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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.

Urban habits, rural spaces: Realities of day one in rural Fukushima

by Lynn Ng

“I lived three years in the countryside of Hokkaido!” This is often one of the first things I tell people. For the longest time, I prided myself a rural-experienced urbanite, for I had experienced the ups and downs of the rural life. So, as I made my way to a small village in mountainous Fukushima, I was thrilled to once again put on my rural rose-tinted glasses. Aboard one of four daily buses that travel into this village, I imagined the rolling hills, rice paddies, snow-capped mountains, clear rivers that awaited me at the destination.

What the road into the village was like, with the abundant nature I imagined myself to be immersed in upon arrival.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

After an hour of romanticizing rural Fukushima in my head, I arrived at my accommodation – a former shophouse now used to host volunteers and interns of community revitalization projects. This house sits between a steep brown hill and a small rocky stream. Unruly grass grew everywhere and an ambient radiation measuring device hides itself nearby, behind tall grasses and rusted fences. Outside the dark, empty house, I shouted: “Konnichiwa!” Silence. I wondered if I had arrived too early, that the staff had not been expecting me, yet. Or had I arrived too late and the staff already went home? I attempted to check my communication history for a number to call but alas, the signal was bad. I began to realize how inexplicably ill-prepared I was.

The air radiation monitoring device nearby reads 0.189 microSieverts/h – more than double of Berlin’s ambient dose rate (0.073 microSieverts/h) [1].
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

After a brief moment of internal panic, an old lady came running from out of nowhere across the street (where the steep hills were) towards me. She shouted to me something I could not understand and knocked on the windows of the house. I worried how badly my Japanese comprehension had withered away after just a year. The staff popped out of the office quickly. How she had heard the two knocks on the glass but not my incessant konnichiwas, I wondered. I turned to thank the old lady but she was no longer there. “There are no locks here, anywhere here,” the staff member said. I asked about Wi-Fi. “None,” she said, and then added, “there is a convenience store about fifteen minutes on foot, but it closes in about thirty minutes.” I put down my bags and prepared to run to the store.

Within mere minutes of setting things down, however, a small earthquake struck the village. The public radio announced that everyone in unstable housing structures should go to the nearest evacuation center. I wondered if this house was structurally viable. I wondered where the closest evacuation center was. I attempted to google. There was no internet. Abandoning all thoughts of heading out at all, I crawled onto a chair and allowed myself time to reflect on these realities of my first day, and of my upcoming week here: a week of unlockable doors, no groceries in the vicinity, and no Wi-Fi. On this first day in rural Fukushima, urbanite-Lynn experienced culture shock. I sat by the kitchen table shivering in my Tokyo-appropriate clothes. My stomach growled. I stared gloomily at the portable humidifier I bought just before boarding the bus. Why hadn’t I bought food or hot packs instead? As I had decided to leave all of the day’s problems to tomorrow, the old lady from before knocked on my door with a bowl of pumpkin stew in hand. I wondered how she gained access and remembered that there were no locks in this whole place.

The heartwarmingly delicious bowl of pumpkin stew.
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2022

I wrote these reflections while chewing on bits of soft pumpkin in the dim kitchen. I pondered upon this culture shock of the vast disparity between my imagination and the realities of living in this village. The ambient radiation numbers displayed on the tucked-away measuring device had easily become a non-concern. I wondered how other rural migrants here felt on their first day – had they also met this mysterious old lady? Or had they spent the day walking around finding phone signals? How did their imaginations match up with reality? On this first night, as I headed off to bed, I tripped on the uneven tatami, pinched my fingers twice on the wooden doors, tucked my valuables under my pillow and slept to the sounds of the stream flowing softly outside while a hundred questions raced through my mind.

[1] Ministry of Environment Japan. (2019). Ta chiiki no kūkan senryō-ritsu to no hikaku [Comparison of ambient radiation to other areas]. Available at:
https://www.env.go.jp/chemi/rhm/portal/digest/dwelling/detail_003.html

Fieldwork in rural Japan and natural disasters

by Cornelia Reiher

Two days after my arrival in Japan this September, Kyushu was hit by an “exceptionally strong typhoon”. This reminded me that the Covid pandemic was not the only reason that forced people to change their travel plans or daily lives. Typhoon No. 14 hit Kyushu on September 18, shortly after I arrived in Fukuoka, where I had planned to meet with our colleagues at Kyushu University before starting fieldwork in Arita and Taketa. Although I was safely ensconced in a high-rise concrete hotel, I was surprised to find that most stores, supermarkets, and even konbini in Fukuoka were closed. When I went to a supermarket that was still open, the shelves were quite empty, and I was lucky to buy the last obento.

On television, news of store and train closures were updated every minute, and signs in the windows of Hakata Station informed customers of temporary store closures due to the typhoon.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Train, plane, subway and bus services in Fukuoka were also suspended, and people stranded at Hakata Station waited in long lines for information. Media coverage was quite alarming, and my emergency app recommended evacuating to a nearby gym, but hotel staff said the hotel was much safer. All people in Fukuoka were advised to stay indoors. While watching on TV as the typhoon hit the coast of Kagoshima with fierce winds, high waves, and a storm surge, I waited anxiously in my hotel room for the typhoon to hit Fukuoka. Finally, the typhoon had lost some speed as it passed Fukuoka early in the morning of September 19 while I was still asleep.

