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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.

Disparities in Japan’s regions and the promise to “leave no one behind”

by Lynn Ng

“Leave no one behind” is the central theme of the United Nations’ pledge towards sustainable development, and it is also one of the four pillars of Japan’s Digital Garden City Strategy [1] to integrate digital technologies into rural regions. Digital technologies are a double-edged sword: they can connect communities, people and urban and rural areas while excluding others, whether due to infrastructural inequality or social disparities.

Despite the conveniences of being surrounded by digital technologies, it is also soothing to disconnect occasionally and take a technology-free trek through nature.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

In Professor Reiher’s “Digitalization in Japan” course, we discussed the changes in Japan’s technological space and their impact on the country’s gender and labor spheres. Sometimes I feel encouraged when I read about the progress of digitalization strategies, and other times the reading reminds me of the numerous hurdles that hinder Japan’s progress as a technological country that “leaves no one behind.” For example, while in class we discussed the rise of digital platforms that allow women to work from home, we also explored the social structures that make their digital work invisible [2]. Later, we also read about how global digital transformation is gaining academic traction in rural areas and how rural communities can benefit from digitalization [3, 4], only to subsequently discuss the scale and applicability of many rural digitalization projects beyond individual case studies.

An unmanned store within a new co-working space for quick grab-and-go conveniences.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

But I often remember the vast disparity in digital accessibility between communities I experienced during my fieldwork in Fukushima. In my previous blogpost,I wrote about the strong consumption of new digital technologies across Fukushima prefecture after the triple disaster in 2011. Yet, in that writing, unknowingly, I myself had already “left behind” the communities in the same prefecture where I spent a whole week without a single phone signal in 2022.Ironically, I also wrote a post about that experience for this blog. Thus, despite the central government’s vision to realize a society where “no one is left behind” regardless of geographical limitations, age gender or disability, such is the reality of Japan’s digitalization attempts across its regions: Certain communities in Fukushima prefecture, such as Okuma would be developing zero-carbon technologies and unmanned stores, while a community of a similar size just a little over a 30-minute drive into the mountains would lack basic telecommunications infrastructures.

An outdoor table in the only facility where I could get some internet within rural Japan.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

As I now prepare for my return to the field in February, I am both anxious and excited to visit these places again. But I carry a deep hope that the inequality I experienced in the digitization processes has lessened even a little. And I’m curious to find out if the newly launched Digital Garden Cities strategy has spawned new projects at the local level in Fukushima to tackle the digital divide in Japan’s rural areas.

References:

[1] JapanGOV. (2022). Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation: Achieving Rural-Urban Digital Integration and Transformation. Retrieved online: https://www.japan.go.jp/kizuna/2022/01/vision_for_a_digital_garden_city_nation.html

[2] Lukács, Gabriella (2020). Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[3] Stein, Veronika, Pentzold, Christian, Peter, Sarah and Sterly, Simone (2022). “Digitalization and Civic Participation in Rural Areas: A Systematic Review of Scientific Journals, 2010-2020”. Raumforschung und Raumordnung 80(3), p. 251–265.

[4] Rutihinda, Cranmer (2020). “The Role of Digital Entrepreneurial Platforms and Bricolage Entrepreneurial Processes in Rural Transformation”. Journal of Emerging Trends in Marketing and Management 1(1), p. 220–230.

Changing Japan from below: Alternative currency and the Transition Town movement in the countryside

by Cornelia Reiher

On a beautiful weekend in the spring of 2023, a friend invited me to a market in the countryside of Oita Prefecture. The market was held on the private property of a couple of urban-rural migrants. Their adult son had moved to the same area with his family a few years ago, and the parents followed him because they wanted to be close to him and their grandchildren. In their idyllic garden, which surrounds their house on a hill overlooking the rice fields, several people had set up stalls. They sold pastries, bread, tea, toys and clothes. To get to the house, we had to climb up the hill under flowering trees. When we arrived, a guitar concert was taking place on an impromptu stage, which, together with the scent of spring flowers and blossoming trees, created a very special atmosphere. Many of the visitors and vendors were urban-rural migrants and most of them had brought their children with them.

The entrance to the deera matsuri is a stair covered in flowers
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Before we were allowed to enter, we were asked to exchange Japanese yen for a local currency (chiiki tsūka) called deera, which inspired the name of the event. Everything offered for sale could only be paid for with deera. The man in charge of the currency exchange turned out to be a member of the grassroots organization Transition Japan and lives in Minami Aso, a town close to Taketa. He handed me a brochure with the slogan “Taisetsu na koto wa, ashimoto ni aru.” (The important things are right here.) He explained that the aim of the Transition Town movement is to create a more sustainable future in order to “pass on a rich and beautiful planet to the next generation.” I had only ever read about alternative currency groups and the Transition Town movement in Japan (Morris-Suzuki 2017) and was delighted to see it in action and speak to one of its members.

Transition Japan supports and promotes the Transition Town movement in Japan. The movement envisions a transformed society that turns away from mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal of material goods and towards a new awareness of “the social benefits and environmental impacts of the things we produce” (Morris-Suzuki 2017: 186).The non-profit organization Transition Japan was founded in June 2008 with the aim of introducing the UK-based Transition Town movement to Japan. In June 2009, Transition Towns were launched in Japan in Fujino, Hayama and Koganei. In July 2010, the number of Transition Towns in Japan reached 15 (Transition Japan 2021). After the 3/11 triple disaster, the movement grew strongly, and by early 2017 there were 46 Transition Towns in Japan, and many existing Transition Towns have launched new renewable energy projects (Morris-Suzuki 2017: 185). In 2020, the network consisted of 60 transition groups (Transition Japan 2021).

Selling knick-knacks at the deera matsuri
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

As there is a Transition Town group in Minami Aso, it was not surprising to see many people and vendors from Minami Aso at the deera matsuri. On their website, the group introduces themselves as “a transition initiative in Kumamoto, Kyushu, at the foot of Mount Aso. The local community is moving towards a sustainable way of life by helping, taking care of each other and living in harmony with Mother Nature.” (Transition Town Minami Aso 2019). Many of the members are involved in permaculture, such as the young couple from Tokyo who moved to Minami Aso a few years ago and who sold tea made from leaves picked under the full moon at their stall at the deera matsuri. The deera matsuri takes place several times a year and is a place where people interested in sustainability and the environment meet to have fun, but also to support the activities of Transition Japan.

A visitor exchanges money at the “Deera Bank”
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Local alternative currencies and local exchange trading systems have been discussed by some scholars as everyday utopias (Cooper 2016, Morris-Suzuki 2017). Everyday utopias are networks and spaces in which regular everyday life is conducted radically differently from mainstream or hegemonic everyday practices. Their aim is not to change society through campaigns or lobbying, but to create change by experiencing social and political life in new ways. In this way, everyday utopias contribute to transformative politics and change by combining the utopian and the everyday (Cooper 2016). Many urban-rural migrants in Japan see rural areas as spaces from which they can initiate change and realize such everyday utopias. I consider the deera matsuri as one example of an everyday utopia. It is part of our project to observe and analyze the changes that they bring about in and beyond our field sites in Kyūshū.

References:

Cooper, D. (2016), Everyday Utopias. The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (2017), “Disaster and Utopia: Looking back at 3/11,” Japanese Studies 37:2, 171-190.

Transition Japan (2021), Dantai nitsuite, https://transitionjapan.net/about-tj/about-transition-japan/

Transition Town Minami Aso (2019), About, http://tt-minamiaso.blogspot.com/

Guest Contribution: Building bridges between rural communities in Japan and Germany: promoting cultural heritage through partnership

by Teoman Erönü

Porcelain has been one of the most important features of Arita’s local identity since the discovery of porcelain stone in the Izumiyama quarry in 1616. In that year, Korean potter Lee Sampyeon (Ri San Pei in Japanese) found kaolin and porcelain was made in Japan for the first time. After this discovery, craftsmen and artists continued porcelain production over the course of more than 400 years. However, as mentioned in previous articles on this blog, many of the local kilns have had to close as demand for the ‘white gold’ has declined since the 1990s and it has become increasingly difficult to find young people to carry on this legacy. Local festivals such as the Arita Porcelain Fair in spring preserve the town’s traditions and, with over a million visitors a year, are one of the few remaining signs of life of the small town’s once thriving industry.

Visitors enjoying strolling through the old town of Arita during the porcelain fair in spring 2023
Copyright © Arita Tourism Association 2023

This fact is palpable in the local community, as several groups and individuals, including the city’s mayor, Matsuo Yoshiaki, and Arita City Hall, are doing their best to revitalize this core industry with PR and advertising campaigns as well as international partnership initiatives such as the Creative Residency Arita project. Another important partnership I would like to introduce is the city’s partnership with the German “porcelain city” of Meissen. Meissen was the first European city where porcelain was produced after Friedrich Böttger’s discoveries in 1710, and has also developed a local identity centered around porcelain production. This led to both cities signing a city partnership agreement on February 9, 1979 and thus becoming twin cities. Since then, the two towns have grown closer and closer and have maintained their shared local identity through reciprocal visits by delegations from the two towns at local celebrations. The local Arita-Meissen Friendship Association also plays an important role in connecting the two cities, as it has been organizing youth exchanges between the two cities since 1994.

The mayor of Arita, Matsuo Yoshiaki, and CEO of Matsuura Tetsudo, the local JR Line, introducing the new mascot Nishiura Arisa
Copyright © Arita Tourism Association 2022

A new cooperation is planned for 2024, as an elementary school in Meissen, which has renamed itself “Arita Elementary School Meissen”, has proposed a partnership with Arita Elementary School in Arita. Educating the children about their respective histories and similarities through cultural exchange projects is an attempt to raise awareness of the role of porcelain in the minds of children in both cities. The Japanese children proudly presenting their porcelain to the German children during an online exchange project and talking about the pottery lessons in their school is just one of many expressions of these efforts. 2024 marks the 45th anniversary of signing the twin city agreement between Arita and Meissen, and the partnership between the two schools will be officially sealed during an official visit by the principal of “Arita Elementary School Meissen” to Arita. On this occasion, a revival of the local youth exchange, which had been interrupted due to the Covid pandemic, is also planned.

