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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.

Guest Contribution: Searching for belonging and physical proximity in rural Japan

by Lise Sasaki

In a rapidly ageing and depopulating society, Japanese women are facing unprecedented challenges to maintain their economic and social status. Their situation has worsened due to the increase in female unemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Exacerbated by the pandemic, derailing career paths are typical experiences for women in Japanese society. On top of this, political and societal pressure to perform as working women and to fix the declining birth rate can be overwhelming for many women. In 2018, my engagement as a research assistant led me to Tosa-chō in Kōchi Prefecture, where domestic migrants (ijūsha), among them many women, have settled, started families and developed a sense of belonging. In a rapidly depopulating post-pandemic Japan, where women face the brunt of economic decline and are less likely than ever before to start families, I have been eager to understand why migrants move to rural areas to raise children. 

The rice field landscape in Tosa-chō
Copyright © Lise Sasaki 2023

Tosa-chō is a town in Kochi Prefecture with about 3,500 residents. 40% of the population is aged 65 or older, and the population has declined by 50% over the past 40 years to 3,803 people (Tosa-chō 2020). This rural mountainous area is remote, with the nearest city, Kōchi City, one hour away. Tosa-chō’s population is widely scattered across the town’s 15 districts.Some of the more remote villages have fewer than 15 inhabitants. It is almost impossible to access some of these villages without a car, as they are located deep in the mountains, far away from the more populated villages in the valley. It can take more than one hour by car from some of these villages to a public facility such as a post office or town hall.

The kitchen in a migrant’s house
Copyright © Lise Sasaki 2023

I have become close with a few ijūsha women who have moved to Tosa-chō for various reasons like seeking refuge after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, pursuing serenity amidst the pressures of urban living, and desiring healing within the lush green and the flowing waters of Tosa-chō. The town is known to have one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. While none of these ijūsha women expressed they had ‘lost’ themselves in their past urban city lives, it seemed Tosa-chō served as an avenue to cultivate an identity they were in search of. It became evident that their sense of belonging was nurtured through strong interpersonal connections. Ijūsha women viewed rural lifestyles as ideal, and while they envisioned a hybrid, tranquil lifestyle, they set out to connect to the land and the locals. This ideal life was most evident when I observed their kitchens, where migrant women chose old-fashioned kitchens over contemporary system kitchens. Utilizing the Kamado (Furnace Stoves) instead of gas stoves and handed down wooden cabinets instead of contemporary all-in-one cabinets exemplified their carefully constructed living spaces and atmospheres through cooking and homemaking.

Tosa-Chō Landscape (view from 30 30-minute drive from the town centre). 
Copyright © Lise Sasaki 2023

Embraced warmly by older residents of the town, the newcomers are initiated into a culture rooted in communal care and mutual support, exemplified by practices such as osusowake (sharing food) and village rituals. I wondered whether their quest for belonging extended beyond mere communal ties to encompass a more profound yearning for love, nurturance and care bestowed by others. A recent conversation with a close friend who moved to Tosa-chō ten years ago to raise her children emphasized the importance of physical closeness in experiencing love. For her, love is felt deeply when you can touch and feel it, so that you sense intimacy and warmth. “In cities,” she said, “where is the time for each of us to feel this warmth between us?” In an increasingly digitalized society, she believes the virtual world somehow lacks emotional connection, perhaps because it is a physically individual activity that is not shared. But in Tosa-chō, the human-to-human connection remained and she was able to experience physical connections and empathy every day. At the same time, she also pointed out the tensions between the young ijūsha and the locals: “I love it here, I really do … but now that I’ve been here for almost 10 years, I sometimes feel the need to breathe.”  This statement and my own experiences in Tosa-chō made me think about the permanence of these social bonds. I experienced the rapid spread of information by word of mouth myself. If I ran into a friend at the market, a mutual friend would often check in with me a few minutes later and kindly remind me that the vegetables I had bought were cheaper at the farmer’s market three miles away. Stories and information seemed to spread faster and further, and I remember a sense of invasion of my personal space. Against this backdrop, I am curious to explore how ijūsha women achieve a balance between connectedness and autonomy as they navigate the complexities of belonging in Tosa-chō. I am particularly interested in the shifting forms of belonging in this digitalized society, to explore the ways in which rural life is dissolving into new ways of living that provide a sense of healing for ijūsha women.

References

Kōchi Prefecture Tosa-chō Home Page (2020). Tosa chō. Retrieved from http://www.town.tosa.kochi.jp/ Last accessed May 2024.

Lise Sasaki is a freelance researcher who has worked on projects at UCL Anthropology and Osaka University. Her research explores the redefinition of female identity and its implications for motherhood in contemporary Japan.

Migration and Placemaking: A story about the diversity of rural Japan  

by Cecilia Luzi

Despite similar structural conditions, rural Japan is incredibly diverse, and the encounter between a place and a migrant can create unique opportunities that are influenced by the socio-economic and historical context of the place, as well as the individual inspirations and personal connections of the migrants. I will illustrate this with the example of Hannah’s migratory experience. I met Hannah on a cloudy afternoon under the cherry blossoms in Hasami Public Park in the spring of 2023. We were organizing a hanami with our children, and she joined us after picking up her daughters from kindergarten. Originally from Germany, Hannah came to Japan over ten years ago to learn pottery and improve her skills in Arita, the neighboring town of Hasami.  She has not left Kyūshū since. While at school, Hannah met Isamu, a fellow student from Kumamoto Prefecture, who later became her husband. Together they moved to Hasami, where she began working in the workshop of a renowned potter in the arts and crafts district of Nakaoyama. Today, she runs a very successful small ceramics studio in Hasami together with her husband.

A woman decorating plates by hand painting in a factory in Hasami.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

Like Arita, Hasami has a rich history of industrial pottery production that has profoundly shaped the town’s socio-economic structure. Older residents, aged 80 and above, recall times when pottery permeated every aspect of town life, from the extraction of kaolin to the decoration of the finished pieces. Unlike the high-quality porcelain of neighboring Arita, Hasami’s ceramics have always been intended for everyday use. As a result, identical designs were produced by numerous kilns scattered throughout the municipality, encouraging cooperation rather than competition between kilns. Even today, smaller family-run kilns exist alongside larger companies, forming a tight-knit community around ceramic production. This environment offers both the population and institutions the opportunity to support small and young artisans so that they can maintain their activity. Also, and more importantly, it has laid the ground for the creation of a basic working infrastructure in recent decades, such as the akikōbo bank, a website similar to akiya banks that provides information on free workshops or other business ventures, or the Ceramic Research Center of Nagasaki Prefecture (Nagasaki ken yōgyō gijutsu sentā) among many exposition venues and shops.

A view of the Nakaoyama district in the hills of Hasami.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

It was therefore easier for Hannah and Isamu to set up their own workshop and settle in Hasami after completing their studies in Arita. They set up their first pottery workshop with the help of the akikōbo bank. In Hasami, I met other migrants who had similar experiences. In our conversations, I often felt how big Hannah’s decision was and how determined she was to pursue her dreams in Hasami, even though it is so remote. Over the past few years, Isamu and Hannah have managed to purchase a plot of land, build their new house and recently inaugurated a new workshop directly below their house on the same plot of land they purchased. As we talked, Hannah reflected on how her life had turned out, occasionally wondering how it would have turned out if she hadn’t held on to her dream of becoming a potter in rural Japan. Nevertheless, she decided to make Hasami her home.

Failed plates outside a small kiln.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

I think it’s more than just the furusato idea and the rural idyll that romanticizes rural Japan as a nostalgic space that attracts young, determined people today. The migrants I met are very self-aware and self-reflective; when they move, they know that life in rural Japan is a challenge and that it will not be easy there. Yet each place in their stories represents different dreams. The communities they eventually move to have great significance for them and their lives. Sometimes they pay great attention to the choice of place and associate it with hopes for their future lives, even if they do not plan to stay forever. For them, rural Japan is not just an indeterminate space or a furusato in itself, but each place represents the potential for a future life. In this sense, Hasami has a special attraction for potters and all activities related to pottery and pottery tourism.

Fostering Young Talents in a Rural Space: Unconventional Education in Fukushima

by Lynn Ng

I have been skeptical of Japan’s education system for years after I taught at a rural high school for three years and saw the rigid barriers to holistic learning. When I saw the multi-million dollar construction project of Yume no Mori, a new public school for children aged 0 to 15 in the town of Okuma, hidden in the former Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone, in January 2023, I was skeptical. After all, what good is an expensive campus project if the education system is no different to that of other schools?

The construction of the nearly 8,000 m² educational complex in 2023.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2023

Yet, one year later, I stand deeply corrected. In 2024, I sat in on a class where two students were practicing English with their two teachers in a bright open classroom in Yume no Mori. “We want to extend, this is a rare chance to speak more English,” a student confidently tells the teacher at the end of the first session. Despite their looming high school entrance examinations, to which the second-half of the class was initially dedicated, these two students held no hesitation in expressing what they wanted for their education, which was to practice non-textbook, non-examination English. In fact, at Yume no Mori, there are no “teachers,” only “designers” that help students design the education that best suits their needs. The students thus become highly engaged in classes, for each activity is catered to their interests and abilities. The students are not bound to grade-levels or classrooms, but rather have open spaces all around the campus – including multiple nooks at the library and outdoor playgrounds – where they can decide to have their classes take place. Students wear no standardized attire, and neither do the “designers.”

The central library and reading space of Yume no Mori houses nearly 20,000 books.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2024

Furthermore, the manager’s (Vice-Principal) passion and enthusiasm for this school and its students is clearly palpable. Dressed in a casual, smart jacket and T-shirt, he led us through the huge grounds with a large, open central library and several oddly shaped classrooms on two levels, while talking to each student as if they were his own children. He knows each student’s personality intimately, telling us stories of kids who used to skip school and now want to come to school every day, and he is proud of the students’ individual academic achievements.

At Yume no Mori, there are no fixed classrooms, only open and convertible spaces for learning.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2024

By the end of the visit, I had come to the realization that the Yume no Mori model only works in a rural environment. A rural privilege, so to speak. In Japan’s rural environment, Yume no Mori offers its students not only plenty of space for leisure activities, but also for quiet corners for reading and studying or for a short nap. Students can easily share the same room in this large building without disturbing each other while studying. The low student-teacher ratio (29 students and 17 teachers) ensures that each student’s educational needs are optimally met and that students can build their academic and social confidence with their “learning designers.”

When it rains, the students gather at the small lawn where gutter sprouts create rain-waterfalls.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2024

As I walked through the hallways of Yume no Mori that day, watching the children meaningfully engage in their learning environment and interact with their peers and designers, I felt an epiphany – the brief and intense understanding of that “hope” and future that my research participants often speak of. In Yume no Mori, I can so easily see in these children’s future potential: people who have mastered their art and are confidently putting their ideas out into the world. As I signed off the visitor list, I felt a deep stab of envy and sadness. I didn’t want to leave. A planned one-hour visit had turned into four, and yet I wanted to stay longer in the calming space of Yume no Mori. I can see the potential of Yume no Mori to encourage young people and attract young families to the region, thus repopulating the town. But more than that, I am rooting for the school, its leaders and designers and the next generation of talent that will emerge from this place.

