This is the second post featuring my master’s dissertation for the Graduate School of Advanced Studies in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies. You can read the first part here.
In these posts, I take a closer look at jimotogaku or “local learning” as a strategy for sustainable development in Japan’s rural areas. I became interested in the topic after having graduated in Japanese studies and developing a professional interest in sustainability (a field I currently work in). I had discussed the issue of depopulation from an academic perspective during my one year of study in Kobe, one of Japan’s biggest cities, but missed the actual, rural experience. For this research, I completed a two-month fieldwork period in rural Japan, while simultaneously interning at the Minamata-based Jimotogaku Network. Because of my ability to speak the language and understand the socio-cultural context, I was in a position to study the jimotogaku movement from the inside out, as well as examine it from a more objective standpoint.
Sustainable development strategies
Rural development, or ‘region-making’ (chiiki dzukuri) of less urbanized areas has been on the governmental agenda since the 1990s. During a period of high economic growth up until 1992, the countryside was “decorated” with attractions and leisure opportunities for domestic tourism (Love, 2013). Yet, the consequences of relentless industrialization on the one hand and the trend of depopulation on the other hand soon posed a threat for these areas. Due to four serious pollution scandals including the Minamata disease, environmental awareness spread among the population. Movements emerging in the 1970s voiced the Japanese experience of environmental injustice on the international scene (Avenell, 2017). Simultaneously, domestic conservation movements advocated sustainable landscape management such as satoyama. As will become clear later, jimotogaku strongly reflects the values and practices of these pioneering movements.
“The nature conservation movement of the 1960s in Japan was focused on conserving natural areas near human settlement while simultaneously opposing development on important remote natural areas. An effective method of preserving local nature was through local residents learning to recognize the beauty and wonder of nature through various events and activities. The conservation of satoyama landscapes required both the cessation of destructive development and adequate management. In the late 1980s, local movements began to appear that focused on satoyama landscape management.” (Kuramoto in Takeuchi e.a., 2003:23)
The concept of Satoyama remains actual to this day. The most recent and prominent, government-led action is the Satoyama initiative, launched in 2009 by the Ministry of the Environment and the United Nations University. Its mission is to promote satoyama and its seascape counterpart satoumi as sustainable models of “socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes”. The initiative has gained international recognition and has been adopted by over hundred organizations worldwide, many highlighting a similar model of landscape management in their own cultural context.
When concern for a shrinking society arose from the seventies on, countermeasures for depopulation and regional vitalization were promulgated every decade and implemented on national and local level (Hagihara & Hagihara in Asahi & Hagihara, 2016). Remarkable is that in 2000 and 2010, self-support promotion became the focal point of the agenda. Small, depopulated, economically uninteresting areas do not fit current politics, leading to an increasing disenfranchisement of the rural population. The beginning of the twenty-first century witnessed a proliferation of grassroots projects that taught locals how to become sustainable in an independent way, driven by a minimizing of subsidies and other financial support from the government for rural areas (Love in Münster e.a., 2014).
Responsibility for rebuilding affected regions was shifted towards NGOs, civil society groups, environmental movements and the locals – in the Minamata case, or the more recent Fukushima case, to the victims themselves – instead of being shouldered by authorities. Nomura and Abe (2009) noticed a similar approach in the education of sustainable development, of which the movement “was engineered largely by the Japanese state and was not in fact a ‘bottom-up’ collective action (as widely assumed, particularly at the onset)” (p. 484). Here we will take a closer look at Jimotogaku, a sustainable development strategy that emerged in the context of Minamata’s pollution scandal and tackles depopulation and financial struggles as well as environmental issues in the region and abroad.
The Jimotogaku Movement
The recent preoccupation of the Japanese government with densely populated urban areas and the draining of resources for less populated, rural areas sparked dissatisfaction among the inhabitants of the latter. A tea farmer in Minamata complained that more money was poured into enhancing Tokyo’s image for the Olympic Games of 2020 than into Kyushu’s development. Because the Games will not be profitable for rural areas, he felt ‘robbed’ of his subsidies. Moreover, current economic politics were not favorable to the region’s uniqueness of small-scale, traditional family businesses.
Despite a strong feeling of pride as a Kyushu resident, increasingly more rural inhabitants struggle with a disjointed Japanese identity. Kyushu plays an important role in Japanese mythology and history, often confirmed to me in claims such as “this is the oldest village mentioned in Japanese scriptures”, “here lived the most powerful clan of the Edo period” and “Kyushu is where legends started and the first emperor was born” et cetera.
A traditional fireplace builder in Mizukami village twisted his ankle and could not work for a couple of weeks. He told me that he was forced to spend his days watching television, and to his amazement – and boredom – it was always about Tokyo, a city that was Japanese yet felt foreign to him. More rural people I spoke with shared this sentiment: their country had lost interest in rural areas but continued to portray Japanese ‘traditional’ culture in an idealized rural setting. Many traveling agencies illustrate this by choosing words such as ‘the real Japan’, ‘authentic’ or ‘unspoilt’ to promote tourism on the countryside, often playing with the construction of furusato, ‘home town’.
“Turning complaint into self-governance” by taking pride in one’s home town and putting the unique features of its surrounding to use is a key message in the jimotogaku movement. Its origin lies in the aftermath of the Minamata disease, with close ties to the moyai naoshi movement. (One sidenote here: there are several jimotogaku movements in Japan that originated in other areas. In this post, we focus on Yoshimoto Jimotogaku.) Yoshimoto Tetsurō, civil servant at the time, organized empowering yorokai or ‘gatherings’ from July 1991 on to address the growing sense of crisis: not only were the consequences of the Minamata disease far from processed, the imminent depopulation threatened the city’s survival. Inhabitants felt that authorities had failed to improve the situation; it was time to take action on their own. Throughout several district and general gatherings, 210 people were brought together to share experiences and insights (Yoshimoto, 2008).
