Staff writer AYA, Miyazaki Pref. — A small window on the upper floor of a two-story log house offers a magnificent view of mountains covered in dense deciduous forests of various color gradations. This landscape, coupled with the area’s policy of promoting organic agriculture, prompted Teruhiko and Mitsuko Kimura to move from Chiba Prefecture to this small town, located in central Miyazaki Prefecture. The pair bucked the usual trend of heading toward a big city, and more Japanese may follow a similar path in coming years as the country reflects on the negative impact of excessive centralization. However, whether people opt to live in nonurban areas still largely depends on how successful small communities are in actively utilizing their unique merits — be they natural, historical or service-related. In a country where most rural economies are pinned to a particular local industry — and thus subject to harsh fluctuations — drawing the urbanite to the countryside can be tricky. But in the Kimuras’ case, it was an easy decision. “When I first came here, I immediately thought ‘This is it!'” says Teruhiko Kimura, 57, an illustrator. “We decided to move without giving deep thought to other things, like the local economy.” His wife agrees, noting the water flowing from the mountains is just superb. A total of 7,550 hectares, about 80 percent of the town’s area, is forest, and its water has been designated as among the country’s cleanest. The couple moved here in March 1993 and spent three years building the log house, which they now run as a pension. Their meals are comprised of all-organic produce grown on their farm. The Kimuras are not the only newcomers to Aya. The town’s population grew from 7,309 in 1985 to 7,490 in March 1999 — a small but rare increase at a time when most remote and rural municipalities are suffering from depopulation. But Aya has not always enjoyed population growth. Back in the early 1960s, Aya was called “yonige no machi” — the town people run away from at night — reminisces former Mayor Minoru Goda, 81, who took the initiative in the town’s revitalization. At that time, many lost work after the town’s sole industry of forestry declined. “It was terrible back then. People were just leaving one after another.” Goda said. “In the end, we had no doctors left in the town.” To stem the depopulation trend, Goda promoted organic agriculture, hoping it would make local residents healthier and offer a unique attraction — chemical-free produce. To help residents understand and participate in local administration, Goda encouraged discussions about various issues facing the town. He also tried to take the long view. “What local administrators need to do is not just fulfill the current needs of local residents, but introduce measures that contribute to the future prosperity of the municipality,” he says. Thanks to Goda’s strenuous efforts to prevent the logging of Aya’s forests, 3,302 hectares of it have been kept intact. To boost appreciation of this treasure, a large suspension bridge was built in 1983. Other tourist spots, including a renovated Aya Castle and a “shochu” spirits distillery, attract about 1.2 million people annually. Despite its heavy reliance on tax grants from the central government — which comprise about 40 percent of its total revenue — Aya is viewed as a success story in curbing depopulation. Oita University professor Makoto Abe said Aya’s success can be attributed to the promotion of organic farming, which has found a niche market. “Because Aya started producing organic produce early, it has established its place in the market and has succeeded in creating its own brand,” Abe says. “It was also good that measures Aya took to revitalize the town not only contributed to creating business but also improving the quality of life of the townspeople.” Aya is just one example of a local government trying to revitalize its town by utilizing its natural and human resources while protecting the environment and the quality of life of the residents. Many towns have been prompted to take other tacks in the fight for survival — a fight made necessary, critics claim, by the failure of the central government’s strategy for land and industrial development. Since the first land development plan was drawn up in 1962 under the Comprehensive National Land Development Act, the central government has designated areas for the promotion of certain industries, such as heavy industries in the 1960s and high-tech industries in the 1980s. However, the downside of this policy was that it accelerated rural depopulation and created municipalities dependent either on subsidies from the central government or on industries invited from outside, making them vulnerable to the performance of those industries, said Shigeru Suzuki, a professor of economics at Matsuyama University in Ehime Prefecture. Noting such problems caused by national land planning over the past half-century, the latest plan, subtitled “Grand Design for the 21st Century” and approved by the Cabinet in March 1998, calls for transforming the current situation — the overconcentration in the Tokyo metropolis — into one in which development is regionally distributed. While the plan, targeted for introduction by 2015, calls for building nature-rich residential areas and renovating metropolitan areas, critics say it mainly sticks to the old standbys: large-scale public works projects like highway and airport construction. While many municipalities have become accustomed to simply following the central government’s industrial development plan, the city of Niihama in Ehime Prefecture is trying to revitalize itself now that its prosperity as an industrial city supported by the Sumitomo group has begun to wane. Niihama developed hand-in-hand with Sumitomo Besshi Mine, which originally opened in 1691. The city has grown as an industrial complex hosting various Sumitomo group companies, including Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. and Sumitomo Chemical Co. At its peak in 1980, the city’s total industrial shipments amounted to 598.3 billion yen.However, after the oil crisis and the ensuing recession in the 1980s hit these industries, industrial shipments plunged to 381.4 billion yen in 1987 and the number of people employed in the city fell to 10,517 in 1995 from 17,364 in 1972, although some businesses succeeded by adapting to new growing industries, according to Matsuyama University’s Suzuki. The city’s population also dropped to 129,432 in 1999 from 135,396 in 1981. To revitalize the city, the local government and a citizens’ group are now planning various activities by exploiting its industrial heritage. As most industries have been managed by Sumitomo firms, materials and sites embodying the history of industrial development are well preserved, according to city official Tateo Moriga. “The city has the history of Japan’s modern industrial development stretching to the present,” Moriga said. “Industrial heritage helps us learn about technological development, the importance of which should be passed on to the next generation.” Public involvement is making the revitalization a success. A civic group formed last July is organizing various activities to learn the history of the city and the mining industry that played an important role in Niihama’s development. “By learning about the roots of the city, we may find the principle that will guide the city in the future,” says Kazuko Maehara, 44, a member of the group. Maehara was born at one of Niihama’s Sumitomo company residences as her father worked for the mine. She left the city with her family at age 10 when her father was transferred, but came back when she was about 30. The city wants to reinvigorate itself as an “industrial museum city” where locals and outsiders can learn the process of industrial and technological development up to the present by visiting various sites scattered within a 20-km radius. As part of its plan, the municipality in 1991 opened the theme park Minetopia Besshi, which tells visitors about the mining industry and its history. It attracts about 320,000 visitors annually. The city is also making a map that describes the heritage sites. As a long-term goal, the city hopes to foster new technology or industries. “Niihama has always been an industrial city that placed importance on manufacturing,” Moriga says. “Protecting and learning from our industrial heritage will help nurture the spirit of developing innovative technology.” Yamagata Prefecture’s town of Mogami aims to create jobs not through the usual superfluous public works projects, but by upgrading welfare services. The town hopes in the process to become a more attractive place to live. So far the program has been a success, creating 300 jobs. The overall economic effect of the welfare-related industry in Mogami totals about 920 million yen, about the same amount as the total annual income from rice farming, the town’s main industry. Mogami, whose population of 12,016 is 25 percent made up of people aged 65 or older, has created a system in which staff at medical, welfare and public health sections can coordinate their work to improve the quality and efficiency of services. It has also built a comprehensive health-care center, comprising a hospital, a seniors’ home, a welfare center and a gymnasium. Minoru Tanaka, a town official in charge of the health care and welfare section, says the town tries to hire people living in the municipality and purchase goods locally to keep money circulating within the town. In order to acquire skilled workers, it is encouraging high schools to offer welfare-related classes so more students will get involved in the field. Located in the center of the Tohoku region, the town, which gets snow as deep as 2 meters in winter, initially focused on creating a place where people can stay healthy and lead comfortable lives. The measures it introduced, beginning in 1973, have helped reduce the number of senior citizens who become bedridden or homebound, according to Tanaka. While municipalities and their residents struggle to find ways to revitalize, the improvement and spread of information technology may bring fundamental changes to local administration as well as to local-central government relations, according to Mie Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa. “The current information revolution will create a borderless society and destroy (existing) hierarchies,” Kitagawa says. “Decentralization is inevitable, whether one likes it or not.” Believing that the places that master information will prosper, the Mie Prefectural Government is targeting IT, including experimenting with a virtual university that connects with other universities within and outside of Japan on the Internet. Kitagawa says he also thinks the information revolution that prompts disclosure of local government information will encourage more citizens to participate in local administration. “Citizens should not sit back in their seats,” he said. “The information revolution will usher in true democracy in which citizens play the central role.”
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