Community Initiatives in Takayama - How the residents start own actions for local development

Takayama city is located in Gifu Prefecture in the central region of Japan. It is one of the largest cities in the country in terms of area having around 2,100 square kilometers (almost same as Tokyo Metropolitan area) with its population of less than 100,000 (whereas Tokyo Metropolitan City has more than 12 million population).

The city is famous for its historical landscape of old-fashioned streets and houses, and various cultural events. Several times since 2002, this city has received development practitioners from Indonesia who participated in JICA training courses on community development. Takayama is located in mountain area of central Japan, and although the city attracts tourists as many as 4.5 million per year from all over Japan, the communities there have been experiencing problems of de-population and aging societies which are common in the rural areas throughout Japan. However, the training participants witnessed that there are some actions taken by either CBOs (community based organizations) or NPOs (Non Profit Organizations) in order to tackle those problems. Communities in Takayama provide good examples of how local people can take initiatives to solve their own problems.

Shingu-cho: initiative of CBO

Shingu-cho is located at the outskirts of Takayama city having around 500 households. The original community of Shingu-cho started several hundred years ago with a few farmers engaged in rice production, horse and cow rearing, and forestry. The number of households was still around 50 after the 2nd world war, but it rapidly increases continuously as the community is located near the city center along the main street connecting Takayama and the outside cities. Many advertisement signboards were displayed along the street, and new houses or buildings of “modern” type were constructed here and there in the community. As a result, the beautiful scenery of countryside village with traditional houses, fields, and woods started to be changed into a kind of confusion or mess.

In the mid-1990s, one of the community leaders, Mr. Akio Kitamura, took initiative to protect and restore the landscape of the village. He asked the Shingu-cho Chonaikai (community association consisting of all the households) to arrange agreement among the private companies using the signboards, owners of the lands that the signboards were placed, and the Takayama city government. The Chounaikai pushed those parties to take necessary measures for reducing the advertisement signboards, and finally they reached agreement to restrict construction of signboards in the community area and instead to construct “integrated community signboards” that only allow advertisement of private companies. As a result, various kinds of big signboards placed here and there in the community were removed, and now you can enjoy beautiful scenery of a traditional Japanese village in Shingu-cho.

After the successful achievement of regulating advertisement signboards, Mr. Kitamura formed a committee for community development promotion in the Chounaikai. The committee consists of 15 core members of the community residents including experts of architecture design, civil engineering, and development consulting. The committee actively took initiatives to start various activities for improvement of living environment in the community, such as extending community roads, covering irrigation canals, and constructing drainage channels. The committee also successfully established a self-regulation rule for environment and scenery protection in 1998. The rule intends to regulate construction or change of roads, canals, buildings, and advertisement signboards in the community. Any plan of acts of such construction or change should be reported to the committee in advance, and the committee checks the plan and gives approval if it conforms to the regulation. This regulation aims at controlling undesirable change of living environment of the community. Although it does not have legal authority to force the actors to follow, the Shingu-cho community has been successfully maintaining good scenery and natural environment surrounding them.

In recent years, the Shingu-cho Chounaikai started a new activity with the initiative of Mr. Kitamura. That is “community-based disaster preparedness”. With the motto of “let’s protect our community by ourselves”, the Chounaikai asked the residents to form small groups consisting of 5 neighboring households that may act as self-help or self-rescue groups in case of emergency. Each group lists up households of elderly persons who need special assistance, those who has generators or construction machineries, medical facilities or persons who have medical skills, and places for emergency evacuation and shelters. The Chounaikai also prepared a manual for disaster prevention measures. Recently, it held a joint training meeting for disaster preparedness at the city hall involving the city government and other community-based organizations. In Japan, it is now being widely recognized that the community should take active roles for disaster protection, and the activity of Shingu-cho Chounaikai is definitely one of the most advanced and leading examples throughout Japan.

Mr. Kitamura, the leader of Shingu-cho explains how he facilitates the community actions;

I am only an initiator who “set fire” to the community people. The important thing is selecting appropriate persons in the community to play active roles. If you select a person to lead an activity, you should trust and let him/her to do. It is also necessary to set up an easy-understandable goal and motto for any activity. As for collaboration with outside stakeholders, you should keep good relation with them. If you need to involve public administration, go and ask advice from them before starting concrete actions in the community.

Mr. and Mrs. Yasuda, owners of a small but attractive hotel with family atmosphere, who have lived in Shingu-cho for more than 20 years, express special characteristics of the community.

What is most interesting feature of the Shingu-cho community is that there are several core leaders with good solidarity and strong leadership. They are from the families who have been living here for more than hundred years, and share strong feelings to protect living environment of the community. Most of the old residents here feel that they have inherited all the natural resources and facilities in the community such as forests, rice fields and irrigation canals from their ancestors, and they have strong will to preserve them for the next generation. Another important characteristic of the community is “local wisdom of keeping good human relations”. There are various opportunities for the community members to gather. In April, we have to clean the drainage among the neighborhood, and after the cleaning, there is a party to enjoy cherry blossoms. There are also several ceremonies or festivals of Shinto Shrine that all the community members are requested to participate. In addition, we have several sports events throughout a year. All those occasions give us opportunities to meet, talk, and help each other. For most of the residents, or even for the ex-members of the community who already migrated out to the other cities, this community is the special place to come back, to rely on, and to live with.

Soramachi Club : Initiatives from a locally-based NPO

Souyuji-cho shows totally different characteristics from Shingu-cho. Located in the center of Takayama city, it has long history of various human activities such as trading, commerce, lodging, and dining. There are around 100 households living in very small houses joining each other, and the residents shared narrow spaces for everyday life and helped each others. It was a kind of typical down-town lifestyle that they had. However, as most of the younger generations prefer living outside the area in order to have larger houses, Souyuji-cho has been suffering severe condition of aging society. Only old generations remain in the community, and there are much less young families with children living there. Economic activities have also been affected by the de-population, and there are now many vacant houses and shops without having tenants. As a result of aging society and de-population, community tie among the residents become weakened, and it is even difficult for the residents to help each other in special occasions such as festivals or rituals.

In 2001, a group of volunteers who wanted to facilitate community based activities formed “Soramachi Club” in this community. Previously, they were members of Takayama-city-organized community development study group. After completing study activities and presenting suggestions to the city on community development in the city-center of Takayama, they took initiative to start actions based on their suggestion. It was because the members felt frustrated that the city government just received their suggestions and did not take them seriously. They wanted to practice what they felt important for community development of Takayama, and selected the area of Souyuji-cho as their field.

The Soramachi Club found its base in a vacant shop located at the center of the community, because they thought that it was important to have a place for both the community people and outside citizens to gather. Then, they started various activities such as photo exhibition on the history of Souyuji-cho, summer festival, Tuesday market, weekly lunch salon, and handicraft classes. All the activities are organized and supported by the volunteers coming from various areas of the city. The objectives of those activities are to revive community relations among the residents and with the outside people so that the community people themselves can take initiative to solve various problems with the help of outsiders.

The general secretary of SOMNEED, Ms. Yumiko Takeuchi, who is actively involved as a facilitator in the activities of Soramachi-Club, states achievement so far and challenges for the future;

It was not easy for us to start activities in Souyuji-cho community. When the study group implemented interviews in the area, the community members expressed various needs such as lack of meeting space, difficulty of everyday shopping for the elderly, etc. When we started activities at Soramachi Club, we tried to provide opportunities for the community to solve their problem. However, the community people did not easily visit and use the facility. They could not trust us because we were strangers and outsiders for them who may suddenly leave the community at some time.

It was after 2 years when I was invited in a community meeting to discuss about repairing drainage in the community that I felt we were accepted by the community. When I attended the meeting, the community people at the first time recognized us as one of their partners for community development.

In 2005, the chairperson of the Souyuji-cho chonaikai (Community Association) started to use the room at the 2nd floor of Soramachi Club. We were very happy to know it, because it indicated that the community people acknowledged the place to be a part of their community. Recently, an owner of public bath facility in the community renewed the bath and constructed a meeting room in the facility. He had often visited the Soramachi Club, and understood the importance of meeting place for community activities. I think it is one of great achievements of our activity in Souyuji-cho as development facilitators.

As for impact of our activity, it can also be said that the surrounding local governments are influenced by our practice in Soramachi club. They are encouraged by our activities and realized the importance of community centers managed by community people or NPOs. There are around 1,000 visitors in a year who want to learn from our experience.

Modani Fruit Garden : Individual effort for economic development

Kuguno area of Takayama city used to form an independent administrative division (cho) different from Takayama City. Recently, this area amalgamated with Takayama, and became a part of the city. It is located at south of Takayama city center, mostly covered by agricultural fields and mountains. It is a typical rural mountainous area where major industries are vegetable production and tourism, both of which experience difficulty to gain economic profits as they have to compete with other areas nearer to the big cities.

In this area, there is one farmer who took initiative to start a fruit garden that now attracts many customers outside the area by its delicious apple and other fruits products. In 1970, Mr. Akira Taniguchi asked other farmers to form an agricultural cooperative that manage fruits garden. Before, most of farmers in Kuguno area own very limited size of paddy field (5,000 square meters in average), that does not yield well because of bad geographical condition. After integrating and improving farming plots, the cooperative consisting of 7 farmers now produces apple, peach, and cherry with annual sales of around 110 million yen.

The uniqueness of the Modani Fruit Garden is its active and progressive role in promoting community development by utilizing local resources in maximum ways. It invites school children from other prefectures to visit the garden and gives opportunity to experience harvesting fruits. Mr. Tanicuchi also promotes the garden’s main product, apple, to be used for gifts given to guests at wedding receptions by printing names of the married couples on the apple. He also took initiative to produce juice and jam using apples that have bruises.

The case of Modani Fruit Garden is a good example of promoting economic activities utilizing existing natural and human resources in the localities, and definitely Mr. Taniguchi is a good leader to take initiatives for various actions based on such local resources. His activities also show possibilities for agriculture activities to be linked with other sectors and other place especially the city residents so that they raise interest in having beautiful fruit garden.

On February 18, 2007, a seminar was held at “Hida Earth Wisdom Center” located in the city, and Indonesian development practitioners shared their experiences with the local people. They are the facilitators and local experts of PKPM project (a JICA technical cooperation project to strengthen community development facilitation in East Indonesia), and all of them had visited the city once as a part of training program. After coming back from Takayama, they started facilitation in their own villages. In the seminar, they expressed what they learned from Takayama, and how they applied the learning. One of the interesting learning is that they were very much impressed with the culture and tradition preserved in Takayama. The participants told that they need to construct own locality based on local culture, tradition, and what they have in their communities. The participants also emphasized the importance of knowing about the target communities before starting facilitation, because in Takayama, they learned meanings of local community for the life of the human beings.

Rie Yamada and Makoto Nahagata (i-i-network, Japan)

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