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Islanders must think bigger to thrive, not just survive

by Amy Chavez

“We want to make a pamphlet to promote Shiraishi Island,” said the 30-something-year-old, sipping coffee as he sat on the tatami mat in my living room. “We want to attract more tourists to the island. So I was hoping to interview you and get your opinions.”

Ah, another NPO coming to save our island from the scourges of aging and depopulation!

“And where will you distribute these pamphlets?” I asked him.

He paused for a moment. “We don’t know yet.”

“But you’re going to make a pamphlet?”

“Yes. We can make them available at the ferry ticket office on the island, and at the international villa.”

I cocked my head the way a dog does when he hears an unfamiliar sound. “But those people are already on the island. Aren’t you trying to attract new people?”

The guy sucked in air through his teeth, a gesture of consternation equivalent to a Westerner scratching his head while thinking. On the exhale, he emitted a long “Sō desu ne.” (“Well, that’s true”).

“We also have an idea to make Shiraishi popular through word of mouth,” he offered. “For example, I brought two friends with me today. They love it here.”

The two friends were also sitting on the tatami in my living room, sipping coffee. They beamed smiles at me to show how happy they were to be on Shiraishi Island.

Next, the man pawed through his knapsack, digging out from the bottom a glossy pamphlet the size of a KitKat. His NPO, he explained, had made this booklet about Okayama Prefecture, highlighting the different projects they had worked on. In fact, Shiraishi Island was already featured on one of the pages. Under a photo of some cotton buds was a Japanese explanation, along with a translation in English:

“We created this project to make opportunities for the revitalization of the island by doing the following: Revitalizing the island by using organic cotton. Growing chemical-free cotton with the people living on the island at the site of an elementary school. Sowing, taking care of the fields, harvesting, spinning threads and weaving. Learning about organic life and feeling the uniqueness of island time through the process of making cloth from seeds by visiting the island throughout the year. Giving visitors a chance to connect with the islanders.”

Great, I thought. If it were only true!

Clearly, I have a different definition of the word “revitalize” than the NPO does.

Is it reasonable to think that six islanders involved with an NPO project can help revitalize an entire island? Possibly. If our island had a population of six. But our island has 580 people, most of whom are over 70. They couldn’t care less about “organic” cotton. They probably even favor permanent press.

Up at the “site of an elementary school,” in the old, defunct gymnasium, is a spinning wheel and weaving loom. It would make a great movie set or a unique shoot for a magazine or coffee table book. But it is closed most days of the year.

But anyone who comes to the island can request it be opened so they can try their hand at making something with organic cotton. Some islander, out of a sense of duty, will open the facility and give you a demonstration. I know because I’ve taken a couple of visitors myself.

Granted, there is not a wide variety of things visitors can make, but as long as you don’t mind making organic cotton drink coasters, you can make as many as you’d like, in as many colors as you’d like, for ¥500 each. There is an additional charge of ¥500 yen per person for opening the facility for you and “connecting with the islanders.”

Nonetheless, I felt the set-up was impressive, and it seemed a shame that my two guests and I were among the limited 100 or so people to have used this facility since 2009, when the project was implemented.

I said to the islander who had opened up the facility, “More people should know about this.” She smiled and said, “Oh Amy-san, we don’t want many visitors. We’re busy enough with our own lives.”

In other words, while no one wants to appear less than supportive of the island, this is not exactly what they had in mind for their retirement.

Japanese people are known to drive hundreds of kilometers for a bowl of noodles at a famous noodle shop, or to go out of their way to have a cuppa at a new swank café. But we’re offering coasters. It’s a limited market.

Rather than simply informing people via a pamphlet that six people are making cotton on a small island, we need to let them know that there’s a great new organic café where you can drink a cup of coffee while enjoying stunning views of the Seto Inland Sea. At this café, located in an old Japanese house (that can be rented for ¥5,000 per month!), you can also buy hand-made organic cotton coasters (perhaps even a set of five) as well as other products such as hand towels, aprons, bags, scarves, clothing and gift items.

In addition, they offer spinning and weaving demonstrations every Sunday afternoon (where you can make your own coasters) and longer five-week courses throughout the year where you can learn to make your own products (Christmas and baby gifts, etc.). You get a young artist to intern at the café (and display their own artwork) et voilà, you have an experience people will want to come and be a part of.

As a resident, may I be so bold as to suggest that we don’t need an NPO to save our island from aging and depopulation. What we need is for an NPO, or anyone, to save our island from itself! People on the island already have the means to start businesses; they just don’t want to. They’re retired, remember?

We need to encourage outsiders to move here with young families to support the school system and the local grocery store. We need 20-something free thinkers to open cafés, restaurants and shops. We need beach-loving entrepreneurs to offer summer businesses (marine sports, row boat rentals, bicycle rentals). We need statues of Elvis! In other words, we must promise people there is something interesting to do once they get here.

We could use funding to make an outdoor museum that highlights Okayama’s historic relationship to the Inland Sea and the Battle of the Heike that would attract school groups from around the prefecture.

We should organize events that take advantage of the infrastructure already here (including five minshuku (travelers’ lodges) that can accommodate 250 people overnight), events with enduring value and annual punch: concerts on the beach, wine festivals, a triathlon or a trail race. And if those visitors told their friends, that would be something big.

In short, the island needs to thrive, not just survive.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp