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Are Small Rural Communities Doomed?

Dec. 18, 2018

Are Small Rural Communities Doomed?
Reflections from the Japanese Front Lines Where Agriculture, Youth, Imagination, and Desperation Collide

By Richard McCarthy

I recently traveled with a group of US rural advocates and experts to Japan on a trip organized by the Japan Society Innovators’ Network together with the Japan NPO Center, to explore whether there are better ways to reposition rural communities for fruitful futures. In North America, where we act as individuals first and then only as communities if we must, we allow cities to consume rural land and people. Our devotion to speed, efficiency, and scale combines to be a force worth reckoning. If work opportunities exist elsewhere, we say, “go forth and seek them.” Increasingly, these opportunities are not only in cities but in municipal zones that may encompass several cities e.g., from Washington, DC to Boston, MA.

Indeed, this seems to be the case in Japan too. The post-World War II modernization occurred so rapidly that rural homesteads were and are still left to decay. Alex Kerr describes in his memoir, Lost Japan, why rural communities in Japan are commonly referred to as senior living, and that when families flee to the cities for work, they leave everything behind in their abandoned house. Talk about a clean break from the past!

The global decline of the rural community 

With the global devotion to giganticism, big cities are winning at the expense of smaller cities and in particular diminutive rural towns and hamlets that are not deemed essential to the flow of mass production and mass tourism. Part of the crisis in rural communities has come from a decline in population in both the United States and in Japan. Increasing financial stress means that fewer young people are getting married, let alone having children.

The severity of the effects population decline have had on communities varies from major financial constraints due to a diminishing tax base to a downright existential threat as young people flee and aging residents struggle to keep up with the physical demands of farming. In the United States and elsewhere, food has become a currency on which declining communities are finding new ways to trade. Consider how farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and harvest festivals not only rebrand a place but also accelerate community planning for necessary new and renewed commercial infrastructure and skills. They demand roofs to shelter outdoor markets, shared-use kitchens, and slaughter facilities.


Tsuwano town, Shimane Prefecture

In this regard, what does Japan have to teach us about small town America? If its rural communities are in even more dire straits than ours with 93% of Japanese living in cities, as compared to 81% in the USA, then visiting Japan is like traveling to the future. As modernization swept through Japan rapidly, the line between urban and rural lives is much sharper, a barrier between what is traditional and thoroughly modern. Moreover, the Japanese cultural default to lean on communitarian solutions yields remarkably original outcomes.

Give them a stipend and they will come?

In Japan, there is considerable interest in strategies that make rural life attractive to young people. Many strategies we encountered across Japan utilize an important, yet still controversial, national program: Chiikiokoshi Kyoryoku-tai, the Community-Reactivating Cooperator Squad, or simply the Squad Program. The program’s purpose is to resettle urban “immigrants” to rural communities in a desperate quest for youth. Most are intended to add value to agriculture, learn skills and hopefully remain as permanent transplants after they’ve been won over by rural tranquility and sanity. In the decade since its inception, nearly 5,000 people have settled in nearly 1,000 municipalities. Far from policy perfection and many leave after their 24-month term is up. They earn a stipend whilst a Squad member, but it is on all accounts a meager sum: just enough to afford the basics.

The Squad program resembles our Americorps program, young people sign up for socially useful work with nonprofit organizations in marginalized places. Here, too, the stipend is modest and Corps members often peel away once their service is complete. Nevertheless, one major difference is important to recognize: while Americorps may attract permanent migrants to places in need, it is a secondary benefit. The Squad program was designed to incentivize young, urban talent to relocate rural communities and become a permanent part of its future.

We met one Squad member in Tsuwano, Shimane Prefecture, who has started a specialty meat business, Saki Kurihara. She traps wild boar which are a scourge for farmers. Her plans are to remain after her contract is complete in order to grow her business, Blue Boar. Though she was raised in Tokyo, Kurihara-san has come to value rural life, the relationships, the beauty, and even the smell of life away from the city. In this case, the Squad program contributes to business start-ups. Introduced during a time of acute un- and under-employment (especially among the young), Squad also has something to offer to the policy concept hotly debated in this age of rapid technological innovation, a guaranteed income. While there is still some controversy in both the US and Japan over whether such programs are effective, either way it is undeniable that young people can help revitalize rural communities. Some specific non-profits have taken leadership within particular communities most notably the the Next Commons Lab and in Tsuwano (Shimane Prefecture) and FoundingBase. These groups provide both training and social structure for Squad members and receive direct funding support from the Japanese government. They are clear examples of a seismic cultural shift in Japan towards social enterprise and away from stodgy, bureaucratic thinking.


Wild meat product from Saki Kurihara's Blue Boar

Why Beer Might Just Be the Key for Young People’s Future

Tono a city in Iwate Prefecture is a beautiful place. While the allure of the mountains, hops and a small walkable urbanscape may not be enough to lure the young to this aging community, it does have hops. And when you’ve got hops, beer must be nearby thought Junichi Tamura’s who developed a brewery and an adjoining beer hall at Tono Brewing Company. Located in a charmingly renovated storefront in Tono, TBC has the hip vibe of a Brooklyn brewery but with the kind of attention to detail only found in Japan. We enjoyed a delicious curry, craft beers and learned plans to increase supply and demand for beer in the region through social innovation programs like Next Commons, regional rebranding campaigns and incentives to attract a young community of creative workers to settle in Tono to grow an alternative economy. The hope is to build a community supported by the beer industry that can forego the trappings of the consumer economy of the city.


Hops farmers in Tono celebrate the arrival of the 2018 autumn Kirin beer.

One particularly interesting element to the work in Tono is beer itself. From Turin to Tono, Portland to Puyang, hand-crafted beers excite the young. They are a tool for a next generation of entrepreneurs and activists to experiment with innovative concepts: B-corps, worker cooperatives, and philanthropy. Why is beer so conducive to youthful innovation? Changes in consumer taste, shifts in models for growth (away from packing, shipping and private consumption and towards small batch production and shared enjoyment in a beer hall), and the quick fermentation process all contribute to making beer strategic. When a winemaker improves a technique, it takes at least a year to learn if it works. This means that considerable financial and intellectual capital is invested in risks. By contrast, beer takes weeks. Learning is quicker, overhead is lower, and enjoyment is younger. The embrace of craft beer (together with a wider obsession for all things fermented) may very well cultivate a new culture that values commerce and community in equal doses. In this regard, the love for beer is real. However, beer is also really only a tool to build community for a generation of changemakers in business and society.
 
Still very much in its infancy, it is too early to tell whether this ambitious vision to reinvent Tono will take hold. However, there is something intoxicating about a team of young people utilizing government resources to enable the young to settle in elderly communities desperate for a future. What could be a disruptive force, Next Commons, appears to effectively navigate old-school and old-style leadership in the town well, by forging ties with conventional industry leaders in the beer sector and recognizing that in order to succeed, they must attend to non-work amenities like a social life for the newly arrived by creating sense of community.

Read the full length relfection on rural communities in Japan.

Image Source: https://www.blueboar.jp/

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