my pleasure to have this opportunity to share my story with you. I came to Japan in 2013, and I just finished my master’s degree in March 2021, after a long period of studying and participating in different social activities. Since April 2014, I have been working for the City Hall of Buzen (Fukuoka Prefecture).
Trải qua 8 năm làm việc và học tập tại thành phố Fukuoka – một thành phố trẻ và năng động, tôi đã tới thành phố Buzen làm việc tại đây. Buzen là một thành phố nhỏ với dân số 24,642 người. Như mọi người đã biết Nhật Bản đang đối mặt với tình trạng già hóa dân số được biểu thị rõ rệt. Trên khắp nước Nhật thì dân số hàng năm giảm trong đó có thành phố Buzen. Tình trang dân số giảm làm cho rất nhiều ngôi nhà bị bỏ trống. Để xử lý những vấn đề này, chính quyền Nhật Bản đã có những chính sách ưu đãi và thu hút người di cư (nhập cư) tới sinh sống và làm việc, đặc biệt tới các thành phố nhỏ như Buzen. Người di cư và nhập cư tác động rất lớn tới xã hội Nhật, giúp làm trẻ hóa dân số và giải quyết vấn đề thiếu lao động.
After eight years living and studying in Fukuoka City – a young and dynamic city, I decided to work in Buzen. Buzen is a small city with a population of 24,642 people. As you may already know, Japan is currently facing the issue of population aging. Localities around Japan, including Buzen, are trying to deal with the effects of population decline. Also, due to population decline many houses and buildings are left abandoned. In order to tackle such issues, the Japanese government has implemented numerous policies to support and attract migrants (immigrants), especially to small cities like Buzen. Migrants and immigrants have a very important impact on the Japanese society. They are the younger generations who can help tackle Japan’s labor shortage.
Để tạo điều kiện thuận lợi cho người nhập cư cũng như cho sự phát triển thành phố, và nhằm giải quyết các vấn đề còn tồn đọng, tôi đã được chọn làm một thành viên chương trình Chiiki Okoshi Kyōryoku Tai. Chương trình Chiiki Okoshi Kyōryoku Tai là một mảng rất lớn trong những chương trình phát triển đô thị của Buzen. Trong đó tôi chịu trách nhiệm cho việc điều phối về các hoạt động truyền thông; lên kế hoạch giúp tăng cường hợp tác với các nước có quan hệ chặt chẽ với thành phố Buzen, nhằm làm rõ tiềm năng cũng như sự thu hút của Buzen; tổ chức các hoạt động giao lưu văn hóa và giúp đỡ người nước ngoài tại thành phố, cũng như tạo cơ hội cho cho người dân địa phương tiếp cận và hiểu hơn về người nước ngoài. Mặc dù vậy, do ảnh hưởng của dịch COVID nên mọi hoạt động liên quan hiện nay vẫn chưa được diễn ra nhiều. Mong rằng dịch nhanh chóng sẽ qua đi để mọi họat động cộng đồng sẽ được dẩy mạnh hơn nữa. Tôi cũng mong rằng sẽ góp được một chút sức nhỏ của mình cho Buzen ngày một trở nên phát triển hơn trong tương lai.
In order to support immigrants and the development of Buzen, as well as to help tackle various unsolved challenges, I was selected to join the Chiiki Okoshi Kyōryokutai. The Chiiki Okoshi Kyōryokutai is a highly important part of Buzen’s plans to revitalize the city. As a member of the program, I’m responsible for conducting public relations activities; making plans to facilitate the partnership with countries that have a close relationship with Buzen, and to highlight Buzen’s potential and attractiveness; planning cultural exchange activities and supporting foreign nationals in Buzen, as well as creating opportunities for local residents to get to know foreigners better. Despite that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many plans have yet to take place. I hope the pandemic will soon be over, so that we can further promote our communal activities. I also hope to contribute my humble part to the development of Buzen in the future.