Kay Leonhardt, president of the Arita-Meissen Friendship Association, standing in front of Arita elementary school in twin city Meissen
Copyright © Gaby Bachmann 2023

The efforts of the city of Meissen do not stop here. Together with the “State Porcelain Manufactory”, the “Meissen Porcelain Foundation” and the state-owned company “State Palaces, Castles and Gardens of Saxony”, the city has applied to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, after this application was rejected at the most recent special meeting of the Ministry of Culture on December 4, 2023, the Mayor of Meissen, Olaf Raschke, announced in an interview that a joint application with the city of Arita is being considered, with the porcelain production of both cities being the focus of the application. A successful bid would not only deepen the connection between the two cities at a local level, but would of course also boost national and international tourism and be an important step towards revitalizing both cities. The talks will take place during the official visit of a delegation from Meissen to Arita in fall 2024 on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the town twinning.

Teoman Erönü graduated from the BA program in Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in 2021. He is currently the Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) in Arita as part of the JET program.

The materiality of urban migrants’ houses in rural Japan

by Cecilia Luzi

“Japanese homes are sheltered spaces” (Daniels 2010: 19). Navigating intricacies of material culture within domestic Japanese spaces, Daniels sheds light on the inherent challenge of entering these typically private realms, particularly for outsiders. As I prepared for fieldwork, I knew gaining access to the homes of urban migrants would not always be easy. Whether for the brief duration of an interview or an extended period, immersing into research participants’ sharing their living space was paramount to understand how these individuals construct a home and foster a sense of belonging in a new environment. Moreover, houses, along with the everyday objects we use and, in the case of migrants, items brought from their previous homes, emerged as central elements for my research.

A former akiya rented by a 30 years old woman from Fukuoka.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

I approached my research on domestic spaces as a journey into the intimate spaces of urban-rural migrants’ lives. Sharing moments in their homes, I observed how their houses become more than a mere structure and was turned into a home through everyday activities, such as preparing meals, organizing the day, spending time with family or orchestrating bath time routines. Deciphering the materiality of migrants’ lives emerged as a key element in my research, recognizing that the house is never a neutral or static space; it’s where intimacy unfolds. Each intervention in the domestic space reflects families’ and individuals’ efforts to make themselves “at home.”

The two municipalities where I conducted fieldwork, Buzen and Hasami, differed significantly in terms of socio-economic structure and landscape, among other factors and the migrants I encountered in each municipality. In Buzen, where many migrants were farmers, small entrepreneurs managing cafes,guesthouses, or shops, and freelancers, their flexible schedules provided me with ample opportunities to spend time with them before formal interviews. This familiarity, built over time, enabled me to conduct most conversations in the migrants’ homes, gaining valuable insights into their private lives. Accessing migrants’ homes proved more challenging in Hasami, likely due to differing routines and job constraints among the migrant population. The majority of migrants I met in Hasami were company employees and artisans with less flexibility. Although I built close relationships with a couple of them who generously opened their homes on multiple occasions, I conducted most interviews in cafes, restaurants and migrants’ workshops.

A family of farmer migrants moved into a renovated warehouse.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

The housing conditions of the migrants I encountered varied, but always contrasted with the highly standardized living arrangements prevalent in Japan. Major building conglomerates dominate the housing market and sell standardized features in new houses, leading to a uniform living experience in both apartments and detached houses (Daniels 2010). These are often chosen from a catalog and sold prefabricated on allocated lots. Notably, only few migrants I engaged with own the houses or apartments they live in; the majority opt to rent at a modest cost. Those who built their own houses went through an accurate negotiation process with building companies to personalize their homes. For instance, they might request triple glass windows for insulation against the cold, a larger living room for children to play, and a personalized garden layout to avoid weeds near the front door in the summer. When moving from the city, migrants put great effort into modeling their new domestic environment with objects and decorations that are in continuity with urban lifestyle—high-tech house equipment, high-speed internet connection, tablets, smartphones, and computers.

Heating the kitchen with a kerosene stove, which also boils water for tea.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

Many people I encountered, upon moving from the city to a rural area, chose to rent a small apartment in small residential buildings in town during the transition. “We aren’t ready to fully commit to an akiya,” said one migrant. “We need some time to adapt. I cannot live in a house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by deer at night, not yet! Too much nature!” Choosing to inhabit old, vacant wooden houses is a decision that demands thoughtful consideration and is not inherently evident to everyone. Many times, I was told, “I would like to live in an akiya, but I am not sure I can make it yet.” Numerous abandoned houses require a certain amount of repair work, and even then, living conditions are quite different compared to new industrial prefabricated houses. Yet, a few among the migrants I met chose to restore akiya themselves, enlisting the help of friends or professionals. Old houses are generally spacious, with multiple rooms arranged one after the other, separated by sliding wooden doors translucent (shōji) or covered with thick paper (fusuma), usually on tatami floors. The kitchen is often in a separate room, and depending on the house’s age, it might be right at the entrance on a lower level compared to the rest of the house. As for the toilets and bathrooms, there is no heating or air conditioning, and insulation is almost nonexistent.

Steps separate the kitchen from the rest of the house I rented in Buzen
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

Living in a former akiya myself, I realized how the domestic space one inhabits can shape one’s routine, seasonal habits, and even the body. Opting to reside in an old house entails embracing a domestic space that demands adaptation: take the time to carefully warm up the bath in winter, organizing meal preparations to optimize the use of a kitchen that freezes in winter and is very hot in summer, get used to sleep in the sounds of wind and the strong noise of heavy rain on the roof among other things. Reflecting on everyday life in an akiya made me recall Miller’s idea of the ‘haunted house’ or the notion that certain aspects, such as longevity, of homes and material culture “may create a sense that agency lies in these things rather than in the relatively transient persons who occupy or own them” (Miller 2001: 119). In the case of akiya, it is not so much the longevity that imposes on the dwellers, but rather a different domesticity that has nowadays disappeared. This way of living in the house involves, among other things, a different concept of privacy among family members as well as a different relationship with the outside of the house.

Observing urban migrants in rural Japan navigating such complex domestic spaces where contemporary technology has its place in old wooden countryside houses provided a chance to witness their agency on the rural space they come to inhabit and at the same time understand how “material culture and homes can be viewed as agents” (Miller 2001: 119) shaping migrants’ routine and domesticity and thus their sense of home and belonging. After all, it is not just migrants who shape the space, the space also shapes migrants’ everyday life.

References

Daniels, I., Andrews, S., 2010. The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home, Illustrated edition. ed. Berg Publishers, Oxford.

Miller, D., 2001. Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. Routledge.

Guest Contribution: Ama Town: A prominent case of rural revitalization

by Yuki Negi

I’m Yuki Negi, PhD candidate in social anthropology, University of Tokyo. From April 2022 to September 2023, I conducted field research in Ama Town as part of the community building support staff program (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai) under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In my contribution to this blog, I would like to briefly present my research project.

Map of Ama town
https://naimonowanai.town.ama.shimane.jp/amatown

The town of Ama is one of Japan’s most important communities in the field of rural revitalization. However, it is a remote island with difficult geographical conditions, about 2-3 hours away from the mainland by ferry.  Some may ask: Is a 2–3 hour drive from the mainland really a big problem?  The answer is yes. The ferry from Ama arrives at the port of Shichirui, located on the outskirts of Shimane Prefecture, which has the second smallest population of all 47 prefectures in Japan. To get to another city, you have to take a bus from Shichirui Port to the train station and then take a local train (which runs every hour). In addition, ferry services are often canceled, especially in winter, due to high waves. The journey from Tokyo (Haneda Airport) to Ama usually takes at least 6 to 7 hours and consists of a combination of plane, train, bus and ferry. If you have 6-7 hours to spare, you can travel directly from Haneda Airport to Hawaii or Southeast Asia. Also, unlike many other Japanese islands, there are no famous sightseeing spots in Ama City, and relatively few tourists come to this island.

The folk song dance festival in which 1000 residents and rural migrants participated.
Copyright © Yuki Negi 2023

Despite these disadvantages, the island has managed to attract young urban migrants and promote industries that take advantage of the natural environment. Today, 20% of the island’s 2,200 inhabitants are urban migrants. The Municipality of Ama has taken the lead in numerous revitalization projects. Most of the people who hold key positions in the municipality are locals who were born and raised on the island. They have all known each other since childhood and maintain a close relationship similar to that of relatives. In this context, such a “closed” kinship group plans and runs various “open” projects to attract new outsiders to the island. When I inquired about the success of rural revitalization upon my arrival on the island, one of the key officials at the town office mentioned that the driving force behind the revitalization efforts was a sense of crisis: the town of Ama, with its history of over 1,000 years, was on the brink of extinction. There was no doubt about that, but it seemed to me that it would be difficult to achieve so much with a sense of crisis. As my research progressed, the question of why this rural island on the national border became a remarkable example of successful rural revitalization came into focus.

Ama town office
Copyright © Yuki Negi 2022

Interestingly, even those involved in the revitalization of Ama cannot explain the reasons for this success. Many of them point to external factors. For example, some attribute it to the geographical remoteness of the island, which attracts young urban migrants while keeping out large commercial capital that could disrupt the social and economic fabric of the community. Some residents also attribute this to sheer luck. Some urban residents who have migrated to Ama, on the other hand, believe that the municipality’s effective use of island resources (people, goods, money, etc.) plays a crucial role in attracting other important resources from outside the region, contributing to the success of local revitalization. A key factor in this success is the ability of the members overseeing the rural revitalization projects to understand the situation on the island and grasp its social and economic structure. The economic structure is unique, as there is only one office per industry on the island to avoid competition on the market. Recently, however, many business owners or craftsmen, e.g. in shipbuilding, are retiring. When they retire, there is a risk that the entire industry on the island will disappear. As residents cannot rely on neighboring towns due to the island’s remoteness, this “closed” society must “open up” and welcome immigrants from the city, especially those with special skills or the desire to work in industries that are threatened with extinction.

