What is community? Why is it important? – from experience of traditional communities in Japan

Local community has been an essential part of everyday life for most of human beings. Everyone belongs to a certain local community, and the community provides her/him with necessary basis for survival, production, re-production, and identity. Considering the essential importance of communities, there have been many development projects implemented with a title of “community-based”. Those projects ask community people to participate in and to take initiatives for sustainable actions.

However, as modernization prevails everywhere in the world, many development planners or practitioners who are expected to facilitate community-based projects, have been losing the strong ties with their original communities. Most of them now live in cities, and day by day, they become busy for leading “modernized” life that has nothing to do with local traditional communities. As a result, those development planners or practitioners are losing knowledge and perspectives regarding traditional local communities.

Moreover, traditional communities themselves are now rapidly changing because of influence by modernization. Although local communities are still core of their lives, and many development projects aim at strengthening or utilizing resources in the community, it is not easy for many local communities to maintain traditional norms, regulations, and relations among them.

Therefore, it is highly important for all the development practitioners or planners who try to facilitate or mediate community-based development actions through their projects to understand meanings and functions of community for human beings, to realize threats to traditional communities, and to think about how important those communities are for the future of all the people. In this article, it is expected to provide you with some perspectives on local communities based on the history and present situation of Japanese communities.

Three functions of community

1) Between Human and Nature

From the very beginning, human beings have been utilizing natural resources for their survival. All kinds of food materials come from natural resources, such as forests, grass lands, agriculture fields, rivers, and the sea. Water, an essential material for both human lives and agriculture production, is also a product of nature. Besides foodstuff, people also need natural resources for their clothes and shelters. In other words, human beings require natural resources for their livelihood and production.

One of the important functions of community for human beings is managing these natural resources collectively in a sustainable way. If any kind of natural resources is over-exploited beyond the carrying capacity of the nature, that resource will be exhausted, and the livelihood of the people depending on that natural resource will be threatened as a result. In order to avoid such situation, and to be able to utilize natural resources sustainably, people constructed systems of natural resource management. This is one of the important functions of local community.

In Japan, many communities have been maintaining “Iriai” system as a collective natural resource management system. Iriai is generally defined as “a system or organization where the local residents of a certain area (usually a community or several communities) jointly utilize and manage mountains, rivers and land.” Concrete rules and practices of iriai vary from place to place, and change from time to time, yet the unique characteristics of iriai practices are:

1) Consensus by all

All important decisions have to be made unanimously. If any household opposes a plan, it will be cancelled or tabled.

2) Common property for the people living in a community

Only those who live in the community have iriai rights. In other words, once a person leaves the community, he/she looses his/her right.

3) Equal access, equal responsibility

Every household in a community, rich or poor, has iriai rights; equal access to use and equal management responsibility.

Based on this iriai system described above, many community people in Japan have been maintaining forest and other natural resources vital for their livelihood collectively in a sustainable way.

2) Between Human and Human

It can not be denied that every human being requires other’s help for his/her daily life. Usually, it is your family members who provide necessary help for you. However, it is not enough to have assistance from family members if it is beyond the capacity of your family members, such as repairing roof materials, planting rice in a short period, or at a time of marriage or funeral ceremonies.

In Japan, there is a system called “Yui” that facilitate mutual help among community members. In many traditional communities, there are small groups consisting of neighboring families (yui) that provide mutual help for farm work that requires intensive input of labors such as planting and harvesting rice. There are also yui for repairing houses especially thatched roofs, and yui for funerals. Usually in those yui practices, there is no exchange of money between those who receive and who provide helps. It is basically reciprocity relations among community members.

There is another practice of mutual help in traditional communities of Japan, called “Kou”. Kou is a kind of self-help groups where community people gather for particular objectives. Ise-kou” or “Fuji-kou” are groups for regular savings in order to accumulate funds for implementing tour to traditional sacred places such as Ise-shrine or Fuji-mountain. There are other kous mainly for economic activities such as “tanomoshi-kou” that is one of good examples of ROSCA (Rotated Savings and Credit Association).

By observing such practices of mutual help in the traditional communities of Japan, we can conclude that human beings require communities that provide mutual help relations among members for their everyday life, production, and re-production.

3) Between Human and God(s)

Apart from materialistic point of view, communities are important for human beings because they provide mental or psychological security for us. Sense of belongings, or feeling of “being at home” is important for most of us to maintain own identities. Of course, there are various groups or organizations that provide sense of belongings such as working place (companies or offices), schools, social organizations, or NPOs (Non Profit Organizations). However, for most of the people especially living in the developing countries, local communities where they were born or live for long are the core of identities. Even the people living in the cities feel that they belong to original local communities where they are from, and in long holidays, we observe that millions of city dwellers rush to their home villages or towns in many countries.

Why do the people feel communities as the sense of belongings, or the source of identity? It might be tradition, culture and history commonly shared among the community members. And such tradition or culture makes community people feel that they are not alone, connected with not only each others, but with super-natural, spirits, or god(s).

In Japan, “Matsuri” (festival) of “Uji-gami-sama” (locally believed guardian deity) is one of the important annual events for traditional communities. There are various ceremonies and rituals for praising their Uji-gami that have to be followed by the community members, and every part of community has particular role to play in the festival. By participating in the matsuri, community members can strengthen sense of belongings, and also feel strong tie with the nature, history, ancestors, and supernatural in their community.