Ngoài ra, để giới thiệu thêm về Buzen, Buzen là môt thành phố không quá lớn, không quá phát triển, nhưng lại là một thành phố có nhiều cảnh quan tự nhiên và là nơi chúng ta có thể vừa làm việc, sống chậm lại và cảm nhận cuộc sống nhiều hơn, với không khí trong lành và trị an tốt. Nằm ở vị trí giáp biển và núi do vậy các món ăn ở đây ngon và phong phú đặc biệt là hải sản tươi và lợn rừng, nai. Hơn nữa hàng xóm rất là tốt bụng và thân thiện rất nhiệt tình đã giúp đỡ và hướng dẫn lúc tôi ngay từ lúc mới đến. Buzen có nhiều lễ hội địa phương, do đối với người nước ngoài là những cơ hội để trải nghiệm văn hóa, giao lưu và học hỏi. Hơn nữa còn rất nhiều điểm tham quan có thể đến và giữ chân du khách khi đến tại Buzen. Rất mong ngày gần nhất tôi sẽ được gặp và đón mọi người tại Buzen.
Moreover, I also want to add a few lines of introduction about Buzen City. Buzen is a city that is not so large or developed, but it has plenty of natural amenities and fresh air. It is also a safe place to live in. In Buzen, we can work while being able to live and experience a slow-paced life. Located between the sea and the mountains, Buzen has diverse and delicious cuisine, such as fresh seafood, wild boar or deer meat. Furthermore, my neighbors are very kind and friendly people, and they have helped me greatly since I moved here. Besides, Buzen also has many local festivals; and thus, can provide many opportunities for foreigners to experience and learn more about the Japanese culture. Additionally, the City also has many tourist attractions that can charm visitors. I really hope to welcome everyone in Buzen in the near future.
By Cecilia Luzi
On 16th July 2020 at 9 am, I received an email from Professor Reiher, welcoming me to join the Japanese Studies department at FU Berlin as a research assistant on the project Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Kyūshū. A couple of hours later, a £8 Clear Blue test displayed the word “pregnant” on its digital screen.
Before that day, I would have never thought that pursuing a PhD and having children at the same time was even possible. Since I started a doctoral degree later than usual, I saw my friends going through 3, 4 years of doctoral formation. Most of them struggled with late night work, everyday anxiety and occasional frustration. I could not imagine how adding a crying baby to the equation would be a wise thing to do. However, I soon realized I was only seeing half of the picture. I was in need of other points of view, and so I asked for advice. To my surprise, those very same friends helped me realize that this could actually be a great time to have children. Your timetable is flexible; most of your work can be done at home in front of a computer; and you have at least 3 years of assured salary, which, sad truth, is among the longest period of stable job a researcher could aspire to today. Moreover, my contract as a research assistant provided me with a paid maternity leave. I will always remember what Prof Reiher told me when I announced her the news before signing the contract: “If we as researchers would wait a wise time to have kids, we would never have them!”.
So, the day of my 32nd birthday my partner and I moved to Berlin, 4 months pregnant and with an exciting job waiting for me at Freie Universität. I was enthusiastic about this new beginning, and everything was going very well with my pregnancy. Despite all of this, I will not deny, it has been a hard long semester. The loneliness imposed by Covid-19 second wave, the isolation that kept us away from our families even during Christmas time, and the long dark winter in Berlin was a lot to take. At work, I was very happy and excited to collaborate with my colleagues and supervisor but at times, I felt very nervous and anxious about the future. What I did not realize yet was that becoming a mother and starting a family would be a great opportunity for my PhD research.
How so? I only started to think about this recently because I have to find a new way of doing and organizing research. I now believe that being a mum makes me more indulgent toward myself and the people around me; it gives me a great dose of empathy which is very useful for an anthropologist heading to a long-time fieldwork; it opens new perspectives on my profession and helps me questioning my views on other people’s choices.
Right now, I focus on navigating through every single week as good as I can. Every morning I wake up not knowing what time I will be able to take my coffee, if my son’s naps will be long enough to send a couple of emails from home; and at what time I will be able to get to the office. I often think about how to organize the ethnographic part of my project with him, but also about the future in general. How will we manage to keep living in the same place with my partner, who is a researcher too, while our son is growing? Will I find the time to bring him to swimming classes and to write my thesis at the same time?
Once Japan will reopen its borders for foreign researchers, the three of us will leave for Kyūshū where I will start my fieldwork. Bringing family to the field is not new to social anthropologists in Japan. However, I am very anxious about having my family with me on what is supposed to be the most intense and introspective period of my research. At the same time, I believe research can and should be gentler, and we will find
 Levey, H. (2009). “Which one is yours?”: Children and ethnography. Qualitative Sociology, 32(3), 311-331.
 Allison, A. “Japanese mothers and obentōs: The lunch-box as ideological state apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly (1991): 195-208.
By Tu Thanh Ngo (Frank Tu)
The consequences of declining birth rates and population ageing in rural Japan are significant. Accepting more foreign talents to rural areas has been one of the strategies that have been proposed in the Comprehensive Strategy for Communities, People and Work (Machi, hito, shigoto sōsei sōgō senryaku), the first holistic policy package for regional revitalization in Japan. More specifically, the national version of the Comprehensive Strategy directly puts forth that municipalities should accept foreign members to join the Chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai (Community building support staff program). In line with this strategy, earlier this year, Ngo Thi Nhung, a Vietnamese graduate from Kyūshū Sangyō University was accepted as the first foreign member of the Chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai in the city of Buzen. The acceptance of Nhung was widely reported by news outlets such as Asahi Shinbun and Nishi Nippon Shinbun .
Interested to find out what she does at work, I contacted her and got an opportunity to do an online interview with Nhung and the head of Buzen’s Sōgō seisakuka [Comprehensive planning department] on September 01, 2021. Nhung explained to me that she has been living in Japan for 8 years and deliberately chose to move to Buzen after finishing her master’s degree in Fukuoka City this year. Joining the Chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai, Nhung currently works as a coordinator for tabunka kyōsei (multiculturalism) for Buzen City. In particular, her tasks involve translating pamphlets, organizing cultural exchange events, disseminating information, and supporting foreigners who live in Buzen. Throughout the interview, Nhung repeatedly stated that she wants to connect foreigners and locals in Buzen, and this is also where she believes her role in rural revitalization lies.
Why is there a need to bring foreign and local residents closer together in a small rural city like Buzen? The head of Buzen’s Sōgō seisakuka explained that one of Buzen’s main strategies to counter its declining labor force is to attract international workers, who account for 1.5% of Buzen’s population. The majority of foreigners living in Buzen are young ginō jisshūsei (technical intern trainees), who are not yet used to the Japanese culture and have limited Japanese proficiency. For this reason, Buzen seeks to conduct activities to help foreigners integrate, i.e. by holding Japanese language courses, or explaining the rules for transportation and waste disposal to them. The head of Buzen’s Sōgō seisakuka also stated that he believes that young foreigners can play an important role in maintaining Buzen’s vitality, community life, events, and festivals. For this reason, he hopes that more foreigners will come to the city in the future. He also shared with me that Buzen had just recently concluded a partnership with the Taiwanese Consulate General to attract students from Taiwan, and that the city is currently exploring ways to proceed with the new partnership.
The interview with Ngo Thi Nhung and the head of Buzen’s Sōgō seisakuka, as well as the employment of Nhung as a publicly financed COKT member gave me the first impression that Buzen City has a positive view of foreigners’ role in rural revitalization. As for Nhung, she clearly asserted that she was motivated to contribute to Buzen’s revitalization efforts and had been receiving plenty of support from her colleagues. However, she also added that although she had not encountered any problems thus far, there might be challenges ahead. Hence, I really look forward to following up on her once we can go to Buzen for our upcoming fieldwork to see whether things will have changed by then.
Hamaguchi, T. (2021) ‘Buzen-shi kyōryokutai’in ni betonamujin josei “Dare mo ga tanoshiku kuraseru kankyō o”’, Nishi Nippon Shinbun. Available at: https://www.nishinippon.co.jp/item/n/741949/ (Accessed: 15 August 2021).
Ōra, M. (2021) ‘Buzen-shi, Chiiki okoshi Kyōryokutai ni betonamujin tabunka kyōsei ninau’, Asahi Shinbun. Available at: https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASP45736PP42TLLS001.html (Accessed: 15 August 2021).
By Josko Kozic
Hi there, my name is Josko. I live in Yokohama, and I am currently conducting research for a PhD thesis about contemporary Shugendo, a Japanese religious tradition focusing on mountain worship. I would like to give you some insights into my recent fieldwork in one of Japan’s least populated places: the Sanin region and Tottori in particular.
Tottori is famous for its vast sand dunes, beautiful emerald-green coasts and its huge Mt Daisen. The region also has an abundant agriculture with seafood and vegetables being the main products. Additionally, Tottori has several Sake breweries and indigo plantations used for traditional dyeing. Often, they are located in old and cozy post-station towns (shukuba machi). Apart from this, people in Tottori are proud of the prefecture’s deep and wide forests, mainly consisting of cedar, cypress and breech trees (buna). Hidden inside these forests, there are countless waterfalls with some of them ranked as Japan’s most beautiful.
Whenever I travel to the area, I like to make a stop at a michi no eki, government-designated rest areas including shops selling regional products. It was at one of these shops where I first stumbled upon pamphlets promoting rural life and agriculture in Tottori. After doing some research online, I found out that many communities have their own websites and offer online talks providing information on how to resettle and start a life there. I realized that the image and promotion of rural life through online and print media is changing and rural life has become a popular subject in recent times.
During my stay in Tottori in spring 2020, I approached the biggest agency directed at people considering relocation to the prefecture, providing them with advice and basic information. This agency called Furusato Tottori-ken teijū kikō is a public interest incorporated foundation (kōeki zaidanhōjin) and welcomed me at their bureau, kindly providing me with detailed data collected over the last few years about U- and I-turners who moved to Tottori prefecture in the past. They also gave me a ”Tottori Guidebook” with a vast overview of all towns and districts of the region, including interviews with new settlers and locals, promoting Tottori as the ”kingdom of child-rearing” (kosodate ōkoku). One of the staff members in charge told me that, while there was no remarkable impact on the numbers since the pandemic (interview held in January 2021), things still could be changing drastically soon.
I chose the charming mountain village of Chizu for further investigations, since the place aroused my interest for its self-promotion as an officially approved designation for ”forest therapy”. Chizu has a large number of lush, green forests and almost-abandoned settlements, such as the enchanted village of Itaibara the town proudly promotes as a ‘primeval landscape’ (genfūkei) in their pamphlets. At the municipal office of Chizu town, I had an appointment with a young member of the planning division who handed me several pamphlets and information about upcoming online events where topics like moving to, living and working in rural Japan were explained. I instantly connected and followed all the mentioned pages on social network platforms such as Instagram or Line to get a better understanding of how several options for resettling are being communicated. Up to this day, I constantly receive news and updates concerning settling and living in Tottori. The person in charge at Chizu’s municipal office also introduced me to their special facilities where people can stay for a ‘trial living in the countryside’, while being accommodated in houses and lodges which are administrated by both the town office and by the locals.
Tottori city’s big relocation agency as well as Chizu town’s municipal office show great effort in promoting their regions as places worth to live in. However, their focus lies predominantly on recruiting young couples who they consider as settlers most likely to contribute to the local communities. Keeping in mind depopulation, it makes sense for communities to prefer young families. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that in the course of my research so far, I have met several U- and I-turners who resettled as singles without getting married or giving birth to children, but who contribute to their communities nonetheless.
It remains to be exciting to observe the ongoing tendencies of promoting rural-life in Tottori and I am looking forward to share further insights with you soon.
Josko Kozic (MA) moved to Japan five years ago after graduating in Japanese & Southeast Asian Studies at Goethe University in his hometown Frankfurt. He currently resides in Yokohama while working on his PhD thesis about contemporary Shugendo (a Japanese religious tradition). He is affiliated with the faculty of Religious studies at Heidelberg University.
By Maritchu Durand
Today I would like to share my experience as a wwoofer in Hokkaido, an experience which gave me a unique glimpse into rural life and community in northern Japan. This ultimately sparked my interest for the “other Japan” I had not yet seen as a Tokyoite exchange student.
Wwoof (as in World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects voluntary short-term workers (Woofers) with organic farm owners (hosts). The purpose is mutual exchange without any money involved. Browsing through the list of hosts, the Nara family immediately caught my eye. Describing their home as a house in the middle of the woods and warning potential woofers from the summer insects, they seemed to be just what I was looking for. I wrote to them and we arranged the period I would be staying with them the next day. I stayed with Natsumi, Takeshi and their three children in the Hokkaido forest and helped with various tasks around the house and worked with Takeshi as an unskilled gardener-apprentice. In exchange I got my own little hut to sleep, three delicious meals a day shared with the family and the opportunity to be adopted as a member of the family. I learned so many interesting things about their lifestyle, work and community.
Natsumi moved to Hokkaido as a volunteer for a year at the age of 27 – she never left. She told me that she was intrigued by the self-sustaining lifestyle. Heating your oven with the wood you chopped yourself, cooking with what you saw and grew felt more natural to her despite the hard work involved. She and Takeshi eventually build their own house, dug their own well, and now mostly rely on the vegetables they either produce or exchange with their neighbours. Natsumi mostly stays at home where she bakes an incredible variety of breads, cookies and cakes for her bakery business. Besides selling at the local market – consisting of a single broad hall in the village centre, managed by local volunteers – she also takes orders and sometimes travels to Sapporo to sell her produce.
Takeshi, on the other hand, drives around the region for a different job every day. During my stay we trimmed an old woman’s Japanese garden, cut the tree in front of a community centre, helped a neighbour with her fallen plum tree and carried materials around at an onsen-resort construction site.
I was amazed and overwhelmed by this life in the middle of the woods. It seemed to me that the family lived a peaceful, plentiful life within a strong and connected community. I participated in a friendly parent-student reunion at the second son Takara’s middle school. We made omuraisu and played volleyball together. At the town’s onsen, the local women made fun of me because I could not enter the hottest bath. I suffered hard defeat playing badminton against the 8-12 year olds Takeshi voluntarily taught after work at the local school, two of his students being his son Takara and A-chan, his young daughter.
But after a few days I also started to see the fragility of this seemingly untouchable community. Most of the town people seemed to be either working far away or had already retired; the school only had a total of 40 students. Ikkyu, the eldest, had to move three hours away and the family rented a room for him to go to high school, barely seeing his family. Takeshi jumped from day job to day job, and Natsumi said that some months were really difficult.
As a Wwoofer, I became part of the of the family and therefore enjoyed valuable insights into the life of Natsumi and her family as well as into community life from the inside. I felt like I somehow became one of them rather than looking at the locals from the outside. This gave me the unique opportunity to experience a fragment of life in rural Hokkaido. What I found there was indeed a fragile lifestyle. On the other hand the local community was very strong, closely connected and welcomed me warmly. People were ready to share their experiences with me, offered me jobs and invited me into their homes, shared stories about their travels abroad and about their everyday life. Had I not, on a whim, contacted the family that presented itself as living among many many insects in the deep Hokkaido woods, who knows if I would have embarked on this journey of research on rural Japan?
by Chris McMorran
Kurokawa Onsen is a rare bright spot in Japan’s countryside. Since the mid-1980s, it has become one of the country’s best-known hot springs resorts. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 and its disastrous impacts on tourism worldwide, this tiny village of a few hundred permanent residents annually welcomed nearly a million visitors who soaked in the springs, purchased souvenirs, stayed at inns (ryokan), and enjoyed the rural landscape.
