A Japanese town often mentioned as a municipality making innovative efforts to promote regional revitalization is Chizu Town (or Chizu-cho) in Tottori Prefecture, western Japan. The town is located in the prefecture’s southeast region, sharing a border with Okayama Prefecture, and is about 30 minutes from Tottori City (the prefectural capital) by limited express train. With a population of 7,300 and 93 percent of its area covered by mountainous forests, the town has made it onto one association’s list as one of The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.
In Japan, several other towns are also gaining attention for their efforts to promote regional revitalization, such as Ama Town in Shimane Prefecture and Kamiyama Town in Tokushima Prefecture. In many cases, there is often a prominent leader. You might hear about Mr. A working in the Ama Municipality Office, or Mr. B working in a non-governmental organization in Kamiyama Town. But in Chizu-cho, there seem to be no such “star players.”
Even so, a variety of wonderful initiatives have been created, and many residents participate in revitalizing the region while the local government gives them solid support. To find out more about the town’s efforts and the source of its “power,” we visited Chizu-cho and interviewed Daisuke Kunioka and Kengo Ashitani, who are working for the Chizu Town Office.
Chizu-cho’s efforts are based on the Zero-to-One Village Revitalization Movement in Chizu, Japan, which was launched in 1997. The “Zero-to-One” in the name indicates the aspiration of residents to create “one” (something) out of “zero” (nothing).
As with many local towns in Japan, Chizu-cho has been a “village society” for generations. In the traditional structure of a village society, an “oyabun” or boss stood between the village headman and peasants. By custom, everybody was expected to obey the oyabun, so each person has little opportunity to offer a personal opinion or initiate change.
Against this backdrop, there was once an oyabun who thought, “This custom is not good. I must do away with this close-minded and conservative custom and encourage local people to have an awareness of protecting their town on their own,” and he tried to listen to the opinions of residents.
This led to a launch of a movement. Chizu-cho’s initiatives are based on this idea: “The important thing is to create a mechanism to enable local residents to communicate their opinions. Without the opportunity to do so, they cannot take personal responsibility.”
At first, this movement was launched separately by each rural community, but it is now conducted by each district. Chizu-cho has six districts, and five of them have set up a regional promotion committee. Under the movement, local residents propose projects that will make use of local characteristics, and the town subsidizes the cost of the projects. Each district is implementing various initiatives, such as identifying and utilizing valuable local resources, and interacting with people in urban areas.
The town government provides each regional promotion committee with financial aid in the amount of one million yen (about U.S. $8,930) in the first and second year and 0.5 million yen (about U.S. $4,460) from the third year on, with the aim of having the committees be financially independent by the tenth year. In Zero-to-One Movement, each regional promotion committee plays a central role and a member of the town government is required to participate in the committee as vice president. Because of this arrangement, each district and the municipal government can carry out discussions, projects, etc., based on a more cooperative
and open relationship.
The town government tries to serve strictly as a coordinator, for example, by introducing outside advisers for project planning and by connecting project members to town government’s sections that are relevant and necessary for projects. Its stance on the movement is that the town government coordinates between people concerned but the final decision is always to be made by each district. As town officials have face-to-face communication with district members on a daily basis, it’s easy for district members to talk to town officials and town officials can talk to district members casually when something comes up.
There are specific cases where district members have actively used the coordination offered by the town officials. For instance, two district promotion committees successfully attracted a call center and bakery from outside the town respectively by allowing them to utilize buildings of a former school and vacant houses in their districts, generating income and jobs for the communities. Another district started growing specialty mushrooms (Auricularia auricula-judae), in a project with a ten year time-frame for development.
The regional promotion committee system calls on all residents to participate. Through committee activities, those who may have once been indifferent to town administration start to develop a sense of working together, often ending up leading others to join projects and events. At the same time, various existing organizations, such as senior citizens’ clubs, women groups, and youth groups, now have stronger bonds than ever as they better coordinate with each other and hold events together thanks to the regional promotion committees serving as common platforms.
Committee presidents’ meetings are held regularly three to four times a year, in addition to activity presentation meetings, in which members of all committees participate. Through these and other efforts, committees exchange information, learn from each other and incorporate good practices of other districts, helping each district improve their mutual cooperation and respective activities.
The Hundred-People Committee
As one can see, the Zero-to-One Movement, in which a regional district is a unit for carrying out various activities, is based on local ties. Besides this local basis, Chizu-cho has another platform based on activity themes, where people who either live or work in the town can freely participate in pitching ideas and creating projects, regardless of where they live or work in the town. This platform is called “Hundred-People Committee,” which was established in 2008.
One hundred in the name simply means “many.” The aims of this platform are to gain many ideas about town development not only from the town government but also from many residents and people working in the town and to get citizens themselves to create projects for the course of future town development.
The committee has now seven subcommittees by theme, including commerce & tourism, living, health, forestry, specialty agricultural products, education & culture, and wildlife pest control, and 96 members are participating in their activities. The term of office of members is one year; however, it is basically renewed every year. Members operate subcommittees by themselves and town officials also participate in subcommittees as clerks.
Each subcommittee draws up projects and presents them at the public presentation in December (fiscal years and annual budgets typically go from April to the following March the next year). This means that resident groups conduct presentations on their projects to make a budgetary request in front of the mayor, vice-mayor, town management members, managers of departments relevant to their projects, and other town officials.
In the past, almost half of the presentations were to make requests or petitions. The mayor clarified that budgetary requests would not pass when members made petition-type presentations, and so only around half of the projects were realized. However, since now they make proposal-type presentations, approximately 90 percent of the projects, other than practically unfeasible ones, get funding.
Interestingly, sometimes the town government increases the budget allocation for a project as a result of the presentation. While discussing each project through questions and answers at the public presentation, the town sometimes offers more money than what was requested if officials like the idea and think the scope should be expanded, or think some cost has been overlooked in the budget.
Since 2009, the town government has appropriated its budget for projects of the Hundred-People Committee. A total of four million yen (about U.S.$35,700) was appropriated for eight projects in fiscal 2016. Depending on the projects (e.g., projects for improving the proportion of people getting health checkups, or expanding the use of wood stoves), some funds are appropriated from the original town budget. The funds are usually appropriated for small-scale projects for which the local governments’ funds cannot easily be used or projects that even company employees and other individuals can easily work on.
One example of the projects that were created by the Hundred-People Committee is a project for indigo dyeing. In this project, a group of young people started growing Japanese indigo plants and dyeing cloth indigo blue to carry on the traditional craft from an artisans’ collective whose members were aging.
Various other projects include a project for collecting plastic bottle caps (so-called eco-caps) to be recycled to buy vaccine, a project for growing rhubarb to make jam, a project for children to grow rice in fallow fields and send to an orphanage in Kenya, and a project for processing deerskin and developing wild game meat dishes.
Nine years have passed since the start of this effort and eight years have passed since the start of the budget appropriation. Some projects have come to fruition; the indigo project became an independent project and rhubarb jam started to be sold at stores.
The Forest Kindergarten Project
This is a project that was launched by the Hundred-People Committee and has grown successfully. The forest kindergarten is a type of preschool education focusing on outdoor experiences in a natural environment, which spread from Denmark in the 1950s.
The project plan was proposed to the Hundred-People Committee, in response to one woman’s desire to raise children in the forested environment of Chizu-cho. The plan was accepted and a forest kindergarten called “Marutanbou” (a log in Japanese) was established. After a few years of operation, Marutanbou is now being undertaken as an independent project.
Marutanbou has been very popular since its opening in 2009. About half of its kids are newcomers from other areas. