‘Inaka’ taps city disenchanted to repopulate>Staff writer

IWAMI, Shimane Pref. — Who got Keiko Takagaki pregnant? This town did.

And here’s how.

Three years ago, the Tokyo office worker read a newspaper story about Iwami recruiting women to work at its European Herb Garden. Takagaki qualified — she was single, under 35 and eager to try “inaka” (country) life.

Soon she was cultivating herbs in a greenhouse overlooking a valley carpeted with rice paddies and dusted with farmhouses.

Now, she is married to one of Iwami’s sons — a shop owner and farmer who is staying put.

Takagaki and her child, due early 2000, are the offspring of the town’s effort to revitalize itself and stem depopulation.

Eleven of the 36 women the mountain town of 6,675 has recruited to work at its herb garden still live here, not counting six others still in their one-year training period.

“At the beginning,” explained recruit supervisor Isao Kanayama, “we told the town’s residents that this project was for finding brides. But when it came to outside the town, we announced it as an exchange program.

“We used two explanations because we knew if we told the town it was mainly an exchange program, some people would be against it. The fact is, this is an exchange program.”

All the same, Takagaki learned to be wary of the town people’s expectations. “But I accidently slipped into the pond,” she said with a smile.

Iwami’s 7-year-old project is one of the more ambitious schemes in a prefecture trying to replenish its population with the help of so-called I-turn people — city-born Japanese who move to the inaka.

Traditionally, the Sanin region — comprising Shimane and Tottori prefectures and the northern part of Yamaguchi Prefecture — has not conjured up an appealing image to outsiders.

If the Sanyo region — the industrial belt running from the city of Yamaguchi to the city of Okayama — is the “shiny” side of western Honshu, then the Sanin — with its overreliance on farming and semi-isolation on the other side of the Chugoku Mountains — is the “shadowy” side.

Prefectures try other tacks

With a foot in both regions, Yamaguchi has less need to pour money and time into untested city folk to rebuild its stock.

Instead, the prefecture’s recruitment drive mostly targets U-turn people — rural Japanese who have moved to cities and want to return.

Of all 47 prefectures, Tottori has the smallest population and Shimane the second-smallest. But neither has the industrial base nor the appeal to keep its young people.

In 1992, the Labor Ministry designated the two prefectures and districts in five others — Akita, Iwate, Niigata, Oita and Kumamoto — as underdeveloped areas in need of special funding.

Tottori places far less emphasis than Shimane on recruiting outside the region. Instead, the prefecture — after pointing outside inquiries in the right direction — leaves it up to individual towns and villages to sell themselves, said Koichiro Imoto, deputy head of Tottori’s Furusato (Hometown) Settlement Organization.

Shimane meanwhile uses Tokyo’s money to fund its Matsue-based recruiting arm — the Furusato Permanent Resident Foundation.

The group acts as a go-between — much like the “omiai” system of pairing up strangers who want to marry — for rural towns, villages and businesses in the prefecture trying to attract outsiders. “No other foundation is as original as ours,” boasted its section chief, Noritoshi Nitta.

To give city people a taste of country life without having to commit to it, the foundation subsidizes “trainees” for work experience that can last between one week and one year.

In Iwami, the 50,000 yen monthly stipend, when added to what the town contributes, boosts a trainee’s wage to 130,000 yen a month. This is on top of free accommodations in a spacious dorm house.

However, most of the 108 long-term (three months to one year) projects the foundation has helped underwrite throughout Shimane in the last four years have taken on only one or two I-turn people.

The projects are usually small-scale, ranging from fishing and organic farming schemes to apprenticeships in pottery and gravestone masonry.

Wooing trainees

The main point for most schemes, big or small, is to get the trainees to stay — as long as they are compatible.

“They don’t want people who are jobless and want to join their projects for the moment,” Nitta said. “And they don’t want those who are unrealistic.”

Even though Iwami calls on its trainees to work at least a year in its herb garden, it still attracts about 10 times more applicants than it needs for the six vacancies each year.

The town can afford to be choosy because the kind of agricultural experience it offers is not the traditional get-mucky, rice-and-cow variety, Kanayama points out.

Another mountain town that has combined its desire to boost its population with the need to diversify agricultural products is Nita.

Instead of recruiting I-turn people on a trial basis for its mushroom scheme, six years ago Nita asked eight families from outside the prefecture to move to the town indefinitely.

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that 118 families from all over the country applied.

Yoshikazu Kawasaki, 48, moved to the town of 8,906 with his wife and three daughters after working 21 years as a Nissan mechanic in Sadowara, Miyazaki Prefecture. In return for their commitment, Nita provided the Kawasaki family with two mushroom houses to tend and a new two-story home that came with a cheap mortgage.

The Kawasaki family will get to keep their mushroom houses after 12 years of paying rent on them — but only if they stay.

Although a lot of money and effort is being spent in Shimane on finding I-turn stayers like the Kawasakis and Iwami’s Keiko Takagaki, people raised in the city don’t really know if they will adapt to insular inaka life until they try, notes Nitta of the Furusato foundation.

The foundation has adopted a unique method of sprinkling I-turn prospects around Shimane and then waiting to see who takes root. But many don’t.

Of the 323 I-turn people the foundation has sponsored on long stays in the prefecture so far, only 36 percent stayed after their work experience ended. It doesn’t have figures for how long.

Still, to many urban Japanese during this postbubble recession, the grass is looking greener on the other side of the Chugoku Mountains.

When two of the original eight I-turn families pulled out of Nita after just 1 1/2 years, two others from Chiba and Osaka prefectures jumped at the chance to take their place.

Tomari ensures place in history with ‘ground golf’ rules>TOMARI, Tottori Pref. — It is estimated that 1 1/2 million people play “ground golf” regularly in Japan. And every one of them should have heard of this seaside village.

When Tomari invented ground golf 15 years ago, it ensured its association with the game by inserting itself in the rules. Players are supposed to say the name every time they count a shot: “One Tomari,” “Two Tomari,” etc.

According to Kageo Nagahama, manager of Tomari’s permanent ground golf course, the village learned a lesson from the problem that befell the pastime’s even more successful cousin, gateball. Several towns throughout Japan claim to have invented gateball — a streamlined version of croquet for the elderly — and none got the credit.

With its wooden mallets and Frisbee-size rings instead of cups, ground golf resembles mini golf as the Flintstones might have played it. But when the Tomari Board of Education set out to create a simple, fun activity for the village’s senior citizens, it struggled to hit upon a workable concept.

Nagahama says the “That’s it!” moment did not strike until numerous ideas had been discarded and many trips had been made to Osaka University of Education to consult with professor Hitoshi Shimazaki, a sports authority.

One day, while Shimazaki and two villagers were discussing an idea, “they looked out of (Shimazaki’s) office window and saw some students etching a circle into the sports ground with an umbrella,” Nagahama recounts. “Then they turned the umbrella over and began hitting a ball (toward the circle).

“That was a hint.”

The media, especially television, gave ground golf a boost at the beginning, because it was one of the few ripe fruits of an Education Ministry campaign to find new activities to fill retired people’s spare time.

The 6 million yen in development money that Tomari received, however, wasn’t enough to cover the cost of making equipment. When the board of education asked local woodcraft factories to help out, it was pooh-poohed as too risky, Nagahama says.

“They said: ‘We are too busy,’ ‘We have no time,’ and ‘Who knows if it will make money or not.’ We couldn’t make everything in Tomari,” he laments. “It’s a shameful story.”

Asics Corp., a sports equipment maker whose founder is a Tottori Prefecture native, took the gamble in exchange for exclusive rights to make the equipment. With a vested interest in its success, the firm promoted the game nationwide.

Now there is a ground golf association in every prefecture and 49 permanent courses sprinkled all over the archipelago, including 10 in the Sanin region.

Asics oversees the lucrative market for ground golf necessities, such as balls, pins and mallets — including short clubs for wheelchair players — as well as indoor sets and official fanny packs.

Tomari was slow to plant a preened, green facility of its own. Nagahama says the village was reluctant to tamper with its policy that ground golf, which takes its name from the dirt sports and school “grounds” it is usually played on, was a portable activity that could be played anywhere.

However, Tomari, with its population of 3,186, had to offer more than a sea view to the growing number of silver-haired fans who were making pilgrimages to the birthplace of the game.

The Tomari Ground Golf Course — the 22nd in Japan — was built seven years ago. Manicured trees and knee-high hedges border the 16 grass “fairways” of regulation size at 15 to 50 meters in length.

One-third of the 47,000 people who played there in 1998 came from outside Tottori Prefecture, and the course has to turn away senior teams for its annual place-of-origin tournament, Nagahama says.

It has been a slow gestation for Tomari to reap the rewards for its initiative.

But with the game making inroads into Hawaii, Taiwan, South Korea and China, this speck on the map may be poised to become one of the few places, along with Wimbledon and Green Bay, synonymous with a sport. (B.K.)

Foreigner’s PTA stint a drive to keep village alive>TAKI, Shimane Pref. — When Alex Wilds in April became one of only a handful of foreigners to head a Japanese parent-teacher association, he regarded it as an opportunity to have a say in his son’s kindergarten education.

Now, the sculptor from South Carolina is shepherding the campaign to keep the village of Tagi’s kindergarten open — and by extension, he argues, his village alive.

Wilds was transformed from chairman of the kindergarten’s PTA to self-appointed village voice in May. That’s when the town of Taki — comprising the villages of Tagi, Kikumura and Oda — asked parents of the 66 pupils at its three kindergartens and residents with infants if they wanted to merge the schools into a new, as yet unbuilt, facility.

The majority of those surveyed favor the new school, which would almost certainly be built in Oda. But a breakdown of the figures shows that most Tagi parents want their children to stay put.

Although the town hall remains mum on its next step, Wilds is riled that the questionnaire was just a formality. “I talked to enough members of the town council and others privately to learn that from the top down it was a done deal. We’re going to have it.”

At stake is more than the inconvenience of Tagi toddlers busing 16 km farther to kindergarten. In fact, Wilds’ 4-year-old son, Evan, will have joined his elder brother, Hajime, 8, at elementary school by the time the new kindergarten is built.

Most Tagi villagers, not just polled parents, are worried that the elementary school — to which the kindergarten is attached — would be next to go in a domino effect that began when the town hall moved from Tagi to Oda 12 years ago.

Taki, like so many rural towns, has been centralizing in recent years to cut costs and deal with depopulation and a falling birthrate.

The focus has been on the village with the biggest downtown — Oda, which straddles a busy national highway that pumps traffic up and down the Sanin coast. Taki’s junior high school, municipal “onsen” hot spring and retirement home are all there.

Tagi is a victim of the town’s policy of pouring all its resources into one pot, Wilds said.

“I think it’s like cannibalism. It’s the same thing as (saying) ‘There’s not enough food for you and me both, so I’ll just take it all and you can starve to death.'”

In August, Wilds organized a petition drive to go from door to far-flung door.

Up against a tight deadline to get the petition on the council’s agenda, about 160 villagers were asked if they wanted to keep their kindergarten, and 131 signed.

“Of the ones who didn’t sign,” Wilds said, “almost all were connected to the town hall.”

Kiyoshi Kawakami, a Taki town councilor and friend of Wilds, has “heard a rumor” that Tagi’s kindergarten and the other two will be centralized.

Although he is not sure the merger merits stirring up a fuss, he admires Wilds’ attitude.

“I respect his effort,” Kawakami said. “He loves Tagi much more than others of the same generation of local people.”

Wilds, 44, and his artist wife, Kazumi, 38, who hails from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, have earned the right to complain.

The couple moved to Tagi

6 1/2 years ago — a blessing to a place decimated by depopulation — and have spent hundreds of hours honing their patch of the village.

The Meiji Era farmhouse they restored and the rice field they cultivate lie beside the river boundary of Izumo and Iwami, the two ancient regions that make up 90 percent of Shimane Prefecture.

Castles once dotted this former buffer zone between feuding warlords. The symbolism to Tagi’s present struggle — albeit a far more timid one — is unmistakable.

This summer, Wilds built a sculpting workshop next to the house — out of timber from a razed temple.

He is developing ideas for revitalizing Tagi, too, including a national competition to build the “coolest” scarecrows for a scarecrow festival in the village and a market where farmers can sell organic food direct to buyers.

A real estate collective is his latest scheme.

“There are young people who would love to live here, but there’s no agency to help them find land or real estate or empty houses. … You can’t go banging on doors, this isn’t that kind of culture. You have to have a formal introduction from somebody.”

Tagi’s ability to help itself was taken away in the 1950s, when villages throughout Japan were consolidated into larger administrative “towns.” Areas that once may have had nothing to do with each other culturally and historically are now administered from the same — not necessarily central — office.

The gradual erosion of Tagi’s identity will also have a cultural twist if its kindergartners are centralized. They won’t be allowed to take a holiday to join in the village’s version of the “kagura” dance at the Tagi festival in October, as they do now.

“Things like the kagura exist in order to teach it to the children to keep it going,” Wilds said. “If the children aren’t allowed to go to the festival, the local kagura dance will die quickly.”

Still, the mayor must shake his head when he looks at the statistics: 48 children were enrolled in Tagi’s kindergarten 20 years ago, now there are 16.

The American and his fellow Tagi villagers are not against a new, consolidated kindergarten for the other two villages, they would just like to keep theirs where it is.

But they are up against the town’s policy of patching the leaky ship rather than saving the sinking boat.

Said Wilds, “We’re not asking them to give us anything. We’re just asking them not to hurt us.” (B.K.)

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