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Young People Look Beyond the City

Japan’s heartland is luring a growing number of people young and youngish, Japanese and non-Japanese. Some of the emigrants to rural Japan are trying their hands at entrepreneurial and occupational opportunities. Some are enrolling at the university campuses that are springing up across the landscape. And some are simply looking to experience the “real Japan.” Here is a look at some business, community, and educational undertakings that are drawing people to non-urban settings in the nation.

Forums Explore Keys to Community Self-Sufficiency Shigeru Ishiba/Tatsuya Ito

Island Community Achieves Demographic and Economic Revival

We find in the island town of Amacho, about 60 kilometers off the Shimane Prefecture coast, a tale of resisting population decline. Amacho occupies Nakanoshima, one of the four inhabited islands of the Oki archipelago. It has bucked the depopulation trend by attracting residents. Highlighting Amacho’s success is the reinvigoration of the community’s high school.

The opportunity to gain hands-on experience with traditional work, such as rice cultivation, is part of Amacho’s high school curriculum.

The student population at Amacho’s high school had shrunk to 28 in 2008. Amacho saved the school by repositioning it as a place for students from elsewhere to experience island life. That also enhanced the school’s appeal to island students who might otherwise have gone to the mainland for secondary schooling. The students now number about 160, about half of whom the high school and island have lured from other locales.

Project-based learning is part of the high school curriculum in Amacho. Students tackle real-world projects, such as initiatives for attracting tourists. They also engage in community entrepreneurship, which imparts real-world skills and insights. A high and rising matriculation rate to leading universities testifies to the efficacy of those and other programs at the high school.

Also contributing to Amacho’s revitalization has been a program of stipends for entrepreneurially minded emigrants who develop Amacho-branded products and services. Some of the successes of Amacho entrepreneurship: national marketing of meat from beef cattle pasture-raised on the island, vacuum-packed squid, packaged seafood curry, and the powdered leaves and wood of a camphor tree native to the island for making a tea-like drink.

“We have drawn 437 new residents over the past 10 years,” exclaims Amacho mayor Michio Yamauchi. “That’s a lot in the context of our total population of only about 2,300.”

Amacho’s emigrants bring twin demographic benefits. Along with reflating the population, they help offset the ageing that afflicts all of Japan’s rural communities. Nearly all are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Global University Transforms Japanese Higher Education

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), established in Beppu, Oita, in 2000, has become Japan’s most international university. Nearly half of APU’s more than 5,700 students are from overseas, hailing from some 80 nations. And the faculty is equally international. About 90 of the university’s approximately 170 faculty members are from 24 nations other than Japan.

Free-wheeling interchange among students and faculty members from dozens of nations is on view continuously on the campus at APU.

Everything here is different but not strange,” remarks an Australian student at APU. The Ritsumeikan Trust, which runs Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, established APU with the support of Beppu City and Oita Prefecture. APU operates as an autonomous university dedicated to propagating the ideals of freedom, peace, and humanity; to fostering mutual understanding; and to articulating a promising future for the Asia-Pacific region.

Beppu, renowned for its hot springs, and Oita provided the scenic site for the APU campus. And the city has proved a gracious host. The result is an ideal example of academic-government-community cooperation.

“APU is a home away from home for the students and faculty,” explains the university’s president, Shun Korenaga. “That’s a tribute to sensitive interaction among the local governments, the host community, and the university. And that kind of interaction is a key to nurturing regional vitality.”

More than 12,000 individuals from 134 nations have graduated from APU. They exercise the cosmopolitan insights that they gained at the university through work at international organizations, government agencies, educational institutions, and private-sector companies. Some of the international students remain in Japan after graduating to work at Japanese corporations.

The university campus commands a spectacular view of Beppu Bay beneath a verdant, mountainous backdrop.

A role model

Internationalizing higher education in Japan is a government priority, as articulated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “We aim to increase the number of foreign nationals studying in Japan to 300,000, more than double the current number.”

Abe cites APU as a role model for Japanese universities. “Almost half of both the professors and the students there are foreign nationals,” he notes. “Interacting with people from different cultures in daily life is marvelously stimulating for Japanese young people.”

New horizons

“APU blazes new horizons,” says Korenaga, “in cross-cultural understanding and in community engagement. We cultivate individuals who are accustomed to dealing with different cultures, who respect diversity, and believe in resolving issues through dialogue.

“Such individuals are indispensable in defusing the frictions that arise inevitably amid international competition in our multicultural world. They are our contribution from here in Beppu to the global community.”

International students apply the learning they acquire in Japan in building bridges between their host communities and the world at large. They thus become proactive participants in tackling the challenge of promoting regional vitality.

Forums Explore Keys to Community Self-Sufficiency

Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s minister in charge of regional revitalization, evoked a sense of urgency

The Japanese government recently convened nine forums across Japan to promote its action plan for nurturing regional vitality. Held from January to March, the forums took place in nine geographical blocs that cover the entire nation. Here are some insights from the keynote addresses at the forums held in Kumamoto on January 25 and in Komatsu (Ishikawa Prefecture) on February 22. The Kumamoto forum was for the most southerly of the nine blocs, Kyushu and Okinawa, and the Komatsu forum was for the Hokuriku bloc: Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata, and Toyama Prefectures.

A sense of urgency

Delivering the keynote remarks at the Kumamoto forum was Shigeru Ishiba, a member of Japan’s lower house of parliament and the minister in charge of regional revitalization. Ishiba alluded to initiatives by previous Japanese governments to reshape the relationship between Japan’s national and local governments and between the government and private sectors. “What’s different this time,” he said, “is the sense of urgency.” Previous initiatives for tackling structural reform took place amid demographic and economic growth. In contrast, the Abe government’s program for fostering regional vitality is unfolding amid population shrinkage and aging and amid a structural slowdown in economic growth.

“Revitalizing the regions,” declared Ishiba, “means revitalizing Japan. . . . The future of the nation is on the line.”

Tatsuya Ito, a special advisor to the minister in charge of regional revitalization, described the government support available for regional planning

Big data

The keynote speaker at the Komatsu forum was Tatsuya Ito, also a member of Japan’s lower house of parliament and a special advisor to the minister in charge of regional revitalization. Ito outlined threefold assistance available from the national government to assist prefectural and municipal governments in drafting regional revitalization plans.

“We will help offset the cost of drawing up the plans,” said Ito. “We will help with the drafting by dispatching personnel as necessary and by deploying officials in the different ministries to provide support to the local governments. And we will furnish useful information.”

The information support is especially promising. Through a service scheduled to start in April, prefectural and municipal officials will be able to tap public- and privatesector “big data” to analyze demographics, corporate activity, and tourism trends.

“Our service,” explained Ito, “will support strategic planning based on objective data. You’ll be able to visualize change,” for example, “in the composition of your population by age and gender out to 2040. Industrial mapping, meanwhile, will reveal patterns in corporate transactions by sector.

“We are counting on a broad range of citizens to get involved,” continued Ito, “in the planning. People need to develop a shared awareness of common issues and a consensus about measures for tackling those issues. And clear-cut approaches based on data will help elicit community participation.”