In Ama town
Copyright © Yuki Negi 2022

The Municipality of Ama is the main actor trying to attract urban migrants to the island. In such an island society with a limited population, various services need to be facilitated by the town office. Therefore, the town office, where local knowledge and information is gathered, has become a decision-making center for planning rural revitalization projects, taking into account the overall situation of the island. Although this is not unique, the city of Ama has been very successful in attracting people from all over the country. Urban immigrants to Ama Town include individuals with experience working for large companies in urban areas and with knowledge of central government policies and subsidies, which play an important role in augmenting the small rural community’s budget. Because of the presence of these stakeholders, the staff of the municipal office have the opportunity to understand not only how the inside of the island ‘works’, but also how the outside world ‘works’. They skillfully reconcile this naturally (if somewhat unintentionally) acquired local knowledge with the policies of central government and the needs and aspirations of urban migrants. Ultimately, they show that they are able to bring together the interests and aspirations of three different worlds – locals, urban migrants and central government. The city office successfully mobilizes people (both locals and migrants), goods (natural and historical resources of the island) and money (government subsidies, etc.). The increase in resources has created a virtuous cycle in which the town office has been able to mobilize even more people, goods and money. This continuous cycle is a key factor that contributes to Ama being an outstanding example of revitalization. From this point of view, long distance to Tokyo can be an advantage for the revitalization of rural areas in today’s Japan.

Reference: Yamauchi, Michio (2007), Ritōhatsu ikinokuru tame no 10 nen no senryaku, Tōkyō: NHK Press.

Yuki Negi is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Tokyo.

Towards a more diverse countryside? Hierarchies among different groups of migrants in rural Japan

by Cornelia Reiher

Twenty years ago, when I lived and worked in rural Kyūshū as a JET Program participant, I was almost the only foreigner in town. The JET Program aims to promote international exchange between Japan and other countries, and the foreign participants work temporarily as English teachers or as international relations coordinators in municipal or prefectural offices. During the field research for this project on domestic urban-rural migration, I found that rural Japan has become much more diverse compared to the early 2000s. Not only the number of domestic urban-rural migrants, but also the number of foreign residents in rural areas has increased. These include long-term residents such as marriage migrants from various countries, but also temporary migrants such as women with “show business” visa, certain skilled workers, technical interns from Southeast Asia and migrants from Europe, North America and Australia who teach English or work in the field of cultural exchange (Faier 2007; McConnell 2000; Oishi 2021; Uekusa and Lee 2020).

Domestic urban-rural migrants contribute to rural communities by starting businesses such as restaurants
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Rural regions in Japan are increasingly perceived by urbanites as a field of experimentation where diverse lifestyles are possible and people are happier because they can contribute to and even bring about social change (Klien 2020). But whereas domestic urban-rural migrants receive financial and other support to attract them to rural areas, this is not always the case for other groups of migrants.

Technical intern trainees from Southeast Asia contribute to rural communities, for example by working in agriculture
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Technical intern trainees, for example, migrate to Japan temporarily through Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), a short-term labor rotation system established in 1993 with a stated objective of transferring skills to workers from East and Southeast Asia. At the end of 2022, 324,940 people were employed through the TITP. In my field sites, the number of technical intern trainees far exceeds the number of domestic urban-rural migrants. In the countryside with its aging population, many technical trainees work in agriculture. They often live on the farm in remote areas without access to public transport. Although essential for rural economies, they do not enjoy the same freedom of movement, economic benefits and rights as domestic urban-rural migrants or transnational migrants with a different visa and are mostly invisible in my field sites.

Long term residents from Europe and North America contribute to rural communities, for example, by setting up their own businesses, like this guesthouse
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Compared to technical intern trainees, foreign residents from Europe, Australia and North America have a better visa status and economic resources. Although small in numbers, this group has increased in recent years. Roughly speaking there are two groups: short-term residents who are students or participants in exchange programs, as for example artist-in-residence programs who stay a few months, but often visit several times. And there are long-term residents who have settled in the country, bought houses, have a permanent job or have started their own businesses. Some of them are hypervisible because they are often portrayed in the local and regional media as living proof of the attractiveness of Japan’s rural areas. Although not all of the foreigners I spoke to enjoy this status of local celebrity, they all contribute to rural revitalization in various ways, for example by renovating empty houses, running cafes and guesthouses, or coordinating artist-in-residence programs. Some are graduates of the JET program who have decided to stay. Recently, the chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai (COKT) program has also started accepting foreigners who are hired to support other foreigners, for example as technical interns. This is where the JET program, the COKT program and the TITP overlap.

Artist in residence and exchange students contribute to rural communities through cultural and educational exchange
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

To summarize, all newcomers, whether they are Japanese citizens or foreigners, return migrants or new to rural communities, face different difficulties. However, there are differences in terms of the support they receive and how welcome they are. As local governments have recognized the importance of migrants in sustaining rural communities, this is slowly changing. However, the hierarchy between the different migrant groups in rural Japan is an important issue that needs to be addressed as there will be more foreign workers in agriculture, care and factories in rural areas in the future. Local governments in rural areas will need to pay more attention to their support and welfare.

References

Faier, L. (2007), „Filipina Migrants in Rural Japan and their Professions of Love”, American Ethnologist 34, 1, 148–162.

Klien, S. (2020), Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post- Growth Society, New York: State University of New York Press.

McConnell, D. L. (2000), Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Oishi, N. (2021), “Skilled or unskilled?: The reconfiguration of migration policies in Japan,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 47, 10, 2252-2269.

Uekusa, S. and Lee, S. (2020), “Strategic invisibilization, hypervisibility and empowerment among marriage-migrant women in rural Japan,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 46, 13, 2782-2799.

Navigating memories and emotions after fieldwork in Buzen and Hasami

by Cecilia Luzi

In October 2022, I left Berlin for fieldwork in Japan. I was excited yet scared, as I was moving to a place I had never been before, and I had to conduct research alone with my one-and-a-half-year-old son. It felt like a fantastic adventure ahead but also a big leap into the unknown. After spending ten months in Japan, I returned to Berlin in early August 2023. In this post, I want to share my fieldwork experience.

Early morning reparations for a mochi-making day.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

I spent the first five months in Buzen and the next five months in Hasami. I chose to start in Buzen because I had built connections with potential research participants online before my departure… I spent ten days in the only hotel in town in search for long-term accommodation and a rental car and expanded my network among urban migrants. During my stay in Buzen, I had a packed schedule. I explored the area, joined small markets, mochi-making sessions, kagura festivals, akiya renovation meetings, informal community meals, and talked with both locals and migrants throughout the day. In the evening, I took notes, sent messages to friends and informants, and planned for the next day. I quickly discovered that while the migrant community in Buzen was relatively small, they had connections with people in nearby towns who shared similar experiences. Within a month, I had met almost everyone in the extended migrant community. To establish trust and connections, I spent an additional month getting to know their daily routines before starting formal interviews. This familiarity allowed me to get closer to migrants and conduct most conversations in their homes, which provided valuable insights into their private lives. While in Buzen, I had to move three times. At first, I lived in a renovated warehouse at the foot of Mount Kubote. In January, I rented part of an old house that belonged to a deceased elderly lady. Finally, in my last month, I lived in a trial house owned by the municipality. Although the frequent moving was a bit of a challenge, I was able to experience different living conditions and develop a deeper understanding of the community area.

My son looking for the cat outside the window in our second accommodation in Buzen.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

When the time came to move to Hasami, I began my search for accommodation two months in advance. For the first three weeks, I stayed in the municipal trial house, which was smaller, recently constructed, and better equipped than my previous accommodation. After that, I moved into a share house for employees of a major ceramic company coming to Hasami’s headquarters temporarily from all over Japan. The house was located in the heart of Hasami, attached to the company’s headquarters and main warehouse. Upon arriving in Hasami, I immediately noticed a significant difference in daily life compared to Buzen. There were many cafés  and restaurants, some of which reminded me of those in big cities like Tokyo or Fukuoka. The streets were always busy, and the supermarket parking lots were full between 5 and 6 pm. From my arrival until late May, there were events taking place almost every weekend in Hasami or nearby municipalities. One of the most notable events was the tōki matsuri, which is held every year during the golden week holiday season. This market involves all the ceramic kilns in Hasami and keeps the whole town busy for over a month.  Accessing migrants’ homes was more difficult in Hasami. Unlike in Buzen, where most people had flexible schedules, the migrants in Hasami were mostly company employees and artisans. Therefore, I conducted most interviews in public places like cafés, restaurants and workshops.

Driving around Kyūshū in my beloved tiny car.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

Buzen and Hasami are very different. Buzen stretches from the mountains to the sea. Hasami has a compact center, which makes daily activities easier and saves on gasoline costs. In Buzen, it was difficult to find accommodation for the first 10 days. The town has only one hotel, an old ryokan run by a couple over 75 years old. While the locals were warm, helpful and curious about my presence, finding accommodation and childcare for my son was a challenge. Gradually building informal relationships during my stay helped me get everything I needed. In Hasami, the experience was smoother, possibly due to the city’s familiarity with welcoming outsiders thanks to the ceramics industry and its appeal to urban migrants across the country. I quickly realized that there were structures and services in place to help newcomers. Even in the town’s administration, everyone was helpful and provided me with all the necessary information to manage the bureaucratic procedures for my stay.