Homeowners put tape on their windows as a precaution against typhoons to prevent them from breaking.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

The next morning, television showed images of heavy storms, flooded streets and fallen trees. A report from Yufuin showed that the roads were underwater. Many highways and businesses were still closed and train service was suspended. At breakfast, I overheard a waitress telling a guest that the entire hotel staff was sleeping in the hotel during the typhoon. I texted my friends in Oita and Saga and asked them if they were okay. Some had actually spent the night with their families in a shelter, but fortunately, no one had been injured. According to NHK, the total number of injured people in Fukuoka and Saga prefectures was very low, eleven and three, respectively. However, my friends and research participants were affected in different ways. Events they had been preparing for several months had to be canceled. One friend was stuck in Kokura for two days waiting for a connecting train. Others reported that the typhoon had broken windows or blown the roof off their homes. In particular, those living in renovated former akiya reported damage. Many experienced the typhoon as frightening and said this typhoon was much worse than previous ones, but others complained about the media spreading panic. Guesthouse operators told me that people were seeking refuge in the guesthouse.

In many places in Kyushu, the strong wind had knocked over the rice plants.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

When I visited Saga and Oita after the typhoon, I could see some damage myself: In the rice fields, the typhoon had knocked over the rice plants just before the harvest. Therefore, the rice could only be harvested by hand. This cost the farmers more time and resources. In Oita, a large tree next to a local shrine was struck by lightning during the typhoon and large branches had fallen. Two weeks after the typhoon, local people were still busy cleaning up the damage. At the same time, they were also going about their usual activities, preparing for the annual Kagura performance at the shrine, which was being held for the first time in two years because of the Covid pandemic. This made me realize how resilient rural residents are to natural disasters. Instead of complaining, they cleaned up the damage and went on with their lives. Many even emphasized how lucky they were this time because, for example, the nearby river did not burst its banks. But natural disasters are always on their minds, which is reflected in damage prevention measures and visible in the rural landscape. For example, homeowners put tape on their windows to protect them from typhoons, but it is very difficult to remove. Therefore, it stays on for a while after the typhoon, and in some cases, it is not removed at all. Some people think of countermeasures when building or renovating a house and use the heavier roof tiles (kawarayane), for example, because the roof is more likely to hold up in a typhoon.

Branches of a tree struck by lightning during the typhoon.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

In summary, this experience puts the pandemic in perspective as one of many risks and disasters that the rural population of Japan faces in their daily lives. I realized that I had focused too much on the Covid pandemic because I was unable to travel to Japan due to the pandemic. However, the spatial and temporal dimensions of these different disasters as well as the different social, economic, political and cultural impacts are perceived and handled very differently by people in the countryside. It is interesting to study how rural residents deal with these different risks and disasters and manage them in everyday life.

DIY renovation videos of old houses in rural Japan: Making a new home for the future?

by Maritchu Durand

There have been some changes since my last blog post. Unfortunately, my work on the project has come to an end. But this has given me the opportunity to finally dive into my master’s thesis more deeply. Focusing on the renovation of akiya in rural Japan and their role in rural revitalization, I am now approaching my research subject on two fronts. First, I am reading about the numerous case studies that have been conducted in the last few years, as well as important works on urban-rural migration. Second, I am entering the wild world of YouTube in order to find concrete cases of migrants’ representation and narratives of their experiences with DIY renovation. Since I previously have looked at videos published by a prefecture, now I want to find more personal testimonies, filmed, edited and posted by individuals. In this post, I will present my first observations from a whole new YouTube world.

A residential house from the early Shōwa period during the renovation process in Arita, Saga prefecture.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

First of all, I was quite surprised to find out that there were so many channels about DIY renovation of old houses. Interestingly, most channels combine the words inaka gurashi – life in the countryside – with anything ranging from ‘DIY renovation’ to ‘akiya’ or ‘kominka’. Although the number of subscribers to those channels ranges from only 3000 to sometimes 500 000, all of them feature highly popular videos that have up to two million views. The most popular videos are those showing houses before and after renovation or the often year-long renovation process in 10 to 20 minutes. The different channels can be divided into two groups: the ‘silent ones’ and the ‘talkative ones’. In the talkative videos, the – often quite young – house owners play a prominent role in explaining their renovation process and showing themselves during renovation work, gardening or exploring the region. They are the main actors and viewers follow them along their journey through renovation. These videos can be quite explanatory and technical, but often also present features of conventional TV programs in Japan: comical sound effects, bright and colored subtitles and comments by an out-of-frame narrator. See for example:

However, there are more videos of the ‘silent type’ where migrants rarely show their faces and do not talk. Explanations are provided via subtitles. Light and upbeat music or slow and melancholic instrumentals accompany footage of renovation work, the houses and the natural and quiet surroundings featuring insects and diverse flowers, cold mountain streams and organic vegetables in gardens behind the house. See for example:

While each channel has its own characteristics, all of them share common features and representations that are particularly interesting to observe just after reading Susanne Klien’s work on urban-rural migrants in post-growth Japan[1]. Like Klien’s many interviewees, the house owners in the videos are young urbanites who recently decided to change their lives and move to the countryside. They are lifestyle migrants who chose to leave the city and their jobs to live closer to nature in a rural environment. The videos present two main aspects of urban-rural migrants’ life in the countryside Klien has identified: while showing satisfaction and joy in their life surrounded by nature, cultivating their garden, discovering wildlife and slowing down in their everyday life, urban-rural migrants also face difficulties in their new lives. When migrants talk about difficulties and failures, it is often presented as a great opportunity to learn in the videos. Still, it cannot be ignored that their renovation enterprise takes up most of their time, energy, and money as renovating a house requires time, skills and resources. But there are also differences between the migrants in the renovation videos and those in Klien’s work. While situated in a liminal state between movement and settlement, the latter enjoyed a certain freedom of movement and did not hesitate to change locations when they wanted to. In contrast, the young migrants who bought a house and are now renovating it put all their efforts and resources into this enterprise and seem much more tied to a particular place. They cannot move away on a whim or break off in the blink of an eye.