Located in the center of Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu, Kurokawa features a few dozen inns, shops, cafes, and homes gathered along the Tanohara River. There is no railway access, so all guests arrive by car or bus on winding mountain roads. Depending on the season, Kurokawa is covered in snow, exploding with the colors of flowers and foliage, or cooler than the sweltering cities below. For most of the year, however, it floats in a sea of green. Straight rows of plantation forests, primarily Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, or sugi), line the hillsides, while in the heart of the hamlet, mixed deciduous and coniferous species stand amid flowering shrubs that envelope structures and decorate roadsides. Dark wooden signs with Japanese and English script point to businesses, and all buildings follow a similar pattern: built one to three stories high and painted beige or dark mustard, with black roofs and trim. The overall effect gives Kurokawa a timeless quality; vaguely traditional, but not from any specific era.
Most visitors begin at the tourist information center, where they collect maps and ask which outdoor baths to try. Since the late 1980s, the resort’s unique selling point has been a wooden pass, called nyūto tegata, that allows entry to three outdoor baths (rotemburo) at any of the 25+ inns. Between baths, visitors stop by the shop selling locally distilled spirits or café that sells cream puffs, all while photographing themselves next to the tree-lined river and in front of the picturesque inns and shops.
In addition to tourists, Kurokawa has attracted academics, planners, landscape architects, designers, and this Geographer. From 2006-07 I worked at a handful of inns (ryokan), washing dishes, scrubbing baths, and vacuuming tatami mats. In fact, I often welcomed guests and accompanied them through this landscape for the first time. At one inn I drove guests from the bus stop to our inn. My passengers frequently commented that Kurokawa was so nostalgic (natsukashii) and that it felt wonderful to be surrounded by nature. At another inn I swept the paths and parking lot and greeted guests. As I carried luggage through the tunnel of trees to the lobby, guests remarked how lucky I was to work in this beautiful landscape.
In 2007, Kurokawa even received the Japan Institute of Design Promotion’s “Good Design Award,” in recognition for its nostalgic village landscape that “at a glance appears undesigned” (S&T Institute of Environmental Planning and Design 2008, p. 34). In fact, this landscape has been carefully designed to give this effortless appearance. And the efforts are continuous, through activities like tree-planting and design principles established and followed by local business leaders. I have written about these efforts elsewhere, including how, through their active landscaping, local residents embody the rural ideal they aim to produce for tourists (McMorran 2014).
I consider this landscape evidence of the potential of rural Japan to revitalize and thrive in the future. At the same time, I find this landscape problematic for how easy revitalization seems. I put it this way: “Kurokawa’s landscape narrative implies that Japan’s twentieth century story of rural depopulation was not the result of the systematic prioritization of urban development at the expense of the countryside, and that any rural village could be revitalized if only residents were sufficiently cooperative, interdependent, hard working, and innovative” (ibid., p.13). The reality, of course, is that not every village that hopes to revitalize can reproduce Kurokawa’s success. Every place will face unique challenges and must design its own future, and larger structural forces – continued out-migration, demographic decline, increased risk of natural disasters due to climate change – will make revitalization increasingly difficult.
McMorran, C. 2014. “A Landscape of ‘Undesigned Design’ in Rural Japan,” Landscape Journal. 33(1), pp. 1-15.
————– 2022 (Forthcoming). Last Resort: mobilizing hospitality in rural Japan. University of Hawai’i Press.
ST Kankyō Sekkei Kenkyūjo. 2008. Kurokawa Onsen no fūkeizukuri (Total landscape design of Kurokawa Onsen).” Fukuoka: ST Kankyō Sekkei Kenkyūjo.
Chris McMorran is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is a cultural geographer of contemporary Japan who researches the geographies of home across scale, from the body to the nation. His is the author of Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan (2022, University of Hawai’i Press), an intimate study of a Japanese inn, based on twelve months spent scrubbing baths, washing dishes, and making guests feel at home at a hot springs resort. He also co-produces (with NUS students) “Home on the Dot,” a podcast that explores the meaning of home on the little red dot of Singapore.
by Shilla Lee
In this blog post, I wish to share a story about a person that I met during my fieldwork.
My first day in Tamba Sasayama was in the middle of a hot and humid summer. Although it was a momentous day that set off my official fieldwork after months of preparation, I was sober from any emotional moments. The intense sunlight hit on everything from gray pedestrian roads to plastic benches at a bus stop, and as I stood under the steamy sun waiting for the host of my first two weeks stay at a central town area, my dreamy thoughts about life in rural Japan were melting on the ground.
A kei-tora (light truck) stopped just before the bus stop. An old lady with long-braided hair wearing an interesting combination of patterned shirt with patterned pants jumped out of the car. “Sheera-san”, she called me. I replied, saying her name with a question mark.
It was a short ride about 15 minutes to her house, but she was already giving me so much information about the region such as places to eat out and visit. I told her how everything seems yukkuri (restful) as I stared at the tranquil views of vast fields and mountains outside the window. However, she was too honest a person to agree with everything I said, although I was a guest. She said that such a first impression does not last long if one tries living in this beautiful landscape. She was originally from a big city in the Kansai area before relocating to a small neighborhood close to the Sasayama Castle area three years ago, and it seemed that she had already gone through a phase of ‘de-idealization’ of rural life.
Her place was an old house built in the Showa period which, according to her, was almost 100 years old. However, there was no sign of rustiness. Flowers and trees at the entrance were in perfect shapes and the house seemed like a replica at museums. I sat in a tatami room on the first floor. She offered me a cold drink with tsuke-hana (pickled flower leaves), saying that it will cool me down. The first few days at her place were by no means easy. The house got dark around six or seven in the afternoon and fuzzy lightbulbs could not keep up with my late-night activities. In the morning, I was awake before the sunlight fully entered my room due to the sound of sweeping in the front yard.
Apart from a new routine that changed my body rhythm, her old house felt comfortable enough to help me focus on my research. I was her first guest and she sometimes offered me things that I would not expect from a host of a guesthouse. I was fed full Japanese breakfasts, a cup of tea, and snacks, which were all free of charge. She treated me like her niece and took me to local sites or get me old books that she thought might be helpful for my research.
On a Monday, she suggested giving me a ride to Tachikui, a pottery village in the South-west of Tamba Sasayama. By then, we had formed a good relationship over rounds of beer talk at night, and our conversation was much livelier and more open. While driving, I asked her what it is like to live in Tamba Sasayama as an outsider. She said that inaka (countryside) life has not been treating her so well. She had a part-time job at a local grocery store that sells homegrown agricultural products. Although her work was quite demanding and the pay unimpressive, she was content with her current economic activities. However, having a social life was a challenge for her. The fact that she is an unmarried single woman in her 60s living alone in a big house of her own had somewhat prevented her from building a neighborly relationship with her next doors. She said that people think there should be a reason behind her relocation to the countryside, something uncanny and unconventional. She could not understand why people are so prejudiced about an old female migrant living alone and refered to them as heisai (closed). She said that it has been long enough since she moved into the neighborhood, but she still has no one around that would celebrate her birthday. I knew that she was exaggerating to a certain extent since she did have a group of friends in town. However, her feeling of loneliness seemed to derive not from the physical absence of friends but the general social atmosphere in the area that excluded anyone with a background like hers.
When my two weeks stay was coming to an end, she asked whether I would want to stay longer. I was tempted but I knew that I had to move to a new place where public transportation services were more convenient, and I eventually left her house after finding an apartment close to the train station. She drove me to my new home, and I promised her to visit her from time to time.
A few months later, on one quiet day at the end of December, she invited me to a year-end gathering at her house. I put on one of my best clothes and walked to her place thinking that I might be drinking more than usual. At the kitchen table were different kinds of appetizers to go with beer and they seemed enough for a group of people, but I soon realized that I was the only one invited. I asked whether she is seeing her family or friends. She shook her head. But we had enough stories to consume all the food she prepared. She had much to share about her life experiences and thoughts, and I was there to listen.
I was invited to her place several times afterward for drinks or to help her with her customers who did not speak Japanese. However, as I was getting busy with increased contacts with other informants, I could not visit her so often, or even if I did, I could not sit long enough to have a long conversation. What I regret the most is not being able to say my last goodbye to her in person, as I was overwhelmed with administrative tasks to wrap up at the end of my fieldwork. She did not reply to my last message, and I only found out later that she had shut down her guesthouse business.
However, this lady is not representative of the so-called urban-rural migrants that I met in Tamba Sasayama. Most of the newcomers were welcomed by the locals and were engaged in community events: retirees from adjacent cities that opened shops or restaurants in town; U-turn migrants that worked for local industries; and young and enthusiastic newcomers that started new businesses in the region. They were considered as positive stimuli to the local economy and were offered various public and private support systems. They were treated with care since they carried out the kind of economic and social activities that the locals expect from them. The old lady, on the other hand, did not receive the kind of hospitality when she first arrived in her neighborhood but instead was challenged with misconceptions based on her age, gender, and marital status. Although she was also venturing her creative energies in the region like any other urban-rural migrants in developing a beautiful retro-styled guesthouse, she was outside the local public spotlight. My days at her house lasted a little longer than two weeks, but her stories remained deep inside me throughout my fieldwork.
Shilla Lee is a PhD candidate at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Her research focuses on the notion of rurality and creativity in regional revitalization practices and the cooperative activities of traditional craftsmen in Japan.
by Cornelia Reiher
It’s been ten months since our project started under Covid-19 conditions and although the situation in Germany has improved a lot due to high vaccination rates and low numbers of infections (at least for now), Japan’s borders are still closed to foreigners.
After reading literature on urban-rural migration and rural revitalization for the project and writing literature reviews with the core research group for the first six months, in March 2021, we launched this blog and started a study group. In biweekly meetings, team members and guests presented their work. What had started out as a group of five people in October 2020 developed into a constantly growing international and interdisciplinary group of students and scholars from Europe and Asia.
Over the course of the summer term, we heard presentations about newcomers to small islands, sustainability and in-migration in a village in Kyōto prefecture, in-migrants’ engagement in local crafts, organic farmers and newcomers in Kansai, human-nature relations of newcomers in Miyako-jima, the Chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai program and the central government’s Comprehensive Strategy. We had inspiring discussions about local differences and our methodological approaches and shared readings with the other group members. Through my own online presentations in Paris, Zurich and Vienna during the summer term I reached out to researchers interested in rural revitalization and urban-rural migration and advertised our blog and study group in our academic community.
One of the highlights of our study group was Susanne Klien’s presentation in late June. We all had read her book Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post-Growth Society and were excited to meet the author. Susanne did not only present and discuss her book and answered our questions, but also talked about her follow-up research in rural Japan and how Covid-19 impacted her research. Susanne’s experiences with informal rules concerning Covid-19 in the countryside in Japan particularly helped us to rethink our own future fieldwork and to develop strategies to respond to local residents’ fears and expectations.
For our own fieldwork, we have arranged affiliations with universities in Japan, contacted all the municipalities we want to conduct field research in and hope that visa applications to Japan will be possible again, now that we are all fully vaccinated. And while getting ready for fieldwork we have been constantly thinking about a plan B and therefore conducted first online interviews, searched through myriads of blogs, videos, policy documents and social media accounts of municipalities and prefectural offices. We are grateful for the opportunities the digital world offers, nevertheless, more than anything we hope to engage in onsite fieldwork this year and to meet our research participants in person.