For the past year I have been working in a small Japanese village under rural revitalization program created by Japan’s national government. The name of the program has no name in English, but its Japanese name, the Chiki Okoshi Kyoryokutai, translates to something like the “Rural Revitalization Cooperation Corps.”
Somewhat of a cross between a relocation program, an incubator program, and a Japanese experiment with universal basic income, participants are live in a remote area of Japan and can engage in work that will in some way contribute to the local areas where they are living.
I come from a background of journalism, so it is through this lens that I am making my impact. Compared to what I saw in this village when I first came here eight years ago, there have been huge improvements in PR of rural areas and a new boom of the creation of cafes, events, and gathering places that appeal to people in their 20’s and 30’s.
In areas that many thought were doomed, young couples burned out from the cities are moving in little by little and having kids. In the village where I am living, the youngest grades of the local elementary school have a higher class numbers than other grades in the elementary or middle schools. This new influx has played a part.
In 2018, Kawakami was ranked by the national government of Japan to have the highest population decline of all of Japan’s municipalities by the year 2045. Population decline and rural flight are so extreme in Japan that it does not seem likely that rural villages like Kawakami will ever see a full revival anytime within our lifetimes.
The yakuba (town hall) in Kawakami is flanked by Kawakami’s only hotel, a post office, a bank, a barber shop across the street, and a small medical clinic. Living here, it sometimes feels that this string of life is a Potemkin Village, set up to give outsiders the impression that things are still going fine.
The reality is that economically speaking, the village may be already dead and can be seen as on life support with a plastic breathing tube shoved down its throat. Many of the few local industries that remain here rely on government support for existence, and for many government or government-supported jobs seem to be the only real opportunity for employment. Walking into the yakuba and seeing everyone typing away at their desks with a formality that feels unfitting to the surrounding nature, this office feels like the command center of a sinking ship.
Most of the crew on this sinking ship actually aren’t even on the ship at all—although many of them were born and raised in Kawakami, many live around 45 minutes away in a nearby city and commute to work every day. It’s hard to blame them—in doing so they are proving their children with more opportunities and are in general living much more comfortable lives than they would isolated in the mountains. If those driving the ship remove their own personal stake from whether or not the village dies, however, its hard to imagine that any of the changes needed to halt decline will be made to shift the village away from its eventual disintegration. I also wonder if it is possible for the children of these villagers who live in other places will have the same devotion towards Kawakami that their parents do.
So why not call it quits and pull the plug and accept reality. Some people view the artificial propping of rural places like Kawakami as a waste of taxpayer money and a cancer holding down the country. Some people view my job, loosely defined as revitalizing the countryside without but without a clear blueprint for how this is possible, with contempt. They feel we should make our own money or not make any money at all.
I don’t find it enriching for humans to live off of handouts, however I don’t think that’s what the Kyouryokutai is. I consider it a job like any other. If we take a radical stance and view all government subsidies as a bad thing, the agriculture industry would disappear, as would the military, civil engineers contracted by the government, the CDC, and every teacher working for public schools or universities. It’s up to society to determine what is important and to distribute tax money from there to ensure that these services and entities are maintained.
I consider the life and infrastructure of rural areas to be in the category of things worth maintaining and wholeheartedly believe that the Kyoryokutai and other efforts to preserve the Japanese countryside are a good thing. If Japan looses it’s ability to live in rural areas, it looses a part of itself. Japan’s countryside will lop off like unused vestigial appendages as the country, its populace, and its infrastructure consolidate around Tokyo and the surrounding metropolis. Some have described this as like Japan becoming a Singapore, and there are politicians who have actually advocated for this.
For one, the country will be simpler to maintain and resources will not to be spread so thin. There are huge dangers in this however. Damages reduced through disasters like the long-anticipated eruption of Mt. Fuji, tsunamis, earthquakes, pandemics, and nuclear disasters are one. More than this though I think its worth preserving these areas to preserve the diverse culture that exists, and to keep open the option of living life that is outside the rat race of the city. To keep open the option of unplugging and living a simpler life for a while where creativity can bloom and human hearts can regain their strength. To keep alive living examples of people who choose to live alongside nature.
I don’t know if it will be possible to “save”places like Kawakami, but I do think it is possible to create small hamlets of creative people and keep their embers burning for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Perhaps they will prove to be pilot lights of larger-scale migrations to rural areas in the future. In an age where remote work is on the rise and the ability to choose where we live in less and less dependent on city life, empowering rural areas is an endeavor that can open new doors for society and our creative construction of a new future.