At the inaugural Satoyama Consortium symposium organized by The Japan Times on May 16 in Tokyo, municipal leaders discussed the possibilities of economic activities stemming from efforts involving “satoyama capitalism,” a concept recently promoted in Japan to take advantage of natural resources in satoyama, which are rural communal woodlots that are shared and maintained by local residents. A similar concept in relation to the ocean is called satoumi.

At the session, Hidehiko Yuzaki, governor of Hiroshima Prefecture; Eikei Suzuki, governor of Mie Prefecture; and Gen Nakagawa, mayor of Nara, shared their thoughts on this topic. Hiroki Kuriyama, head of strategic business development and in charge of the 2020 Project at NTT Corp., moderated the discussion.

The following are translated excerpts from the discussion.

Kuriyama: Let me ask two questions to start with. Firstly, we will be talking about satoyama, but it is essentially the same as discussing the symbiosis of humans and nature. So could you introduce some of the policies related to the theme that you are focusing on as a municipality?

Secondly, can you please tell us about some policies particularly designed to deal with satoyama and satoumi?

Hidehiko Yuzaki
Hidehiko Yuzaki

Yuzaki: Almost all policies related to people and nature are about satoyama and satoumi. Above all, our main focus is on human resource development. To be honest, we are facing the dilemma of how to promote the idea of satoyama capitalism as a local government. I feel that too much involvement of the government is likely to result in failure. Things usually don’t go well when the government takes the lead and tries new things, one after another. For example, offering subsidies, creating frameworks, introducing ordinances and so on. But doing nothing also raises questions about our role, putting us in a very difficult position.

What is the appropriate level of involvement? I think it is to offer help in human resource development, and build a network among different projects dealing with the field. For instance, facilitating the exchange of examples and introducing projects through various means, including the internet. We have already been trying these things.

” ‘Hito Yume’ Mirai Juku” (roughly, “Workshop for the future: people and dreams”) organized by Hiroshima Prefecture is one of the examples. It is a series of seminars in which participants actually plan and carry out projects to use the resources of satoyama and satoumi in business activities or regional revitalization. We also held “Satoyama Miraihaku” (approximately, “Expo on the future of satoyama”), an exposition to promote the future of satoyama last year. Many projects were launched in various parts in Hiroshima in connection with the expo serving as platforms for human resource development.

These kinds of activities help us find people with networking abilities, business talents and other qualities as leaders. So, what we are working on next is Hiroshima Satoyama Team 500, a project to find 500 such people, offering them opportunities to interact with each other and help them become regional leaders. They will be the core for the future activities in each region.

Eikei Suzuki
Eikei Suzuki

Suzuki: I would like to talk about ama, professional female divers who harvest marine products, because I think their way of life is a typical example of the symbiosis of humans and nature, and the activity to produce new economic values using natural resources.

Nihon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”), an old history book written more than 1,000 years ago, contains a description of ama as fishing divers. There are about 1,500 ama divers in 17 prefectures in Japan, with Mie Prefecture having the largest number of them. About half of the ama divers in Japan are in the Toba and Shima areas of Mie.

What is respectable about our ama divers is that they have their own rules to prevent themselves from overfishing. For example, there is a village that only lends out one wetsuit set per family, even if there are three ama divers in the house. If all divers in the area start fishing at the same time, they may end up depleting resources. The fishing area is also divided into six zones that are used in turn each year. Ama divers are practicing a sustainable use of resources by themselves.

Our support as a local government includes the promotion of fishery and tourism, and the preservation of ama culture as a cultural heritage. To increase ama divers’ income from catching abalone, we are planning to introduce a way to grow abalone larger so they are easier for the divers to catch. We have been helping them generate revenue by accepting tourists at amagoya, or ama huts. These places used to be only for the divers to rest and get warm, but now tourists can enjoy seafood caught by the divers. The preservation of the ama culture as a cultural heritage is exactly the kind of thing that can only be achieved with the involvement of the public administration. The traditional free-diving fishing method has been designated a cultural property by the prefecture since I took office as the governor of Mie. It has recently become a national cultural property as well.

Gen Nakagawa
Gen Nakagawa

Nakagawa: In our case in Nara, a city known for the Great Buddha and deer, the key industry is tourism in areas with World Heritage sites. About 15 million people visit the city of Nara annually.

However, the problem is that tourists visiting Nara tend to stay for only short periods of time. We are trying to use the resources of satoyama in a bid to increase the length of tourist stays. There are about seven old settlements that can be reached within about 20 minutes by car from the center of the city. We are in the process of promoting the use of farmhouses as minpaku (private lodging services) in collaboration with local farming families. We already have 36 families that are willing to accept visitors.

Looking at the global trend, tourism demand will undoubtedly increase. In participating in the global tourism market, it will be of great value for Japan to further appeal its colorful charms to the world. I believe that satoyama resources can be used effectively in diversifying the values of Japan from global perspectives.

Kuriyama: Now the keyword “minpaku” has been mentioned. Gov. Yuzaki, I hear that Hiroshima is quite aggressive in promoting it.

Yuzaki: To be precise, we want to promote it more aggressively. Various kinds of laws and regulations, such as the minpaku law, the Hotel Business Act, the Fire Service Act and the Building Standards Act got in the way in the process of promoting minpaku business, so we appealed to the national government to be more flexible. I think our claims have been accepted to some extent.

Mayor Nakagawa has just used a wonderful word. I think “colorful” means “diverse.” Most cities have the same shops and they look the same. I want people to see various places that are more real and flavored with history, but I don’t think those who are in the actual field are sharing the same awareness yet.

Hiroki Kuriyama
Hiroki Kuriyama

Kuriyama: What do you mean by “those who are in the actual field?”

Yuzaki: I mean those who have the vacant houses. They are having a hard time making those spaces useful. It costs money and effort to rent them out, so they tend to become reluctant. We need someone who leads and motivates them. This is exactly where human resource development is needed.

There are some successful examples in urban areas. In Onomichi, Hiroshima, a woman started the restoration of kominka old traditional houses. The project grew bigger and involved a lot of people. Dozens of such houses have been renovated as shops and accommodations, as well as residences for migrants.

Kuriyama: Gov. Suzuki, how are the regional leaders fostered in Mie?

Suzuki: The water of the Choshi River in the town of Kihoku is extremely pure. It’s so clean and clear the leader of a local nonprofit organization (NPO) is committed to introducing this beautiful river to more people.

I think it is important to support the people who stand up with the sense of urgency and pride in their hometown. The support should be provided in a way that they can continue their activities even after government assistance ends.

Kuriyama: May I have a comment on this from you, Mayor Nakagawa?

Nakagawa: Just as Gov. Suzuki mentioned, the best way is to put administrative resources where there is a sense of urgency and pride. In Nara, we devote resources to where there are possibilities, then observe for a certain period of time to see if they work, and withdraw if they don’t. We should take the risk of failures as the government following trial and error efforts.

Yuzaki: It is indeed important to help the regions that have passion and pride. The realization of satoyama capitalism is an economic activity to produce the cycle of economy by using the resources of satoyama, and to prevent outflow of economic values. So it does not work without the involvement of regions and people. All successful examples show a great deal of engagement from the regions.

Suzuki: Satoyama capitalism, satoyama and satoumi work well with themes such as diversity and active social participation of women.

There is an NPO named Mother’s Life Supporter in Suzuka, Mie. It is an organization that consists of mothers who have children from newborn to four years old. The mothers are divided into three groups: the work team, the child care team and the standby team. While the work team farms in the field near the mountain, the mothers of the child care team look after the children of their own and those of the women on the work team in a vacant house nearby. The standby team can substitute for whoever needs to leave due to the health conditions of their child.

The number of farming populations are decreasing in general. This is a model in which women of child-rearing age create economic values by participating in farming while their children are taken care of by their colleagues who are also mothers. Moreover, they are even making a vacant house useful again. I think it is a good idea to look at the resources of satoyama from the perspective of women, or in the context of diversity to produce new and sustainable economic values.

Nakagawa: The important point is that multiple themes are dealt with at the same time. In other words, it is about how to multitask. In Nara, the administrative services, such as water and sewerage in the mountainous regions, is unprofitable, so we are studying the possibility of using the national government subsidy in operating the water and sewerage on a concession basis. For example, one person would collect garbage in the morning, drive a school bus and operate a gas station in the afternoon, and provide plumbing services when necessary. I think there are many tasks that can be performed by one person both in communities and public sectors that would make management ideas easier.

Kuriyama: All three of the leaders have World Heritage sites in each city or prefecture. How are you going to use those assets in boosting the pride and motivation of the local people or as tourism and cultural resources?

Nakagawa: Nara’s Great Buddha is an overwhelming symbol of the city, but it is attracting so much attention that a variety of other tourism resources we have are hardly appreciated; this is our dilemma.

We, as a local government, often wonder what the purpose of tourism could be. People tend to start seeking mental contentment when they already have enough of everything in life. In that sense, the effect that satoyama can have on people’s minds seems to have the quality to satisfy the needs in tourism. Instead of coming to see a building or a Buddha statue just because it is the oldest or the biggest in Japan, we want visitors to understand the underlying concept of the place.

At the time when the Great Buddha was built (completed in 752), an epidemic had spread, wars had occurred and there was societal unrest. Why would anyone want to spend a vast amount of money to make a statue in a time like that? What were his feelings and how was the leadership of Emperor Shomu, who instructed the creation of the huge Buddha in just a decade? These kinds of themes are universal and inspiring to all people, regardless of nationality.

So, the way to make the best use of World Heritage sites is to share the understanding of why they are there, and to learn from the way of thinking, philosophy and life of the people who have preserved those assets until today. The concept of the Great Buddha had originally been the creation of the world where all living things, including animals and plants, prosper together. If you translate it into the modern world, it is the life of satoyama itself. Trips with such revelations will offer awareness and learning that international travelers can bring back to their own lives.

Suzuki: In terms of World Heritage sites, we have the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. There is the Magose Pass, Matsumoto Pass and other well-known spots on the routes leading into mountains, and at the same time, Shichiri Mihama Beach and the Kumano River that form part of the routes are also designated as World Heritage sites. I think the whole series of the World Heritage sites of the Kumano Kodo is like a combination of all elements of satoyama and satoumi.

Our current focus is on building a closer and deeper network of people and helping the transition of generations. We want to increase the number of people who make a deep commitment to the region: those who love the Kumano Kodo, walk the routes again and again and put effort into their preservation. The people who can tell old tales of the Kumano Kodo are aging, so we also want to help them hand down the role to the younger generation.

Yuzaki: We have the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or the Genbaku Dome, and Itsukushima Shrine, which is on the island of Miyajima. I don’t think the Genbaku Dome is part of satoyama (because it is located in the middle of the city), but Miyajima is an island blessed with abundant nature. However, the island is not categorized as part of satoyama or satoumi because it is considered a sacred island and no human intervention is allowed. It is totally different from satoyama, which is kept beautiful with the involvement of people.

Still, of course we want people coming to see these sites to enjoy their visits. I hope that they really get to know the real and diverse Japan, and regions with thousands of years of history.

Kuriyama: Lastly, may I have a concluding comment from Gov. Suzuki who is also the vice-chairman of the Japan Times Satoyama Consortium management committee?

Suzuki: Finding many partners will draw more attention to satoyama and satoumi, promoting deeper understanding that will then lead to sustainability. That is what I want the society to be like.

Kuriyama: Japan will be hosting the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2020. The Rugby World Cup and the G-20 summit will be held in 2019. These coming years are full of opportunities for our movements to expand and reach out to the world. Thank you very much.

Download the PDF of this Satoyama Consortium Special