Rules and regulations shared and followed

Those three functions of community described above require specific rules and regulations that are commonly accepted and followed by the community members. In the case of Iriai forests in Japan, there are various kinds of rules in each community to control usage of forest so that the natural resources in the forest are maintained in a sustainable way. For example, there are various agreements in the community when and how the people get into the forest to collect NTFPs (Non Timber Forest Products) such as nuts, berries, edible wild plants, or fuel woods. Sometimes, there is an agreement that the poorer families are given priority to collect such NTFPs for their livelihood before other families come in.

When community members discuss about any decision regarding rules or regulations of the community, there should be specific decision making system for each community. In Japan, “Yoriai” is a common practice of decision making system in traditional communities. Usually, all the heads of households in the community attend a yoriai meeting, and they discuss various kinds of issues. In traditional yoriai meetings, it is not uncommon that they spend whole day or more to reach conclusion. In general, the decision of yoriai meeting is taken unanimously, not by majority vote. It is more important that all the participants share experiences and views among each others, and finally reach accommodation based on all the participants’ views and opinions. After the decision of yoriai meeting, all the members are expected to follow the rules or regulations, and there is also a system of sanctions or penalties for those who do not obey them.

The above described functions of communities might be specific characteristic of Japan based on particular historical and cultural background. There must be many variations of real communities in terms of their functions and internal systems reflecting various socio-economic and cultural background of each community. However, as we see the very nature of human beings, it is inevitable that we require any kinds of “groups of people” that manage relations between human and nature, human and human, and human and the supernatural. And for a long time, local communities have been playing much important role for such functions, and therefore they have maintained own system of decision making.

Decline of local community

In many countries including Japan, functions of local communities described above have already declined as modernization started and has taken deep root in the society. Even in the developing countries, ties of traditional communities have started to weaken as western life style and urbanization took place. Why local communities decline as a society is modernized? If we look into the world history, we can find two major factors that characterize progress of modernization; nation state and market economy.

1) Nation State to become absolute power to manage resources

Modern state is characterized to have centralized government that holds absolute power to control over resources within its territory. In Japan, when “Meiji” government took over from feudal “Edo” shogun government in the late 19th Century, it introduced a policy to abolish iriai system, and tried to convert community-owned forests to be either national properties or private ones. Main objective for the policy was to ensure taxation from land owners, but it also aimed at utilizing natural resources in the country much more effectively in order to achieve rapid economic development. Some of the forests that had become national properties were then sold off to private companies to start mining or manufacturing factories. Such practices of nation states to nationalize and commercialize community properties still occur in many of the developing countries.

Nation states also created “citizens” who hold identity to the nation. In order to integrate all the areas within the territory at early times, and then to compete with other nation states especially at the era of imperialism, it requires its citizens to feel strong identity to the nation. Later on, when democracy became common value for the nation states, the governments (both central and local) have become entities that hold sole responsibilities to protect their citizens and to provide necessary services to them.

All those things above have influenced functions of local communities. They lost rights to manage various natural resources originally owned and controlled by the communities, and as a result, collective actions in the communities based on own decision making system have also declined. Creation of national citizens also influenced sense of belongings of the community people who now feel more identity to broader entities such as nation, ethnicity, or even “global citizens”. And finally, introduction of “welfare state” that provides necessary services to its citizens has weakened functions of mutual help in the local communities.

2) Market Economy to generate “individuals based on economic value”

Another driving force of modernization, market economy, has also given crucial influence on the functions of local communities. It requires a system of “absolute right of property” that enables free economic interaction among the individuals. Communal lands were converted into private individual properties so that people can easily sell and buy in order to gain economic benefit. Again, control over common property resources by local communities was demolished and people became more individualistic to pursue economic gain. Community people who sought cash income migrated into the cities and became labor force for industries, and as a result, community ties and the system of mutual help were destroyed.

In addition to those physical impacts on community functions, penetration of market economy gave deep influence on the values of traditional local communities. In the world of market economy, everything is measured by economic rationality. It does not give value on voluntary actions if they do not produce immediate economic benefit. Mutual help, or reciprocity relations among community members are considered not to be economically rational. People have become much busy in pursuing individual economic benefit rather than giving time for “un-productive” or “non-profitable” activities of local communities.

Yet, we need something similar to communities

Thus, as nation state and market economy are the two key driving forces for modern world, we have to admit that the decline of local community is inevitable. However, is there nothing remains for local communities to play any role or function in the modern or post-modern world of globalization?

The answer will be “no”, if you look into the present situation of Japanese society. There revealed hundred thousands of the cases of “Ijime” (physical or mental violence by friends especially at schools) throughout Japan, and many school kids commit suicide because of suffering Ijime. Prevailing “Hikikomori” (shutting oneself in own room and cutting off all the relations with others) by younger generation has also become one of the major concern in the society, but schools or even parents can not find out effective ways to deal with those problems.

On the other hand, as the portion of aged persons is continuously rising, number of “dokkyo-rojin” (aged person living alone) increases rapidly, and incidents of “kodoku-shi” (dying alone without being found for long time) frequently happen in many cities and towns. People in Japan become more and more individualistic, and even nuclear families can not remain to be a final shelter for the members.

In general, it becomes obvious that the government of Japan (central and local) can not provide all the necessary public services to the people because of financial deficit and limitation of their resources. On the other hand, private sector can not cover all the necessity of the people because it has to compete in the global market to gain profit. It is because of such limitation of both public and private sectors to provide sufficient services that the non-profit and non-government organizations (NPOs and NGOs) are increasingly playing important roles in Japanese society.

Yes, other than nation state and market economy, we need something similar to the traditional local communities that are able to manage common property resources, to facilitate mutual help, and to give us sense of belongings. It can be a revival or re-construction of local communities, or it can also be a new types of communities, such as NPOs now being much active in Japan.

Makoto Nagahata (i-i-network, Japan)

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