A room in a migrant’s home.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

During my fieldwork, I was able to observe first-hand how both locals and migrants in Buzen and Hasami interacted with their environment by immersing myself in the daily rhythms of the two towns. I visited local grocery stores, supermarkets, cafés and museums and chatted with shopkeepers, service staff and locals. I also had the opportunity to interact with the local authorities, which gave me valuable insights into the services and infrastructure of both cities. As I had a car during my stay and I was able to explore even the most remote mountain villages. I also spent my free time with migrants, visiting friends’ homes and observing them at work. Through my son I also gained an insight into the childcare systems of both towns.

Enjoying the countryside in summer.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

Despite the challenges I faced, especially when navigating a small rural town in Japan with my child, the kindness and empathy I received from everyone I encountered was invaluable. It helped me connect with people on a deeper level and understand how moving to rural areas can have transformative power. Now that I am back in Berlin, I have realized that this emotional journey embodies the true value of field research and participant observation.

Christmas break

Our team will take a break over the holidays. The blog will be back on January 12. Thank you for following our blog and for supporting our activities. Happy holidays and a happy new year!

Winter in Berlin 2023
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Digital transformation taking root in Fukushima

by Lynn Ng

Digital technologies dominate a significant aspect of our daily lives, and, with infrastructural and regulatory support, hold tremendous potential in promoting Japan’s social and economic growth. Japan’s focus on improving its digital environment and governance is recently most evidenced by the nation’s well-reported organization of the Japan-EU Digital Partnership Council first held on 3 July 2023 [1]. With promises of strategic cooperation in research and development of 5G networks and digital trade principles, as well as data governance and cybersecurity, Japan (as well as the European Union) is arming itself with resources for the new digital society – or commonly referenced as “Society 5.0.”

Other preparations towards Society 5.0 include Prime Minster Fumio Kishida’s announcement of the “Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation” in 2022 [2], thereby kick-starting the rapid transformation particularly of Japan’s rural regions. Rural Japan’s digital transformation since the announcement is increasingly noticeable and has caught the attention of many contributors to this blog. Recent posts on this blog examine the emergence of smart farming, the development of digital human resources, and the potential of digital transformation in Japan’s regions. Followers of this blog would thus by now have a good grasp on what digitalization and digital transformation (DX) are, and what these keywords mean for Japan.

Experimental flight technology being researched in Fukushima
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Fukushima is also well onto this trend. As a part of the “Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation,” cities in Fukushima prefecture host several technological and digital research facilities, one of them being the Robot Test Field (RTF) [3] in Namie-town – a town greatly affected by the nuclear disaster of 2011. RTF currently houses incredible facilities that support drones and other un-manned aerospace and deep-space, as well as underwater technological research, among many other cutting-edge technologies. RTF opened in March 2020 amidst the coronavirus pandemic. In January 2023, I visited the RTF facility and spoke with Mr. Sato, a middle-aged mechanical engineer and operations manager of the facility, about the former disaster region’s digital growth. We stood on the roof of the building, me shivering in mid-January chills, as Mr. Sato explains to me what research goes on in the different structures in the vicinity of the main building. Mr. Sato, a returnee to Namie-town, waves at the vast land earmarked for RTF developments that we stood on, and exclaimed how much the region has changed in the last two years.

But the technological transformation of Fukushima goes beyond RTF. I encountered new technologies across Fukushima prefecture, such as un-manned convenience stores, automated lawnmowers, and drones. In Namie-town, I was taught by locals how to use the shiny display panels to call for on-demand free taxi services that run across the town [4]. In Okuma-town, I watched municipal officials grab sandwiches and snacks off a shelf that they smoothly paid for using a QR code. Perhaps none of these technologies are as advanced as the deep-space research going on within RTF, but the transformation in behavior is obvious. Locals use digital technologies in their everyday lives in many parts of Fukushima. I asked a municipal officer charging his mobile at one of the many public charging posts, to which he had simply replied: “Ah right, yeah. These are just everywhere here.” Digital transformation of Japan, and any other society, involve not only the establishment of infrastructure and research of new technologies and regulations, but also the uptake of these new technologies by the people. This seems to work well in Fukushima.

[1] Digital Agency. (2023). Japan-EU Digital Partnership Council held. Retrieved online: https://www.digital.go.jp/en/7faa668c-3787-4ff8-934b-093c4d2448c5-en#main-results

[2] JapanGOV. (2022). Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation: Achieving Rural-Urban Digital Integration and Transformation. Retrieved online: https://www.japan.go.jp/kizuna/2022/01/vision_for_a_digital_garden_city_nation.html

[3] FIPO. (2023). Fukushima Robot Test Field. Retrieved online: https://www.fipo.or.jp/robot/en/overview

[4] Nissan Smart Mobility. (2023). Smart Mobility in Namie. Retrieved online: https://www.smamobi.jp/

Metta Garden: A Buddhist practice of loving-kindness connecting Japan and Asia

by Sarah Clay

On a hot day in late August 2023, I take a tuk-tuk from my hotel and make my way to the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. My driver skeptically asks me if there is some sort of tourist attraction out there, and when we arrive, he waits in the vehicle until I assure him he brought me to the right place. I am here to meet Kanchana Weerakoon and to visit one of her Metta Gardens. The Metta Garden project is part of the Eco Temple Community, a network of Buddhist priests and other civil society groups all over Asia that originates in Japan and engages in environmental activities based upon beliefs of faith.

Kanchana Weerakoon explains about the Metta Garden
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2023

The Eco Temple Community was founded in 2015 in the context of the Interfaith Climate and Ecology Network (ICE) of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).  Key figures in shaping the project are Jonathan Watts, associate professor of Buddhist studies at Keio University in Japan, and Rev. Hidehito Okochi. Rev. Okochi is a priest of Pure Land Buddhism and has been involved with a wide range of social and environmental initiatives both in and outside of Japan. Based upon his view on Japan’s destructive economic activities and the 2011 Fukushima Triple Disaster, he turned his own Juko-in Temple and Kenji-in Temple into so-called Eco Temples. Located in downtown Tokyo, Kenji-in makes use of only natural and chemical-free building materials, while Juko-in uses renewable energy gained via solar panels on the roof of the building. In 2015, he initiated the Eco Temple working group to share insights on resiliency activities from Fukushima and on creating Eco Temples in urban Japan [1].

The first Metta Garden in Colombo started as an urban garden close to the office of Kanchana Weerakoon’s organization ECO Friendly Volunteers (ECO-V) [2]. When she bought the plot in 2013, there was only a lonely palm tree in the middle of garbage piles dumped by neighboring households. She explains that there is a connection between the outer environment and what humans have within. “If there is a dirty corner in nature, then that is also where dirty people live. […] But when it is a beautiful garden, more clean, more pure, […] then that is where the most spiritual nature is. Strong energy comes out and the plants are happy.  And this is also where more content people are.” [interview Kanchana Weerakoon 25.8.2023] As Metta is the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness, Kanchana wanted to create a place for urban people to come and remember the cosmic relationship they have with the natural world.

Metta Gardens are created as a mandala, because round shapes can be found back in all plants and trees
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2023

When you enter the garden that is ca. 12 x 6 meters in size, you first need to step over a small ditch.  After, there is a path made of sharp stones yet, when arriving in the garden soft grass-like plants bring relief under your feet. Kanchana explains to me that this is to remind the visitor that life is a struggle, but that relief can be found in the natural world. The garden is made as a mandala with round plant beddings in all four directions. Each bedding and its plants are connected to an element; tomatoes and peppers represent fire, cabbage water, and the hardness of guava represent the earth. Metta Garden is a sensory garden. The plants are chosen to tickle your senses with their colors, structures, smells, sounds, and tastes. 90% has medicinal properties, and visitors are always encouraged to eat a lot of what they see. In the middle of the garden Kanchana planted a cherry tree that she feels represents herself. She explains to me that in Buddhism the middle is the connection point, it is where you can see both sides. As this cherry tree gives fruits the whole year round, there is always enough for both animals and humans, taking away any hierarchies.

A cherry tree stands in the middle of the Metta Garden and gives fruit whole year round
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2023

In the days that followed, Kanchana showed me more Metta Gardens that were created in Colombo in the previous years. Some are private gardens, some are publicly owned, but all are designed as a Buddhist mandala and grown without the use of any pesticides. One visit brings us to a home garden in a busy Colombo district of a man who moved to Italy many years ago. He keeps his house as a holiday home and another family lives there to take care of the building in the meantime. Kanchana explains that she created a mandala garden with smaller beddings, so the man can walk through easily and meditate.

Another garden belongs to a newly found center for the empowerment of women. This garden is designed especially as a fruit and vegetable garden, to provide healthy food to pregnant women and children amidst Sri Lanka’s persistent economic crisis. There are various moringa trees, guavas, and banana plants as well as all kinds of nutritious vegetables. A sunflower blooms in the middle of the mandala, representing joy and happiness.

The women’s empowerment center just opened in the outskirts of Colombo
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2023

Kanchana’s Metta Gardens are indeed small spaces of joy and happiness in a highly urbanized environment. What I find so fascinating is that it is never only about the environment; the idea is that by nurturing the outer world, also the inner world gets nourished. Thus, while Metta Gardens are a reaction to the environmental degradation that is so present in Colombo these days, they are equally created to positively contribute to Sri Lanka’s social issues. This challenges the conceptual dichotomy of society and the natural world. Metta Garden also illustrates that projects that are part of the Eco Temple Community are always transnational and local at once. All projects share an understanding of Buddhist concepts and the tasks that religious practitioners have in this world. Although originating in Japan, these forms of knowledge are translated differently in the various sites according to the social and environmental needs that exist on the ground. As such, they provide insights into the ways in which religious traditions gain different meanings and practices according to time and place.  

[1] website Eco Temple Community Development Project https://eco-temple.net/

[2] website Eco-Friendly Volunteers https://eco-v.org/metta-garden/