This former public bath in Taketa, Oita prefecture was renovated and is now used as a restaurant and gallery.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

This situation might seem like a trap for young migrants that engage in akiya renovation projects that might as well fail. However, from a more positive perspective, the migrants choose to invest in the land, the house and the place to create a future home. The renovation process also gives them the opportunity to meet many local people who help them. Finally, such renovation projects by urban-rural migrants could contribute to more sustainable migration and rural development in the long run.


[1] Klien, Susanne (2020), Urban migrants in rural Japan: Between agency and anomie in a post-growth society, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

It’s time to say goodbye!

by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)

October 3rd, 2022: I’ve just returned to Tokyo before flying back to Berlin this Sunday. This is almost the end of my fieldwork in Japan! After six months, five cities, and countless memories, I know now that fieldwork can generate not only data for research but also new friendships, life experiences, inspiration and even career opportunities. As my flight back to Berlin is approaching, I can’t help but feel somewhat melancholy. “So that’s it?”, I think to myself. As a young researcher, I struggle to deal with my attachment to the field, and I also wonder if my personal bonds with several respondents may affect the objectivity of my analysis.

My fieldwork has come to an end. It was an amazing experience
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

I keep thinking back to May when I conducted my first interviews with national policy actors in Tokyo. How nervous I was back then! After these initial meetings, I came to realize that many policy actors, including even politicians and high-ranking government officials, were highly supportive and there was no reason why I had to be afraid to discuss with them. In fact, some research participants, despite their extremely hectic schedules, were kind enough to keep following up on my research progress and meet me multiple times until my very last days here. These respondents have become my friends and mentors, and we even promised to meet again in Germany next year.

I also had great experiences in Kyūshū. I was especially impressed with Fukuoka Prefecture, and more specially Buzen City – a small yet spirited municipality that has been making great rural revitalization efforts through international cooperation and digital transformation. My respondents from Fukuoka Prefecture and Buzen gave me the feeling that Fukuoka is a place of new ideas, challenges, and vitality. My respondents here are also extremely proactive and modern. Since all of them added me on social media and preferred texting to sending emails, I could contact them right away whenever a question arose. Sometimes, after our meetings, they even texted their new ideas and opinion about rural revitalization without me asking.

One of my research participants is a charismatic leader, academic, businessman
and a native of Yame City, where I attended high school

Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

Compared to Fukuoka, Nagasaki seems to have a slower pace, or in other words, is more “rural”. Yet, I was able to experience the charming, relaxing life in Nagasaki. I stayed at an Airbnb in Nagasaki, and my host – a Nagasaki native – is very knowledgeable about rural revitalization and interested in the project that our research team is conducting. He also used to work in a local politician’s office. In order to help me grasp the local context, my host guided me to many historical places in Nagasaki, invited me to join local events, introduced me to other local residents, and even drove me to Hasami Town – my other main field site. He is also familiar with several of my respondents and prepped me before my interviews. For instance, he told me about the backgrounds and policy orientations of several local politicians. While in Nagasaki, not only did I get to hear the voices of policy actors, but also those of local residents. Many of them were highly critical of how the prefecture handles rural revitalization. More importantly, the people I met in Nagasaki became a part of my everyday life. We formed a close-knit community and had dinner together every other day as we lived very close to each other. One of my new friends also came to Tokyo to see me off on Sunday.

An evening picnic with my Airbnb host and new friends from Nagasaki
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

This is not my first time in Japan or living abroad. After having lived in six countries, I thought I was used to saying goodbye. Yet, it is still quite emotional to know “that was it”. However, I’m sure that the end of the fieldwork is not the end of these new “friendships” (if I may use this word at all… as many respondents are older and way more accomplished than I am). In the upcoming months, I will do my best to make the most out of the valuable information my respondents shared with me and finish my PhD dissertation. I cannot wait to visit Japan again as soon as possible.

The masked researcher: Fieldwork in rural Japan in the third year of the Covid pandemic

by Cornelia Reiher

In September, I was able to travel to Japan for the first time after three and a half years. Since visa-free travel was not possible until October 11, I had to undergo a time-consuming visa application process. Thanks to our colleagues at Kyushu University, I was able to affiliate as a visiting scholar and was very happy when the visa was finally stamped in my passport. Fortunately, just before I left for Japan, the PCR tests for those who had been vaccinated three times were no longer required for entry. At the same time, not only the entry ban but also the war in Ukraine has made it difficult to travel to Japan. Since it is no longer possible to fly over Russia, air routes have become much longer and air ticket prices have risen sharply. Against all odds, I put on my mask, boarded a plane and entered Japan in mid-September, where I was the only foreigner in the immigration queue. I had never seen the international terminal of Haneda Airport so empty.