The emphasis was on how the area could be revived using resources that were already at hand. The result was the publication of hand-drawn local resource maps, displaying the valued natural assets of every district, and the tracing of water bodies. To facilitate the restoration of relationships between Minamata disease patients and other residents of the city, lectures, dialogue meetings and storytelling events on the topic were organized. In 1994, the movement was officially named Jimotogaku. Its practice spread throughout Japan and even abroad, with projects in Brazil and Vietnam through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
The Jimotogaku Philosophy and Method
The first maps and the many others that followed, aim at refuting the complaint of “there is nothing where I live”. Considering the gap between disillusioned rural and envied urban areas, jimotogaku turns the tables in favor of the countryside’s indispensable uniqueness. The city, for example, lacks the primary means of production such as agriculture, hunting and collecting edible plants (Yoshimoto, 2000). Jimotogaku literally translates as ‘home area study’ but is not an academic discipline. Its practitioners strongly emphasize the ‘lay’ and practical nature of jimotogaku. For that reason, I put forward the translation of ‘local learning’. At its core, jimotogaku encourages to “think global, act local” to revive rural areas that struggle with problems such as depopulation. In order to tackle such a crisis, “one should first look at what is at one’s feet”. It aims at creating a healthy environment in which people and the local economy can flourish. The symbiotic relationship with nature is of fundamental importance, hence the stress on pristine natural resources in which the concept of ‘environment’ is made concrete.
The movement is driven by the local community itself, “the people from the land”, and supported by outsiders, “people of the wind”. This approach is designed to “draw out” the participants’ potential. The practice stimulates local development through self-government and empowerment processes, first under mentorship of Yoshimoto, later coordinated by local key persons. Minamata city, the test ground for the jimotogaku movement, has booked some successes in that regard. “Creating a healthy village or city means that the government or the authorities do not proceed with reconstruction works in a top down way, but that local residents autonomously manifest their power (…) Minamata is in this case of village building very unique (Yanagita, 2007: 254)”.
Concretely, jimotogaku involves a meticulous step-by-step plan detailed in Yoshimoto (2008). There are roughly three stages: research, thinking and creation.
In the first stage, locals and outsiders research together the natural, cultural and historical assets of the area on a voluntary basis. An ideal time frame is three days for the start-up workshop, depending on availability. The most common way of doing this is by a general tour of the area, followed by aru mono sagashi, or ‘a search for the things that are here’: walking around in group and taking note of everything that is perceived as surprising or interesting – going from plants to garden equipment. In a childlike manner, participants ask questions such as “what is this?” and “what can it be used for?”. Doing so, they become aware of the valuable resources that they might see on a daily basis but never pay attention to. More than receiving a correct answer to all of their questions, aru mono sagashi is essential to the process of revalidating resources that are available in abundance everywhere.
Another research practice is mizu no yukue, the tracing of water bodies. This usually happens by marking rivers, wells and streams on a detailed map. One can also check in the field where water accumulates or flows to agricultural areas. The key question here is: “where does the water I consume come from?”. Other research methods include interviews with locals (a short 5-question survey or a more elaborate lifestyle interview), the mapping of edible plants in one’s garden, themed research (mapping local restaurants, creating a list of cultural events etc.), and recording the life history of locals, especially elderly people (kikigaki). Everything that is being researched needs to be photographed accordingly. When a certain area has been sufficiently covered, impressions are collected and put together by the team as a colorful poster with visual material. Participants pitch their poster and general conclusion to the group.
Although results are important, the process should be an enjoyable experience for the participants. A veteran member remembers when that was not the case: “in the beginning, jimotogaku practice was hell. The group leaders kept asking us for results even if we had not slept for two days. In the end, we went home quiet and exhausted. It is better when it is more fun.”
The research as detailed above is a time-consuming and painstaking work, but indispensable in designing a strategy for the area’s survival. Moreover, it becomes a personal investment (“once you research it, you start to like it”).
“Jimotogaku is not simply researching local history. In jimotogaku, local people become the actors and get to know the area from an objective perspective while receiving insights and advice from other people. It is a cognitive, creative act in which they become aware of the qualities of the area, learn to accept change from outside, check spontaneously on the region’s characteristics, think critically and continue to create a lifestyle and culture featuring this regional uniqueness on a daily basis”. (Yoshimoto, 1995:118)
The second stage involves reflecting on the accumulated data and ideas. Participants think about the area’s most valuable assets and how these could be used in a profitable way without harming the environment or human beings. Starting from a current issue, attention is paid to how similar problems were dealt with in the past. The issues are then translated in a feasible solution for the future, perhaps the most difficult step in the process.
Closely connected to ‘thinking’ is the third stage of ‘creating’, or concrete action. Being able to withstand or adapt to change from outside as well as within, requires an innovative solution that incorporates the region’s unique resources in a creative way. In this sense, not only material things are generated, but also shared values and relationships. In the end, the goal of jimotogaku is to create a healthy environment, a vibrant community, and satisfying livelihood opportunities.
In the next post, we will see how Jimotogaku is practiced, and what its benefits and limitations are.
References can be downloaded below. All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise.