Nation’s smaller islands championed by self-starting Web, print publisher

by Yuzo Suwa

Kyodo

As editor-in-chief of the Rito Keizai Shimbun, an online newspaper dedicated to covering the cultures and industries of Japan’s hundreds of small islands, Atsuko Isamoto will sometimes spend as much as half a month on one.

Isamoto, 30, founded the site at ritokei.com in October 2010 to help the denizens of these generally rustic isles promote their unique cultures, arts, cuisines and industries.

Based in Tokyo, Rito Keizai also prints a quarterly tabloid called Ritokei.

The latest Ritokei, the sixth edition, features 100 island specialties. It also covers the activities of young people working to revitalize their communities and those who have moved to the islands, as well as local fishermen and farmers.

The full-color Ritokei has a circulation of 15,000 and a cover price of ¥680.

“To rejuvenate the islands, local people’s affections, gratitude and pride in their islands are of absolute importance and should constitute the core (of their efforts),” Isamoto said during a recent interview.

Japan has 418 of these inhabited smaller islands.

In October, Isamoto went to Kashiwa Island, a community with a population of around 400 located about 600 meters off Minato port in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture. It takes eight minutes on a commuter ferry.

Masayuki Takasaki, 61, head of the island’s community association, described for Isamoto how the Karatsu Municipal Government shut down the island’s 135-year-old elementary school two years ago, merging it with one on the mainland. He blamed the declining population.

“Whatever we do, costs are high (since a boat is needed to bring goods to the island) and the community is aging and no jobs are available for young people,” Takasaki said.

Tomoko Tsuchiya, 44, who belongs to a group aiming to revitalize Karatsu, lamented the school’s closure.

“Without an elementary school, we can’t organize any events, such as a sports festival involving local residents,” she said. “Since the principal and teachers as well as their families left the island, the population has declined even further.

“I wonder if merging schools was truly a good solution,” Tsuchiya said.

During her visit to the island, Isamoto also tasted local specialties, such as Ishiwari Dofu, a richly textured tofu made from four or more times the amount of soybeans in regular tofu.

“This is delicious,” the journalist said of the dish. According to legend, it was brought back by 16th-century warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi after his invasion of the Korean Peninsula.

“It will be popular at restaurants in such cities as Fukuoka and Tokyo if we tout it with the local legend,” she said. “If we find a stable distribution route, we might be able to boost production and hire some people.”

Isamoto acknowledged that all she can do is suggest ideas.

“What we need the most for revitalizing the community is a local resident who can take the management risk and work hard on the island,” she said.

Isamoto, who was born and raised in a mountainous area in Hita, Oita Prefecture, has loved writing and drawing pictures since her childhood.

After graduating from a beautician school in Fukuoka, Isamoto found a job at a fashion magazine but left after around a year and a half due to fatigue from working with very few days off.

Moving to Tokyo with the dream of becoming an illustrator, she worked as an advertising director for a business magazine while also going to art school.

But Isamoto said she felt that job wasn’t right for her either and decided she wanted to be working for herself by the time she turned 30.

She then went to Ikejiri Institute of Design in Setagaya Ward. The institute supports creative people in various fields and offers assistance in starting a business.

Isamoto said she got an inspiration one weekend while drinking with her fellow students.

“We know that each island has its own culture and specialties, and I wondered why they were not being promoted and thought we should do something.”

In the past two years, the Rito Keizai Shimbun has failed to turn a profit. But it has organized tours to remote islands and is currently aiming for annual sales of ¥35 million.

Isamoto said her business has finally gotten on track with the workforce increasing to a total of three.

“My mother recently sent me a family newspaper I created when I was in elementary school, saying, ‘You made a paper in years past, too,’ ” Isamoto said. “So this must be my lifetime job.”