Alone at the immigration line at Haneda airport
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

The number of Covid-19 infections in Japan has increased since July 2022, even in rural areas. Therefore, hygiene measures were taken very seriously and everyone wore a mask indoors and outdoors. Even in my field sites, many people had already been infected with Covid. Many interlocutors told me openly that they or their children had Corona, but apparently, the subject was taboo, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Foreigners in particular were shunned. One interviewee told me that people even changed sides of the street when they saw her, and she felt discriminated against for the first time in Japan, even though she had lived there for a long time.

Since one of the principles of good research practice is to do no harm to research participants, I followed all the formal and informal rules as much as possible. Since everyone always wore a mask, I did too. I also carried a suitcase full of Covid-19 test kits and performed tests regularly. Fortunately, I did not experience any discrimination or rejection from my research participants, but found Covid to be a good conversation starter, as everyone I met was interested in the Covid situation and rules in Germany and Europe. Many Japanese found it hard to believe that people in most European countries no longer wear masks.

Even cows wear masks during the pandemic. I found this plastic one at a michi no eki in Aso.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

After conducting online interviews during the past year, I had come to Japan to conduct on-site interviews and attend events to see more than just people’s faces. But also during my stay in Japan, I had to interview some people remotely because they or their family members were infected with Covid-19. And this time I hardly saw anyone’s face because the interviewees had their masks on during almost all the interviews, some even in their own houses. Only when I took photos of my research participants did they briefly remove their masks. In the town halls of my two field sites, as well as in many other public institutions, a scanner at the entrance monitored the body temperature of visitors and staff. Although wearing masks is currently required in Germany only on public transportation, disinfecting hands and wearing masks even at 32°C became second nature to me (again). Like everyone else in Japan, I spent entire days without taking off my mask.

Interviews with masks and partition walls in a municipal hall in Kyushu
Copyright © Takako Horita 2022

But how can a researcher relate to people if she only sees them with a mask? I found it very unfortunate that I could not see the facial expressions of many of my research participants during the interviews because they are just as important as their verbal expressions. On the other hand, I had met many of my research participants before – either online without masks or during previous fieldwork in Japan. Without these previous encounters, however, it would have been somewhat difficult for me to get to know them. Sometimes I wondered if this type of field research was really better than the online interviews I had already conducted. However, I would say that it was important to be on-site to observe the environment in which my research participants live and the social interactions in their daily lives. During the online interviews, I only saw their faces and often a virtual background. Some participants gave me a tour of their homes or neighborhood online, but I could only see what they wanted me to see. For this reason, it was important to (re)visit my field sites in person. In doing so, I not only noticed how much the places have changed since previous visits, but I also happened to come across many interesting things by coincidence. In summary, during my fieldwork in Japan, I experienced firsthand how the pandemic changed not only fieldwork for researchers outside of Japan who could not enter the country and had to find alternative ways to do fieldwork, but also fieldwork in Japan itself.

From left to right: Monitoring body temperature at the entrance of public facilities; signs that ask customers to wear masks and to keep distance at a supermarket; and the check-in equipment at a guesthouse (tissues, disinfection spray, masks and a fever thermometer).
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

On insularity and the built environment

by Sarah Bijlsma

A question that inevitably comes up when thinking about (urban migration to) rural Japan is where ‘the rural’ as a unit of analysis begins and ends. To put it differently, is rural Japan defined by population density, municipal borders, the conceptual boundaries of ‘the countryside,’ linguistic terms like chiiki (region), inaka (countryside), or chihō (district), or by a combination of all? In my research on Miyakojima it is the term shima (island) or ritō (remote island) that is used by people to reflect on the space they inhabit. Being a piece of land fully surrounded by water, I often feel that the term is applied to describe an isolated and more or less homogeneous space [1]. Yet, spending time on Miyako I realized that its 159 km² is used, planned, and negotiated by different people in fundamentally different ways.

To begin with, Miyako has a small urbanized area on the west side of the island. This is where most of the 52,814 inhabitants live [2]. However, when I strolled through the narrow streets, I was especially struck by the many multi-story buildings with a different karaoke bar or hostess club on each floor. One night I spoke to a girl named Mika who works in such a hostess club. She told me that she was originally from Osaka and had moved to Miyako three months earlier. On Miyako, only migrants like herself work as hostesses as the job comes with a number of benefits for them. For example, the club provides a dorm to live in, food and free drinks, a relatively high salary, and even pays for a one-way airplane ticket from the girl’s home city to Miyako. Mika had been a hostess for many years but stated that she likes the work way better on the island. In Osaka, her customers were mainly middle-aged salarymen. In contrast, on Miyako her customers are tourists and Japanese construction workers who are more or less the same age. So she gets paid to party, get drunk, and talk to people she would also be friends with outside of her job.

Club Venus and other hostess clubs in the center of Miyako
Copyright © Sarah Bijlsma 2022

The seaside is an area that is marked by the concrete of hotels and resorts. These buildings did not exist until a few years before; the year 2015 marked the beginning of a large-scale construction rush that became known as the ‘Miyako Bubble’. I have been told that the local population hardly benefits from these hotels, as they are built, managed, invested in, and used by people from Japan. Mika’s boyfriend is someone who knows Miyako’s beach areas very well. Originally from Yamanashi-ken, he worked at a real estate company in Tokyo before moving to Miyako in 2021. He started his own SUP business next to Yonaha-Maehama Beach, Miyako’s number one tourist spot. When I asked him if there are any locals who make use of his services, he said that locals do not spend time at the beach at all. For them, the ocean is something ordinary (atarimae). The only locals you see are the owners of jet ski companies, many of whom are yakuza. He does not know the exact reason for this, but since a lot of money goes is turned over in these businesses and customers pay in cash, they seem to be the perfect vehicles for laundering money.

Miyako is known by Japanese tourists for its bright blue sea
Copyright © Sarah Bijlsma 2022

While Miyako’s city center and beaches are the terrains of Japanese tourists and emigrants, the inland belongs to the local population. Miyako has no mountains and these inner landscapes are characterized by wide sugarcane fields. In a small village on the east side of the island stands the house of Hiroto and his wife. The couple, originally from Miyako, run a small restaurant while raising their eight children. When they were still a family of six, they traveled around Japan to learn about alternative ways of agriculture, architecture, and education. When they returned, they could not find a house and decided to build a hut from old cans and clay in a banana field. Their fifth child was born there. After six months, they bought an old house which they fully rebuilt. The roof was taken off to make the house twice as high. A second floor was built, accessible only by log, and it contains so many books that they call it their ‘library.’ There are no separate rooms in the house; everyone can just grab a futon and sleep wherever they want. The walls of the bathroom are made out of corals, and the toilet is largely built of glass bottles that cast a pleasant green light into the house whenever in use.  

The house of Hiroto and his wife
Copyright © Sarah Bijlsma 2022

These three examples illustrate that, far from being a homogeneous environment, the geography of Miyako is organized according to different social groups. As such, the landscape of Miyako can be ‘read’ as text [3]: Taking a close look at the island’s architectural structures provides insights into the fabric and social relationships that are being negotiated on this small piece of land.

Endnotes

[1] Gillis, John R. 2007. “Island Sojourns”. Geographical Review, Vol. 97, No. 2, pp. 274-287.

[2] As of June 2022. Miyako Mainichi. 27.06.2022. Miyako keniki jinkō 35nen buri souka / 20nen kokuseichōsa sokuhō [Miyako’s population increases for the first time in 35 years / 20 year preliminary census report]. Via https://www.miyakomainichi.com/news/post-142738/ (accessed on 19.10.2022)

[3] Cosgrove, Denis. 1989. “Geography is everywhere: culture and symbolism in human landscapes.” In: Derek Gregory & Rex Walford (eds.), Horizons in Human Geography. Barnes & Noble. pp. 118–135.

Buzen: A small city makes big efforts to promote international cooperation

 by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)

Buzen is a small coastal city located in the northeast of Fukuoka Prefecture. Despite its small size, both area-wise and population-wise (approx. 24,000 residents), Buzen City has amazed me with its efforts to promote international cooperation and multiculturalism. After fieldwork in Buzen, in this blogpost, I want to share my experiences and the reasons why officials in Buzen are working hard for the city’s internationalization. My first (online) contact in Buzen in September 2021 was with Ms Ngo Thi Nhung, a Vietnamese national working in the City Hall of Buzen, who is a member of the Chiiki Okoshi Kyōryokutai (COKT) Program and also contributed to our blog . I was surprised that Ms Nhung was recruited to work at the city hall and being a Vietnamese national myself, I was also happy to meet a fellow “comrade”. When I connected with Ms. Nhung via Facebook I realized that she is also one of Buzen’s foreigner-friendly official Facebook page admins. Her role in promoting Buzen’s public relations really sets Buzen apart from other localities, as she connects the local government with the public. Thanks to Ms Nhung I could directly arrange appointments with local officials via Buzen’s Facebook page. Last year, I was able to secure an online meeting with both Ms. Nhung and her direct supervisor, who told me that promoting international cooperation is one of Buzen’s main regional revitalization strategies.

The Big Chair (Ōkina isu): One of Buzen’s signature spots
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

Months had passed since our first online interview and when I finally made it to Japan, I attended a diplomatic event between Vietnam and Japan in Fukuoka in July 2022, where chairmen of Vietnamese provinces and their counterparts from Fukuoka Prefecture and other localities in Kyushu came together to promote bilateral partnership. To my surprise, I saw the booth of Buzen City at the event and, more importantly, I also met the official whom I interviewed online. This coincidental encounter was really a joy as neither I nor the Buzen’s official expected to meet each other at an event hosted by the Consulate of Vietnam in Fukuoka. We exchanged contacts and talked briefly. He told me that Buzen is currently trying to strengthen its partnership with Taiwan and Vietnam, and the Mayor of Buzen was at that time on a business trip to Vietnam with Ms. Ngo Thi Nhung to cultivate new opportunities.

In August, I finally went to Buzen. After visiting the city hall and conducting interviews with officials, I learned that the city had just established a new division for international cooperation and multiculturalism (kokusai kyōsei suishin shitsu) with four members, including the official I met online and in Fukuoka, Ms Nhung and another COKT with an international background, who has lived in Switzerland and Taiwan for several years. This new division was established as part of the mayor’s vision to develop the city by strengthening the partnerships with Taiwan and Vietnam and supporting foreign nationals living in Buzen. For instance, Buzen is trying to invite Vietnamese universities to establish local branches in the city, where both international and local students can study. Also, Buzen is looking for business partners in Vietnam who can import Buzen’s local products. Next, in order to promote mutual understanding and support foreign residents (most of whom are Vietnamese technical interns), Buzen also organizes Vietnamese language sessions for locals, and Japanese language courses for foreign nationals. In order for me to directly experience their activities, the officials also invited me to join two events.

