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Rural exchange program for city kids draws down

Chunichi Shimbun

Amid a rapidly aging and declining population in rural areas of Aichi Prefecture, an exchange program to send young students from cities to the Tomiyama district in the village of Toyone will be terminated in March 2015, along with the closure of the district’s only elementary and junior high school.

The exchange program, which started in May 1985 in what was then the village of Tomiyama, was designed to send city kids ranging in age from the second grade of elementary school through junior high to Tomiyama to live and go to the local school for a year so they could experience rural life while living in a dormitory under the care of instructors.

The program was also meant to keep Tomiyama Elementary and Junior High School open even though the number of children in the small village was dropping.

When the village merged with Toyone in 2005, administration of the exchange program moved to Tomiyama Exchange Center, an NPO run by local residents.

But last June, the administration in Toyone decided that renovating the school building to make it earthquake-resistant would cost too much and proposed shutting down the school in March 2015, which would mean the end of the exchange program as well.

Currently, 11 children ranging from fourth-graders to third-year junior high students from cities, including Nagoya, Toyohashi and Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, are taking part in the exchange program.

The five instructors who oversee the Seizanso dorm are now busy with preparations for finding suitable candidates for the 2014 academic year, the program’s last. Owing to various limitations, only third- and fifth-graders in elementary school and first- and second-year junior high students will be accepted this time.

The instructors have mixed feelings about the imminent shutdown.

“I was shocked. It’s such a pity because the students have just begun to open up and accept us,” said Aoi Ugajin, of Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, who took up the job in the dorm in May.

Since the village merger, a joint public-private venture called Mokaru Tomiyama has been running and managing public facilities.

Toyone plans to merge Tomiyama Exchange Center and Mokaru Tomiyama and start a new group to boost development in the area, but no details have been decided.

All five instructors say they wish to continue living in Tomiyama and contribute to the village.

“I will try to think positively and use this as an opportunity to accept new challenges,” said Hirotaka Nishii, 32, leader of the instructors.

Nishii has recently obtained a hunting license in the hope that hunting deer, which are deemed a problem for farmers, could be turned into some kind of project to revitalize the region.

“We should change the way we think and come up with different ways to boost the village,” said 36-year-old Hisahito Morimoto.

The village these days has a population of just 130 and the five young instructors have become indispensable.

Yutaka Yamamoto, 63, chairman of Tomiyama Exchange Center, says the district has a lot of potential. “I want to create a group that can fully utilize the skills of young people to revitalize the village,” he said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Sept. 28.