Guest Contribution: The qualitative changes in urban-rural migration in Japan during the Covid-19 pandemic

by Satoru Yamamoto

The expansion of telework during the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity to advance migration from big cities to rural areas and to counteract the aging and shrinking populations in Japan’s countryside. The primary barrier to urban-rural migration is the lack of jobs in rural areas. Therefore, migration through telework or “telework migration” has been promoted as one of the national policies since the early 2000s. However, telework was limited before COVID-19, and the policy did not have a marked effect. Telework migration to rural areas only began to emerge in the early fall of 2020, and it was mainly people from Tokyo who relocated to the countryside. On the other hand, non-telework migration, which requires securing a job in a new location, had already been on the rise after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Currently, with the addition of telework migration, urban-rural migration has developed into a kind of boom. According to the Furusato Kaiki Shien Center [1], the number of consultation cases for migration in 2023 was approximately 59,300, a record high [2]. However, the main feature of urban-rural migration after COVID-19, apart from the increase in the number of migrants, is a qualitative change.

Furusato Kaiki Fair, the largest matching event between local governments and prospective migrants is held in Tokyo every September.
Copyright © Satoru Yamamoto 2023

During COVID-19, I interviewed 16 migrants in Yamaguchi Prefecture. As a result, I could observe the differences in the motivations between non-telework migrants and telework migrants. First, I present three samples of non-telework migrants from Tokyo. A farmer in his thirties said: “I had a strong desire to escape somewhere completely different from where I had lived before and cut off my life to restart from scratch.” A museum concierge in her twenties told me: “I couldn’t see myself in this fast-paced life in Tokyo anymore. So I came here because I had a job I wanted to do.” And finally, a ceramic artist in his 50s stated: “I was not comfortable with a life that only took place in my imagination. I had a desire to live in reality, to experience life, and so I started training in pottery here.” These quotes show that non-telework migrants desire to reset their lives and achieve self-realization through work. This motivates their relocation. This is a trend that has started before the COVID-19 pandemic and continues.

Nago Port in Yamaguchi Prefecture is surrounded by the sea and has a lot to offer for migrants who hope to become fishermen.
Copyright © Satoru Yamamoto 2024

Secondly, I present three samples of telework migrants whom I asked about their motivation to move to Yamaguchi Prefecture. They did not mention a desire or a resolution to reset their lives. A marketer in his twenties told me: “My work is no different from what I was doing in Tokyo. Therefore, my income hasn’t decreased. However, since moving here, my cost of living has decreased by 20%.” Another reason for the relocation of telework migrants is their family situation. An IT-engineer in his forties said: “My main reason is childcare. There are much better facilities in Tokyo than in Yamaguchi, but I’m sure, for children, the relaxed environment here is better.” And a consultant in his forties explained that he prefers a mobile lifestyle: “I don’t believe it is necessary to be rooted in a particular region. For me, it’s easier to feel like I’m living temporarily, like a long-term workcation.” Telework migrants migrate to rural areas where the cost of living is lower and keep their higher income from their jobs in the big city. It is a simple change of residence (hikkoshi) in search of a comfortable living environment and an ideal lifestyle. And some migrants have a more mobile sense of place than others.

Telework in Yamaguchi City at a Yuda-footbath.
Copyright © Satoru Yamamoto 2024

While non-teleworking migrants tend to view migration as a particular life choice based on the decision to change their lifestyle and their job, teleworking migrants tend to view it as a familiar and rational life choice without a decision to radically change their lives. The main reason for this is that their place of work is not directly linked to the place of residence. One migration consultant described this qualitative change as “a situation in which the word ‘migration’ (ijū) no longer seems appropriate.” [3] Furthermore, one researcher pointed out that many traditional migration policies implemented by local governments no longer work [4]. Certainly, it is not easy for local governments to manage two types of migration with different motivations and forms of mobility in parallel. However, I am convinced that telework migration is essential for the preservation and revitalization of rural areas where attractive high-income jobs are scarce. Therefore, local governments must adapt to the qualitative change caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

References:

[1] Furusato Kaiki Shien Center is an NPO that works with local governments to provide consultation and support for urban-rural migration: https://www.furusatokaiki.net/

[2] The Furusatokaiki Shien Center, News-Release, 27/02/2024,

https://www.furusatokaiki.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/webnews_furusatokaiki_ranking_2023.pdf

[3] Based on an interview by the author, 08/07/2022.

[4] Kazuo, KASAMI. (2021): Urban-rural migration during COVID-19, Cabinet Office, 3rd Roundtable Meeting of Experts on Urban Regeneration,

https://www.chisou.go.jp/tiiki/toshisaisei/yuushikisyakondankai/20210224/index.html

Satoru Yamamoto is researching urban-rural migration in Japan at the Graduate School of Economics at Yamaguchi University. After working in real estate development for approximately 30 years in big cities, he returned to his hometown, Yamaguchi City to join the Graduate School.

Revitalizing rural areas through the reuse and upcycling of porcelain

by Cornelia Reiher

Two of our field sites are known for porcelain. The porcelain industry in Arita has experienced a steady downward trend since the 1990s. Not only turnover, but also the number of workshops, retail stores and employees has fallen sharply (Arita-cho 2023: 9; Reiher 2010, 2014). Some kilns have closed and are empty or have been demolished. What remains are empty properties and lots of porcelain shards that can be found all over the city: in rivers, next to abandoned ascending kilns (noborigama) or where porcelain factories used to be. But it’s not just shards that are left over; large quantities of unsold products with flaws are also kept in warehouses, which are often on the verge of collapse themselves.

An empty plot a land where a kiln once stood
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Recently, both locals and newcomers have started to reuse and upcycle porcelain shards and discarded porcelain. For example, a migrant potter who works in a kiln in Arita makes new products from older B-ware that have been stored in the forest for many years and are now cracked. The potter, who is very interested in sustainability, has tracked down these pieces and painted over the cracks with golden lines, in the style of kintsugi. She told me how shocked she was when she found out about the huge amounts of B-ware in the forests, and that she wondered why the kiln she works for was not doing anything with it. She thought it would be better to rediscover what was already there rather than keep making new things, and applied for funding to test and excavate the pieces to see if they were broken. After cleaning and firing 500 pieces, they are now sold as small flower vases. By upcycling porcelain, the potter created a popular new product that is also sold via the furusato nōzei system. This home-town tax payment is a system that allows people to transfer a portion of their residence tax from the municipality where they reside to one or more other municipalities in exchange for gifts like the upcycled flower vase.

Porcelain shards can be found all over town
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

But not all the porcelain products stored in Arita’s kilns are cracked or broken. Some kilns have gone bankrupt and unsold porcelain is taking up space. Others want to get rid of the old porcelain in order to reuse their storage space. With so much porcelain sitting around in many kilns, one company came up with the idea of selling old porcelain in a tsume hōdai style. The porcelain is lined up in boxes in an unused part of the kiln and customers fill baskets for 5,000 yen or 10,000 JPY. They can take as much porcelain as they can find and fit into the basket within an hour. This idea became a huge success, bringing a lot of money and attention to the kiln.

Porcelain lined up in boxes for the treasure hunt
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

This so-called treasure hunt is even listed as a tourist attraction in the Lonely Planet travel guide and attracts Japanese and foreign tourists to the kiln. The kiln now also receives porcelain for the treasure hunt from other kilns that have been closed. When I visited the kiln after the travel ban to Japan was lifted, the place was busy with tourists from China and India. The person in charge also told me that people come very early to make sure there is still good porcelain available. Rummaging through the dusty boxes of porcelain was indeed a lot of fun. But beyond that, it is also a great opportunity to reuse old porcelain that can no longer be sold.

Some of Arita’s porcelain workshops are quite large, but are only partially used today
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Initiatives such as the two described above are still rare and will not solve all the problems caused by the decline of the ceramics industry in Arita. There are still many unused kilns and unsold porcelain in the city. However, they are the first steps in rethinking the future of a traditional industry from a sustainability perspective, both in terms of environmental issues and the preservation of Arita’s cultural heritage. And they can be an inspiration for further projects, as new ideas are also emerging elsewhere in Arita. Recently, for example, jewelry made from porcelain shards has become very popular and is sold in a store in Arita, at the annual ceramics fair and online. It seems that the kilns in Arita are ready to incorporate sustainability, reuse and upcycling more into their future business strategies.

References:

Arita-chō (2023), Statistical Yearbook 2022, https://www.town.arita.lg.jp/site_files/file/2023/202306//6486cd3bc6adfLD3AXP72.pdf

Reiher, Cornelia (2014), Lokale Identität und ländliche Revitalisierung. Die japanische Keramikstadt Arita und die Grenzen der Globalisierung, Bielefeld: transcript.

Reiher, Cornelia (2010) „Selling tradition in Japanese rural tourism“, Orientwissenschaftliche Hefte 28, pp. 121–151.

Guest Contribution: My journey between city and country: a story of transitions and reflections

by Megha Wadhwa

I was born and raised in New Delhi where I spent the first 24 years of my life. Later, I moved to Japan and stayed there for around 14 years. During my stay in Japan, I lived in Tokyo for most of the time and explored various neighbourhoods. Among these, Edogawa-ku became my familiar territory where I lived for around 10 years. However, my final year in Japan, I lived in Chigasaki, which is in Kanagawa-ken. Chigasaki offered a unique blend of rural and urban Japan which I had not anticipated but came to appreciate. Despite being around one hour train ride from Tokyo, Chigasaki had its own charm and made me feel somewhat detached from the bustling city life while still providing all the amenities one would expect from an urban environment. Before living in Chigasaki, I had never considered living outside of Tokyo. Interestingly, just a few months before my move, Chigasaki was recognized as the fifth ‘perfectly formed smaller city’ in the world by Lonely Planet, earning it the title of a rural refuge.

Southern Chigasaki Beach
Copyright © Megha Wadhwa 2020

It was a significant shift for me as Chigasaki was the smallest city I had ever resided in. The timing of my move couldn’t have been more opportune, as shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped our lives, confining us to the sanctuary of our homes. While many around me grappled with the challenges of the pandemic, I found solace in my new surroundings, which were just a 20-minute bicycle ride away from a picturesque beach where I had the privilege of witnessing breath-taking sunsets against the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. This didn’t happen every evening, but often enough to appreciate its beauty and tranquillity. At first, I found it frustrating to endure the long train ride to Tokyo, especially during peak hours when the train was crowded. However, I discovered the advantage of using the Tokkaido Line from Chigasaki to Tokyo Station. When I had to travel during peak hours, I purchased a Green Car Ticket for around 6 Euros at the time on top of the regular ticket. This allowed me to reserve a seat with a table and enabled me to work to have a productive journey. Over time, I learned to appreciate my life in Chigasaki despite the long commute.

The north side of Chigasaki five minutes away from my house.
Copyright © Megha Wadhwa 2020

Apart from the long yet convenient commute and beautiful beach Chigasaki also offers delicious Japanese and international cuisines and most of them are not far from the station. I also discovered some local friendly bars – Bar Mikan being one of my favorites and I spent many weekend evenings during COVID-19 at this bar talking to the owner. On days I didn’t want to drink he’d make me delicious mocktails and we’d spent hours talking about films, Netflix series, COVID-19 restrictions, and politics. It was my experience in Chigasaki that led me to consider living in rural Japan. Despite always wanting to live in urban cities, the warmth I received in my Chigasaki neighbourhood created a desire for living in suburbs. However, life had different plans for me. Instead of moving to the suburbs in Japan, I ended up in a suburb in Germany.

A beautiful tracking path in Hermsdorf.
Copyright © Megha Wadhwa 2021

In February 2021, my job brought me to Berlin. While searching online, I found a beautiful place in Berlin-Hermsdorf. At the time, it was the only option available, and I decided to book the place. On Google search, I discovered that the travel time on train from Hermsdorf to my workplace, was about the same as the travel time from Chigasaki to Yotsuya. However, what I didn’t realize during this google search was that the Tokkaido line and S-Bahn are not the same. I ended up traveling around 3 hours (door to door) both ways to work, dreaming of the Green Car and punctual trains almost every day. I stayed in this beautiful suburb area for almost 8 months. I enjoyed waking up to the early morning bird orchestra and breathing fresh air. The trekking spot which was only a few minutes’ walk was amazing, and my landlords were wonderful. Eventually, I found a place in the center of Berlin. My house hunt finally came to an end and so did my desire for rural living. I was a happy city girl yet again.

My neighborhood in Imaizumidai
Copyright © Megha Wadhwa 2023

In 2023, I had an exciting opportunity to go back to Japan for a long visit of about 4.5 months. Once again, life presented me with a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and experience the peace and tranquillity of rural Japan. A dear friend kindly offered me the use of their vacant house in Imaizumidai, Kamakura, which I eagerly accepted. Kamakura, with its lush surroundings and rich history, seemed like a hidden oasis to me. During my stay in Japan, I had only visited Kamakura for one day excursions. Unlike my previous residence in Chigasaki, where the train station was only a ten-minute bicycle ride away, reaching the station from Imaizumidai required a leisurely 25-minute journey, often requiring the use of an electric bicycle to navigate the steep roads. Additionally, the bus service was limited, with only a few buses per hour and would take to Ofuna train station in about 30 minutes. Although there were a few local grocery stores and a Lawson within a twenty-minute steep walk, the selection was limited, and the larger supermarkets were located closer to Ofuna. The neighborhood was friendly and welcoming, with residents who often relied on personal vehicles for their daily errands. In contrast, I found myself dependent on public transportation, navigating the intricate schedules and routes to fulfill my needs. Despite the logistical challenges, my time in Imaizumidai felt like a rejuvenating retreat – a sanctuary where I could immerse myself in writing and reflection. However, the idyllic setting didn’t shield me from trips to Tokyo for work or to Ofuna for grocery shopping – reminders of the interconnectedness of rural and urban life.

The house where I lived in Imaizumidai
Copyright © Megha Wadhwa 2023

During my month-long stay in Kamakura in 2023, I gained profound insights into the nuances of rural living, both its enchanting beauty and the challenges that come with it. Despite exploring 24 prefectures of Japan as a tourist, the idea of residing in those areas had never crossed my mind before. However, my time in Chigasaki altered my perspective significantly. Through my experiences in suburban areas, I realized that life in the countryside happens at a natural pace, in contrast to the hectic rhythm of the cities. The tranquillity and simplicity of rural living offer a respite from the relentless hustle and bustle of city life. While my experiences came with their share of challenges, they also instilled within me a newfound inclination towards rural living. Despite the logistical hurdles, I find myself drawn to the prospect, provided I have access to transportation – a car and an electric bicycle, perhaps – which are essential for navigating the expansive landscapes and fostering a sense of independence. As I navigate life’s uncertainties, I remain open to the possibilities that lie ahead. Yet, at this juncture, my heart leans towards the serene embrace of rural spaces, where time slows down, and the essence of life reveals itself in its purest form.

Dr Megha Wadhwa is a migration researcher and a Japanese and Indian studies scholar. She is currently working in the research project “’Skill’ in the Migration Process of Foreign Workers in Asia” (BMBF) at Freie Universität Berlin. Megha is the author of Indian Migrants in Tokyo: A Study of Socio-Cultural, Religious and Working Worlds (Routledge 2021) and an ethnographic film maker. Her latest documentary is called ‘Finding their Niche’ (2022).

Guest Contribution: Living and buying a house in Totoro land (with some of the strictest zoning laws in Japan)

by Ken Victor Leonard Hijino

I now have a house in the countryside in Kyoto. Well, it’s kind of the countryside. The house which we bought earlier this year is only a thirty-minute drive from my university and still in the same ward of Kyoto city. It is a depopulating village of some 2,000 people with one convenience store (being the only store open after five pm) and a merged public elementary/junior high school trying to maintain pupil numbers to remain functioning. There used to be a JA which is now closed and a farmers’ market with a popular early Sunday market which draws crowds. Along with renowned Kyoto vegetables, including purple shiso, the village has famous temples and a nunnery with Heian lore, as well as some imperial family burial mounds.

My daughter reading the morning paper before school.
Copyright © Ken Hijino 2024

Our new home is a fifty-year old traditional Japanese-style home with a rock garden. It was built and held by a family whose ancestors were so-called tera-zamurai serving a temple founded in Saicho’s time. The vista from our garden looks down a valley. You see a greenhouse, rice paddies, shiso farms and in the background, in cloudy mornings, black-and-white hills shrouded by mist à la suibokuga.  Behind the house, there is a parking lot attached to a local temple for tourists. And further back, densely packed fir forests line up, which were artificially planted decades ago and left unattended to spew dreaded pollen every spring. We moved to the village from our apartment in the city some five years ago, first renting in another of its eight neighbourhoods. Our family’s urban to semi-rural migration was driven for a desire for more space and the chance for our three children to live closer to nature. We were interested by the possibility of sending our kids to the local public school with less than 100 students from first to ninth grade with smaller class sizes and hopefully less stress. We were also inspired by reading blogs of in-migrants to the village, such as that of the lovely organic vegetable farmer couple with two children who became, by luck, our immediate neighbour. Equally important was the satoyama’s relatively uncluttered vistas. Thanks to strict building restrictions, this area has far fewer of the depressing suburbs and architectural eyesores that blight most of Japan. The village is zoned as both a fuchichiku (protecting the natural and traditional beauty of the landscape) and a shigaika choseikuiku (making it almost impossible to build any new buildings).

Local kids enjoy the local river in early spring.
Copyright © Ken Hijino 2024

I remember a friend who visited us, after walking around the village on a magical spring day, who turned to me and simply said: “Ken, this place is just like Totoro’s world.” Indeed, I realized this from watching Miyazaki Hayao’s anime with my three children who have each demanded to see the movie multiple times. We don’t really know what the father who takes his two daughters to live in the rural idyll thinks of village life. But allow me to share some of my impressions since I moved to the countryside. To start out with, and this may be very much cliché, life in the village seems much more social than city life.  There is so much more interaction, whether you like it or not, with your immediate neighbours, local neighbourhood association, PTA and parents. These of course exist in the city too, but the smaller scale of everything somehow means you get acquainted with many more of these members and interact more frequently with these overlapping groups. Take a short promenade and you are likely to meet one or a few acquaintances. Not a week passes without somebody sharing with you the season’s vegetable or pickles. During weekends, kids from different houses migrate back and forth between family houses in a movable playdate with little coordination from parents. My wife seems to know the name of most of the kids in the elementary school, their parents, and what they do and where they live.

The village also has many traditional events from communal cleaning and weeding, matsuri, obon, etc. which are hard to avoid. I have done my share of going local too: from bruising my shoulders carrying mikoshi (after plied with drink); shuffling the post-harvest, eighth new-moon dance around a bonfire in the shrine grounds; to rolling cut-up daikon pieces like dice to ward off demons (so I was told). All things I would have never dreamed of doing in my previous city life. These are fascinating traditions and community-bonding events.  If you think life in the Japanese countryside is “living the quiet life in serene nature” you will be mistaken. You can choose to have far more solitude and privacy in the city.

Early summer matsuri to bring the mikoshi to the shrine by the forest.
Copyright © Ken Hijino 2023

It’s not just people, but nature that likes to share space with you. We had a masked palm civet – a kind of ferret – running around in our attic (which a local tried to help catch with a trap using convenience store fried chicken as bait – supposedly the convenience store chicken doesn’t rot as quickly as homemade ones so the trap can be used longer…).  I’ve almost run over a deer. Our dozen or so experimental blueberries and raspberries have been snapped up in their perfect ripeness by the local birds. And of course, the bugs: I don’t want to even recall the too many close encounters with millipedes. From October to March, the house is infiltrated by countless buzzy kamemushi beetles which burp or fart? (excuse me) cilantro-smelling gas when agitated. Five years in the countryside and, yes, I still don’t like bugs.

Our small local public school has a field day.
Copyright © Ken Hijino 2023

Another thing about village life is that it seems far less ecological than being in the city, ironically. We burn so much fossil fuel! Shame on us! First is the endless driving. As I heard somewhere, “rurality” can be measured by how many cars each household owns. We only own one, but most families have two or even three vehicles as getting around by bus is impractical.  You need to drive to work, shopping, any lessons for kids, even to take a walk (?!). And here I must confess that since there are no large, well-tended parks in the village, I occasionally drive down to the city to walk in a park to enjoy non-farming, non-fir tree forests, vegetation and lawns. Then there is all that fuel you need to keep from freezing in your under-insulated Japanese house.  A few moments after shutting off our air conditioners and kerosene stoves, temperatures drop, nose tips chill, and breathe turns white in our rented house.  Five years in the countryside and I have not gotten use to the sense of defeat thinking about the wastefulness of standard post-war Japanese housing stock insulation. Hopefully we will insulate our new place more effectively.

Snow covers our house and valley.
Copyright © Ken Hijino 2023

But despite the bugs, our shamefully un-eco lifestyle, and maybe some semi-inconveniences like not being able to get back home on public transport after 22:00 or no bars and restaurants open after 17:00 in the village, it is a peaceful place. There is plentiful space, clean air, water (we even have our own well), and quiet. Many of the locals and in-migrants are generous and inspiring people who have great pride and affection for the beauty and traditions of the place. Moving here has also been very, very interesting to think about themes like public support of in-migration, property ownership, and social cleavages in a small community. These topics I will address in the following blogs.

Ken Hijino is Professor at the Graduate School of Law at Kyoto University and specializes in party politics and local democracy. He is currently researching the politics of the periphery, focusing on municipal and prefectural level party organizations and campaigning on issues of urban-rural cleavage, depopulation, economic decline, and inter-regional competition and disparity.

Trial Houses as a gateway to urban-rural migration

by Cecilia Luzi

During my field research in Buzen and Hasami, I had the opportunity to live in so-called trial houses or otameshi jūtaku. In this blog post, I would like to talk about this form of support offered by local communities for people moving to the countryside and share my experiences of living in two trial houses. Among the many types of support that rural towns offer to potential migrants, trial houses are very interesting. These are usually former vacant properties that have been purchased by the municipality. These houses can be rented at a very reasonable price of 1000 yen per day for the entire house, with a maximum stay of 30 days. They are primarily aimed at people who are considering moving to the countryside and want to explore the area for more than just a day. The application process is straightforward: I simply downloaded a form from the town hall’s website, filled it out with the relevant personal information, and sent the application along with a copy of my passport to a designated email address. I then received a confirmation either by post or email, and on the day the rental started I visited the town hall to pay the full amount for the duration of my stay and collect the keys.

My son running outside Yamauchi no ie.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

On the day I moved into the trial house in Buzen, an official from the city administration accompanied me to show me around. We were joined by a migrant woman with whom I had been in contact since my arrival and who had lived in the experimental house with her family two years previously. She gave us valuable advice, especially about coping with the cold temperatures in February.  “When we lived here, we only used one room for eating and sleeping for the whole family. That way you can keep all the heat in a smaller room,” she explained to me.  The house was very spacious, much to the delight of my son, who enjoyed the freedom to run and play hide and seek in the huge, empty rooms. The century-old house called Yamauchi No Ie, named after the Yamauchi neighborhood just a 15-minute drive from City Hall, was built in the style of a traditional kominka (Japanese country house), with a ground-level kitchen at the entrance and a raised part of the house. The high ceilings added to its charm, but the lack of insulation was a big challenge. The internet connection in the house was very fast and flawless. However, the futons provided by the municipal office were old and dusty, so I was suggested to rent them somewhere for my stay.

The kitchen and the high ceilings of the trial house in Buzen.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

The trial house in Hasami was different. It was built in 1970 and offered a compact but comfortable space, with the exception of the bathroom, which was very old and somewhat difficult to clean. The house is located below a hill, right next to a large public park with cherry trees that were just starting to blossom when I arrived.  Inside, the decor resembled a modern apartment and the rooms were bright and spacious. When I arrived, I was accompanied by two officials from the town hall, who gave me a thorough overview of the house and made sure that everything was in order. As my four-week stay drew to a close, I left the house with a feeling of melancholy. Despite its modest size, I had quickly felt at home in the cozy ambience and would have loved to stay there until the end of my field research in Hasami!

The trial house in Hasami.
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2023

When I first learned about the existence of trial houses in rural communities in Japan, I was really surprised. Having never seen something like it in Europe, I was immediately intrigued. The process of acquiring vacant properties, renovating them and making them available to migrants and travelers struck me as innovative. Trial houses offer individuals, especially families, the opportunity to experience rural life at an affordable price. In both towns, I met migrants who had taken advantage of the trial house service upon arrival and were very happy with the opportunity to live in an inexpensive but cozy space while exploring the area. However, I believe some changes could be made to improve the trial house system which is still relatively unknown. It seemed that only those who were in direct contact with the local government, such as chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai members or urban-rural migrants who applied for relocation support, were aware of this opportunity. Extending the length of stay, increasing the availability of trial houses and advertising their existence more systematically could be of invaluable help to urbanites wishing to familiarize themselves with the countryside and rural lifestyles before deciding to relocate long-term.

Commodifying the Ocean: local products of Miyakojima

by Sarah Clay

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Japanese government has encouraged rural areas to develop local brands as part of their revitalization strategies. To attract tourists and migrants from urban areas, rural municipalities and their residents receive support to develop products unique to that region. This resulted throughout Japan in an enormous increase in local products over the past two decades [1]. Some famous examples are the melons from Yūbari town, apples from Nagano, and wine from Yamanashi Prefecture. On the Miyako Islands, you can find all kinds of products made with local herbs and plants. Popular, for instance, is the sweet-scented getto tea, purifying noni soap, and Yarabu Oil that is made by the elderly on Ikema-Jima.But even more than local delicacies or beauty products, it is the sea and its unique color known as “Miyako Blue” that attracts Japanese tourists and migrants the most. In this blog post, I introduce two producers who have turned the sea into a commodity and developed a product that offers tourists and others new ways to experience the sea of Miyako.

A typically Okinawan goat on the package of 35 Coffee.
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2022

The first product is not produced in Miyako, but sold in local stores and in the umi no eki of Irabu-jima. 35 Coffee (pronounced: san-go coffee, sango is the Japanese word for coral) is an Okinawan coffee brand that was founded in 2009. The special thing about the coffee is that the beans are slowly roasted at a temperature of around 200 degrees Celsius on coral fossils from the Okinawan Sea. According to the prefecture’s fishing law, it is strictly forbidden to collect corals or coral fossils. That is why 35 Coffee works with a company that has obtained a special license for this purpose. It is also forbidden to export coral from the prefecture, so 35 Coffee can only produce on the islands of Okinawa – which the company uses as a unique selling point. You can buy the coffee via the company’s website, in local stores and in the two 35 Coffee stores on Kokusai Dōri in Naha and in Okinawa World in Nanjo [2].

35 Coffee can only be produced in Okinawa due to the Prefecture’s Fishery Law
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2022

Besides using corals in the production process, 35 Coffee donates 3.5 percent of its profits to coral restoration projects. Their main partner is Okikai, a construction and real estate company that also specializes in coral transplantation. Coral transplantation has become a popular conservation method in Okinawa in recent years. First, a healthy host coral is taken from the ocean and divided into several pieces. These polyps are kept in a water tank and monitored until they reach a size when they can be planted back into the ocean [3]. Okikai does this in April and October, as the company realized that survival rates are highest during those months. 

Trying what coral coffee tastes like.
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2022

Another product that is being sold on the Miyako Islands is the salt of the brand Kanashaya. Kanashaya means “lovable” in the Miyako language. The handmade salt is extracted directly from ocean water gathered at the Yabiji coral reef, a designated natural reserve that is located a little off shore of Ikema-jima. The producer of the salt, Bibi-san, started the Kanashaya project during the COVID-19 pandemic when she was in need of some extra income. The salt can be bought via her online shop and in local shops and restaurants on Miyako. It can be either used for consumption or mixed with water as a body scrub [4]. There are different variants of Kanashaya salt. The water of Yabiji is collected either during full moon or new moon, with the moon standing every month in a different star sign. As such, all the batches have a different energy that interacts with the energy of the user in unique ways. Salt created from water gathered during the new moon contains livelier energy, as the new moon is a phase of new beginnings. Full moon salt, on the other hand, can be used as a closure, to give gratitude to what came on your path, and to leave behind what is not useful anymore. Gathering the water is a spiritual process for Bibi-san, during which she stands directly in contact with the sea deity Kaijin-sama. During the boat ride to the Yabiji reef, Bibi-san prays to Kaijin-sama and sings the ancient Hifumi Norito prayer as a way to honor the gods.

The Instagram page of Kanashaya
Copyright © Sarah Clay 2024

When I visited Miyakojima, I was interested in how locals and migrants use the sea as inspiration to develop local products that together form the Miyako brand. Some products are small-scale, such as Bibi-san’s Kanashaya salt. Others have grown into big businesses, as the example of 35 Coffee shows. Some products take the bright color of the sea as a starting point, others its symbolism of freedom and purification, still others its spiritual energy. By highlighting the different characteristics of the sea, these products become symbols of the different relationships people have with the sea of Miyako and offer valuable insights into the stories surrounding the natural world of the islands.

References

[1] Rausch, Anthony. 2009. “Capitalizing on Creativity in Rural Areas: National and Local Branding in Japan.” Journal of Rural and Community Development, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 65–79.

[2] Website 35 Coffee: https://www.35coffee.com/

[3] See for an in-depth analysis of Okinawan coral gardening:  Claus, C. Anne. 2017. “The Social Life of Okinawan Corals.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 157-174

[4] Website Kanashaya: https://bibirk.stores.jp/ and https://www.instagram.com/kanashaya/

“The water is simply wonderful!” The appeal of water for urban-rural migrants in Japan’s countryside

by Cornelia Reiher

“What town has a waterfall behind the train station?” one of my research participants asked me proudly as we began our sightseeing tour of his favorite spots in Taketa in the spring of 2023. The impressive waterfall cascades down a rock face and springs from a source near an old shrine that was once the center of the town. He introduced me to the many streams, springs and hot springs in the area and took me to hidden springs, small ponds and waterfalls that I would never have found without his expertise as a local guide. If you spend a little time in Taketa and talk to locals and urban-rural migrants alike, at some point the topic of water comes up. The good quality of the water was mentioned by almost everyone, and some urban-rural migrants have moved to Taketa because of it. Fetching drinking water from the many springs in the area is an integral part of everyday life for many, and water has also become an important part of Taketa’s marketing strategy.

Springs and streams in the mountains
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

The motivations for moving to a particular rural location are unique to each urban-rural migrant, but many people I interviewed or who appear in online promotional videos for urban-rural migration cite nature as an important reason for their relocation. They moved to the countryside because they wanted to live closer to nature, raise their children in a safe and healthy environment or grow their own food. Fetching spring water (wakimizu) is mentioned in promotional materials and interviews alike as a feature of an idealized rural lifestyle surrounded by beautiful nature. In Taketa, many of the urban-rural migrants I interviewed told me that they moved here because of the good water quality, among other reasons. One migrant praised the beautiful mountains, rivers, sky and water. Another migrant said: “The water is simply wonderful.” (Interview with a female migrant, 2022). Return migrants emphasized that they returned because the food tastes better due to the good water quality, and migrants with children mentioned that they enjoy swimming in the clean water of the rivers. Some stressed that the hot springs in Taketa are better (in terms of water quality) and cheaper than in Oita-shi.

A spring with a cup that can be used to draw water
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

When I visited Taketa, I always found spring water in my accommodation and in restaurants.  Signs pointed out the name of the spring and the health benefits of drinking this particular spring water. My research participants took me to the numerous springs in the area to replenish their drinking water supplies. When we arrived with a trunk full of empty canisters or pet bottles, we parked next to other cars, often from other prefectures in Kyushu, but sometimes also from Honshu. My research participants proudly pointed out to me that people travel long distances to fetch the delicious spring water from Taketa. We had to queue at some springs to fill up our pet bottles, and some springs were completely deserted. Instead of fetching the water from the stream, the community set up taps to make fetching the spring water easier. While for some urban-rural migrants this practice of fetching water has become a routine that makes them feel closer to nature, for some locals it is an economic necessity and a way to save money on their water bill.

Fetching spring water
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

Water has also become an important tourist asset in Taketa. The tourism association has created a map of scenic springs. Local guides take tourists to waterfalls and hot springs and promote Taketa’s waterways. There are folk tales about water, such as the story about a dragon living by a waterfall. The dragon terrorized the area and had to be calmed with the head of a cow. After that, he apparently behaved himself. But water is not only important for people’s daily lives and local identity, maintaining its quality and keeping the waterways clean is also a challenge. When we visited different places in spring 2023, my local tour guide pointed out that there was not enough water in the ponds and streams and expressed his concern about how this would affect trees, wildlife and people.

Springs are often located in scenic spots that attract tourists
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

In addition to these environmental challenges, the maintenance of the city’s water channels is becoming increasingly difficult due to the ageing population and the exodus of young people. Residents usually clean the canals together with their neighborhood association (jichikai). In some neighborhoods, only older people still take part in such activities because their children have moved away. In some cases, urban-rural migrants now help with the neighborhood association’s activities to maintain and clean the waterways. In this way, the circle is complete: the water has attracted people to Taketa and is now being maintained by them.