Nagoya – It’s not something you typically see: a South Indian Masters graduate and former architectural designer assisting with freeze-drying traditional food items in a remote village in mountainous Yamagata Prefecture. But for Priya Mu, that’s just part of the job.
Mu is a community intern for the village of Nakatsugawa (not to be confused with the town of the same name in Gifu Prefecture), named one of the 100 most beautiful villages in Japan for its unique landscape, fronting a dramatic mountain range, and well-preserved customs and culture, including snow festivals in both winter and summer. Working closely with local village leaders, Mu assists farmhouse bed-and-breakfasts to develop their nōhaku Eigo — service-industry language skills that help improve communication with foreign visitors — and documents the stories and experiences of locals in audio and video.
“Everyone is so warm and kind, and they don’t treat me as an outsider,” Mu says. “Especially the seniors, they tell me stories of how life used to be here and how things have changed over time.”
While it fancies itself as a one-of-a-kind village, Nakatsugawa faces the same daunting challenge that plagues countless countryside communities: an aging, shrinking population that results in, among other things, falling tax revenues. Some young people, who have long abandoned their rural hometowns in favor of the opportunity of Japan’s big cities, have been returning to the countryside as of late, but the overall depopulation has left towns such as Nakatsugawa incredibly vulnerable.
That’s where Mu comes in. Along with her impressive resume, she brings an outsider’s perspective to one of the biggest issues affecting Japan.
“In order to find more people to move in, we need more sustainable economic opportunities,” she says. “By living here and working with the local community, we were able to test out several new ideas. Some of them, like the freeze-dry test, went really well and have the potential to turn into something that can support the local economy.”
The importance of resilience
Making Mu a community intern wasn’t just a one-off move by Nakatsugawa’s leaders. Rather, it’s a part of a coordinated strategy to promote long-term growth and sustainability for the village, led by town leaders and community consultant Adam Fulford. Fulford, a long-time language consultant for NHK programs, got involved with Nakatsugawa after it won the beautiful villages competition in 2014, and was asked by the local development council to advise on ways to increase the number of foreign visitors.
The resulting strategy, dubbed Shuraku OS — “shūraku” being a Japanese word for “village,” the “OS” meaning “operating system” — seeks to create a path to greater independence for the country’s rural communities. Using sustainable development goals and traditional “resilience values” as guiding forces, Shuraku OS provides a suite of solutions for villages that includes a local Future Committee, a community intern, English-language training, support for university and corporate trips and trainings, and marketing assistance to generate more value out of local products.
“Resilience” is the key word here. On Oct. 24, a morning-long YouTube stream launch of the project brought together a diverse group of individuals from the international community to present what Fulford calls a “video bento.” Fulford and a dozen other participants gave 10-minute presentations on the meaning of resilience and how rural communities can promote a more resilient and sustainable way of life for all.
“COVID-19 has drawn everyone’s attention to the fragile nature of contemporary urban life,” Fulford says. “When the going is good, convenience culture works. But with each new opportunity to think only of one’s own pleasure and comfort and safety, we are making it more difficult for all of us to cope when the going gets tough.”
Professor Ryuzo Furukawa of Tokyo City University interviewed hundreds of people over the age of 90 to find out about life before our so-called age of convenience. As a result of these interviews, he identified 44 lifestyle “resilience values” as common elements — mainly bonds with nature, family and the community. In his talk during the video bento event, he emphasized that these values can’t be applied piecemeal.
“Our bond with nature is the base of the pyramid,” Furakawa said. “Convenience has weakened our bond with nature. The base of the pyramid is starting to crumble.”
Disparate values on the list, like “make preserved foods,” “simple, everyday meals,” “mending and using carefully,” “giving guests a good welcome” and “feeling grateful for the gift of life” only come together when they are applied as a whole, cohesive way of life, according to Furukawa.
Fulford sees the revitalization of rural Japanese villages as a two-way street — the villages need migrants, tourists and economic opportunities, and the broader world can gain from the wisdom, culture and resilience strategies that have been preserved in villages such as Nakatsugawa.
“We need to think about what valuable survival items we may have dropped on the long and difficult path to the convenient present,” Fulford says.
An international effort
The next step in the project is what Fulford dubs the “Shuraku Cloud.” While Shuraku OS is the operating system that empowers individual localities with community interns and English-language resources, Shuraku Cloud is the international network that these communities can tap into in order to share their successes with the rest of the world.
The video bento event, in effect, was a microcosm of the cloud idea. During the event, professor Masae Mitsuhashi from Tohoku University spoke about the workshops she puts on for elementary school students that apply the 44 resilience values in local communities. One workshop saw parents build a secret base in a forest next to the students’ school, which, in turn, got the kids outside and interacting with nature, while strengthening the bonds among parents in the community. The materials used were made by hand and reusable. Other workshops have included a beach clean-up done in English, and a reusable cutting-board crafts project.
Later in the event, Paul Wasswa spoke about his NGO in rural Uganda that works with at-risk children to conduct sustainable agriculture; Fulford and Mu gave insights into the history and culture of Nakatsugawa, including intelligent, tech-free farming strategies that draw on the power of nature; and Yusuke Watanabe discussed the adaptability and creativity necessary to get by in a wheelchair. Author Karen Hill Anton told the story of her journey to thrive as a foreigner in rural Shizuoka Prefecture, the focus of her memoir “The View from Breast Pocket Mountain,” and Alex Kerr explored the beauty and power of the Heart Sutra, the topic of his latest book titled “Finding the Heart Sutra: Guided by a Magician, an Art Collector and Buddhist Sages from Tibet to Japan.”
“I envision Shuraku Cloud as an international community of communities,” Fulford says. “It might link a community in Uganda with a community in the mountains of Yamagata, or a town in England with a city in Brazil.”
The YouTube stream put on display the diverse knowledge and values of Japan’s international community, which appears to care deeply about rural villages. Starting at the end of this month, Fulford plans to post a new video talk every other week, featuring a similar diversity of topics: the life of a tea farmer, Nakatsugawa’s one-of-a-kind snow festival, making a business out of akiya (Japan’s empty houses) and an initiative to re-employ the economically vulnerable in Japan’s IT industry.
Fulford sees promoting the growth of struggling rural communities while also inspiring global resilience as a natural nexus of activities.
“Some people may think that Japan’s villages are simply doomed,” he says. “Others, like me, can see buried cultural treasures glinting in those communities.”
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