I joined a meeting between local officials and a Taiwanese professor who is teaching in Kitakyushu to prepare a Taiwan festival in Buzen in 2023. The event aims at promoting tourism and mutual understanding. The Taiwanese professor came to the meeting with a meticulous plan for the festival and presented his ideas for activities to be conducted at the festival. These included hosting Taiwanese cooking lessons and launching sky lanterns. He also prepared some sample Taiwanese foods for us to try. At the end of the meeting, the officials said they would continue to discuss the plan in the months to come. The officials were very open and flexible with the plan and to test new strategies and ideas. The meeting also made me aware how academics interact with bureaucrats in rural Japan.

Vietnamese cooking day: when locals and Vietnamese nationals came together
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

The second event I joined was a Vietnamese cooking day organized by Buzen’s local residents and supported by the city hall’s staff. The event featured one of Buzen’s signature agricultural products: loofahs (hechima). Since loofahs are frequently used in the Vietnamese food culture, local residents wanted to learn how Vietnamese people cook it. For this reason, many Vietnamese residents in Buzen joined the event, and together we made six different loofah-based dishes. The event was also a way for local residents and Vietnamese nationals to meet and learn from each other, thereby increasing mutual understanding. After the event, the officials had organized a discussion session where participants could exchange ideas to promote multiculturalism in Buzen. Given that the majority of Vietnamese (and other international) migrants in Buzen are technical interns (ginō jisshūsei), the conversation quickly turned towards this topic. First, Japanese residents acknowledged that the Technical Intern Training program is highly problematic and, in many cases, cruel to Vietnamese participants. While the goal of the program is to provide interns with technical skills that can be transferred back to their home countries, many interns have to undertake repetitive and low-skilled jobs. Ms Nhung made a passionate speech, saying that she had heard of many cases where Japanese firms mistreated and abused Vietnamese interns, considering them only as cheap labor. She hoped the authorities would improve the program. Buzen’s local officials also shared this passion and asked for suggestions to protect and support interns in Buzen by establishing direct hotlines for interns to consult and report cases of mistreatment. That said, some Vietnamese technical interns who participated in the event said that they were personally treated decently, despite the challenging jobs that they were undertaking. During the discussion session, both local residents and officials of Buzen seemed very sympathetic, polite, and willing to take immediate actions.

Stir-fried beef with loofahs and sprouts: An everyday Vietnamese dish
Copyright © Ngo Tu Thanh 2022

In summary, Buzen, although a small city, offers great potential for regional revitalization with its efforts in international cooperation and multiculturalism. I personally had a wonderful time in Buzen and very much look forward to visiting the city again. 

Learning to be a mother and preparing family fieldwork

Phd research with a kid — part 2

by Cecilia Luzi

It’s been a year since I returned from maternity leave last September. When I wrote the first post for this blog about my experience of raising a child as a PhD student, I talked mostly about what it felt like to return to work after giving birth. I remember being very confused at the time: I didn’t know exactly what to expect or how to approach the various stages of the PhD process with a young child. What worried me the most was the fact that I had to leave Europe to start fieldwork in Japan. Now, I am about to leave for Japan and feel that I am learning to be an anthropologist and a mother at the same time, with all the enthusiasm and anxiety that accompany any new beginning. Although I know that having my son and partner in the field with me is a wonderful opportunity for the mother and anthropologist I want to become, the newness of it all scares me a little.

The first plate of spaghetti
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2021

Over the past year, I have been juggling the uncertainty and insecurity left by the Covid 19 pandemic and the need for constant care and attention that a child in the first year of life requires. My partner and I began preparing all the necessary documents in November 2021, hoping to leave for Japan by the end of the year. For this reason, we decided not to start looking for a kindergarten for our son right away. He was about six months old at the time, and we didn’t want to take him somewhere, let him settle in, and then take him out two months later at that age. However, when the Omicron variant showed up at the end of November and the Japanese government closed the borders again, it became increasingly clear to us that we could not leave so soon. Moreover, we had no idea when and if at all fieldwork in Japan would be possible. After a year of my doctoral work, I was tired of going through the cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to apply for a visa, so in March 2022, we decided to postpone our departure until the fall and I began to collect data with online interviews. At that time, we started looking for a kindergarten for our one-year-old son and only started the Certificate of Eligibility (CoE) application process again in summer. We had to go through the entire process from scratch because our host institutions in Japan had changed. Now the last documents are on their way and soon we will go to the embassy to get the visas in our passports.

For me, organizing a long fieldwork in Japan without knowing the exact start date for months meant learning how to manage an upcoming move by making sure to respect the schedule and necessities of the rigid routine of a child’s first year of life. Specifically, CoE applications alternated with urgent emails to kindergartens in Berlin and pediatrician appointments for mandatory immunizations had to be juggled with Zoom meetings with our host universities in Japan. Today I know that what was for us a long time of postponements and cancellations, fatigue and frustration, was for my son the year of his life, when he ate spaghetti with tomato sauce for the first time, learned to walk around the living room singing songs and making dog noises when he met one on the street. It was a very emotional moment to see him go to to kindergarten for the first time and gradually become independent from me.

Traveling to conferences and workshops throughout the summer
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2022

Lately I have been thinking about what fieldwork and motherhood might have in common, and this has helped me to see my fears from a different perspective. I am learning to reflect and be aware of my own position, to consider my role and how I perceive myself in contact with others, and I believe this is part of both ethnography and motherhood. Although I realize that the two can be very similar, it scares me that I will have to learn to work in the field and take care of my child at the same time. Will I be good enough to do this for him and for my research? How can I find the time to write notes every night, pay attention to his needs, keep track of what is happening around me, and respond to my growing child’s explosive curiosity? I feel like I’m taking a leap into the void, but perhaps this fear of the unknown is ultimately exactly the feeling one should have when embarking on the field during one’s PhD or becoming a first-time mother.

Translating chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai: Some thoughts about support and cooperation

by Cornelia Reiher

This blog contains several posts about and by members of chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai (COKT).  Launched in 2009 by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (Sōmushō), COKT provides funding to communities in rural Japan to hire people who move into their communities and promote revitalization activities for three years (Reiher 2020). However, when editing recent blogposts and scrolling through numerous Instagram profiles of urban-rural migrants and local and central government websites, I was struck by the wide variety of English translations for the program. Some examples include “rural revitalization corps,” “local vitalization cooperator,” “local revitalization squadron” and “community building support staff.” Since COKT is one of the central government’s programs aimed at both rural revitalization and urban-rural migration, I think it is important to reflect on the various translations and interpretations of the program’s name itself.

A gallery in an abandoned CD shop run by a former COKT member
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2018

In this post, I focus primarily on the meaning of the term kyōryoku, which means cooperation or “to work together to do things”. But the way how people work together can differ as I realized when I listened to my research participants who are or were members of COKT. Many reflected on their roles as employees of their respective communities and some saw their role rather as supporting revitalization activities while others described their work more as a cooperation between equal partners. Thus, I believe, thinking about “kyōryoku” can help to better understand the relationships between COKT program participants and their host communities.

Certainly, there are many other problems when translating chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai into English (or German). The problem starts with the term chiiki. It is primarily a geographical and sociological term that can be translated as region or regional, but can also mean a relatively small space such as the immediate neighborhood or an inner-city area or all communities outside of urban centers (Morioka 2008). Chiiki okoshi is a concept with its own history. Since the 1970s, attempts to establish new industries in rural regions and greater autonomy for local authorities have been discussed under the term village renewal (mura okoshi) or regional renewal (chiiki okoshi). The mura okoshi movement was strongly inspired by the ideas of localism (chiiki shugi) (Kitano 2009: 22, 23). It is also debated whether the term ‘revitalization’ or ‘vitalization’ should be used as revitalization implies a rather conservative approach of nostalgic longing for a better past (Klien 2009: 221).

An abandoned school building in Oita prefecture hosts studios for artists, many of them members of COKT
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2018

Although at first glance it may seem the least problematic term in the program’s name, kyōryoku can have different meanings when COKT members and municipalities work together. COKT participants’ jobs and the way they are treated by the local government that employs them can differ greatly within and between municipalities. While some COKT members are artists and enjoy the freedom to work in their studios all day, others are required to show up for work in the town hall at 8:30 am and to regularly report to their superiors. Some have clearly defined tasks, such as working at the support desk for incoming migrants, creating and updating municipalities’ social media accounts or working in local cultural facilities. Those who report more positive experiences in the COKT often describe their work experience in terms of cooperation. Some told me that they did not plan to join COKT, but when they called the municipal government of the town they wanted to relocate to or visited the place they were offered a position in the program. In some cases, municipal governments look for people who bring new ideas and initiate projects and are happy to support them. In order to find the best people for the job, they go through a careful selection process. Municipalities who select COKT members based on their ideas for the revitalization of their town are more likely to give them a free hand with their projects. With the goal of settling down, some COKT members already establish companies or careers for the time after their three-year contract ends.

Breakfast in a hostel run by a couple who graduated from COKT
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2018

Other (and sometimes the same) municipalities provide COKT members with only little agency to realize their own projects. They are expected them to support local activities instead of cooperating on an equal footing. COKT members who are older and have already had careers in other professions find this particularly obstructive. They have their own ideas about revitalization, but not all of these ideas can be realized. Some of my interviewees, however, don’t want to implement their own ideas and are happy to simply support existing projects.

Sometimes COKT members are hired as substitute for municipal staff due to tight municipal budgets. Some municipalities have found very creative solutions to deal with the lack of staff, for example, topping up the working hours of COKT members (they only work 15 days a month) with an additional salary. So, a large part of the personnel costs is financed by the central government through the COKT program. This is the only way cultural institutions can operate in some communities and further increases the dependency between municipalities and the central government.

In summary, the meaning of kyōryoku in chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai varies from municipality to municipality and within municipalities. However, COKT members who experience kyōryoku as cooperation rather than as support report more positive experiences with the program. Municipalities have different reasons for employing individuals via the COKT program; lacking resources is one of many. Future research examining COKT’s contribution to rural revitalization should pay attention to how municipalities actually work with COKT participants.


References

Reiher, Cornelia (2020), “Embracing the periphery: Urbanites’ motivations to relocate to rural Japan”, in Manzenreiter, Wolfram, Lützeler, Ralph and Polak-Rottmann, Sebastian (Eds.), Japan’s new ruralities: Coping with decline in the periphery, London: Routledge, pp. 230–244.

Kitano, Shu (2009), Space, Planning and Rurality. Uneven Rural Development in Japan, Victoria, BC: Trafford.

Morioka, Kiyoshi (2008) „‚Chiʼiki‘ e no apurōchi“ [Approaches to chiʼiki], in: ders. (ed.), Chiʼiki no shakaigaku [Regional Sociology], Tōkyō: Yūhikaku, S.3-20.

Klien, Susanne (2009), „Ländliche Regionen und Tourismusvermarktung zwischen Revitalisierung oder Exotisierung: Das Beispiel Echigo-Tsumari“, in: Wieczorek, Iris und David Chiavacci (Hg.), Japan 2009. Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Berlin: VSJF, S. 217-242.

An afternoon on Miyakojima: Reflecting on environmental issues from different local perspectives

by Sarah Bijlsma

On a Monday afternoon, I enter the door of a small esoteric shop on Miyakojima that is hidden behind a bush of shell ginger (getto). I came here together with Kenji, a 40-year-old man originally from Osaka who, until recently, worked as a member of the Community Building Support Staff (chiiki okoshi kyōryokutai). I had been curious about the shop as it describes itself as a space where human vibrations align with the power of nature. The owner, a charismatic man who I estimate to be about 40 years old, tells us that the lapis lazuli, amber, and amethyst jewelry that he sells is inspired by Miyako’s natural world. Stones that have different shades of blue remind him of the ocean, while the darker ones represent the starry sky at night. According to the shop owner, customers often feel a strong connection with one particular stone; it is as if the jewelry picks the buyer instead of the other way around.

The sea of Miyakojima is by many considered a place for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing
CopyrightⒸSarah Bijlsma 2022

Behind the counter, there is a photograph of the owner and receptionist together with the late former PM Shinzo Abe. “He was a very spiritual person,” the receptionist notes. “And he and his wife grew their own vegetables. I don’t know anything about politics, but from a human perspective I had the feeling he was a very good man.” The receptionist, who introduces herself as Emiko, explains that Abe and his wife enjoyed the island because of the high number of negative ions that make Miyako into one large power spot. Negative ions are said to be molecules or atoms that are electrically charged with negative energy and are considered to have a positive effect on the physical and mental well-being of living beings [1].  Furthermore, the strong energy of Miyako can be related to the many dragon deities (ryūjin-sama) that live here. The world that cannot be seen (me ni mienai sekai) is very present, she explains. In that world, every living being is one and the same, that is why we need to share our knowledge and happiness with each other also in this world.

An opening is made in the vegetation so that sea deities (kaijin-sama) can easily come ashore
CopyrightⒸSarah Bijlsma 2022

I ask Emiko whether the healing energy of the island remains as powerful as before amidst Miyako’s recent building rush.  She says that if development happens in the right way, energy can certainly be preserved. It is important, for example, that the sky of Miyako is not blocked, so winds and the dragons can freely move around. While she acknowledges that construction work goes hand in hand with environmental issues on Miyako, she stresses she is not against development in general. For example, until a few years ago, local children had only the option to go into sugarcane farming when growing up. Due to this lack of opportunities, most of them left and found jobs in other areas of Japan. Now some of them stay to work in the tourist industry or return to Miyako after a couple of years. Moreover, before 2015, the beaches were full of washed-up plastic and garbage that people had left behind. Much of this has been removed. So, development does not only destroy the environment, but it also creates opportunities for improvement. As we say goodbye, Emiko gives me a firm hug and says I can come back whenever I want to know more. Back in the car, Kenji mentions that judging on the atmosphere around her, he thinks she might be a local shaman (yuta) who mediates between the gods and the contemporary world.

The construction of the new Hilton hotel does not necessarily have to harm the healing powers of Miyako
CopyrightⒸSarah Bijlsma 2022

We drive to the ICT center to attend a public talk on recycling. It is organized by Miyako’s Eco Island department that is responsible for environmental policies and PR activities. During the hour and a half presentation, we learn how garbage can be transformed into a valuable resource. Rubber ties can be turned into an energy source used for streetlights and greenhouses in the winter. Also, plastic can be recycled into fashionable drinking cups, of which we all get one after the presentation is done. At the end of the evening, I ask Kenji if he has gained some new insights during the talk. He tells me that he started to think fundamentally differently about Miyako’s development through today’s events. He knows that the community of Japanese migrants on Miyakojima is taking a strong stance against recent changes. But by listening to Emiko and the recycling specialist, he came to understand that development is actually not something that should be avoided at any cost. When you find the right balance, it can become a positive thing for both people and the environment.

Marine litter can still be found on many of Miyako’s beaches
CopyrightⒸSarah Bijlsma 2022

When I left my house that day to learn more about Miyako’s environmental changes through the lenses of spirituality and local policies, I did not expect that in both cases economic development would be advocated to me. It made me realize that local residents think about nature in different terms than Japanese migrants from urban areas. This indicates that environmental issues are not so easily captured in terms of objective truth. Even on an island as small as Miyako, the question of what “nature” is and how it should be protected has different answers depending on who you ask.


References

[1] Jiang, S. Y., Ma, A., & Ramachandran, S. (2018). Negative Air Ions and Their Effects on Human Health and Air Quality Improvement. International journal of molecular sciences19(10), 2966. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19102966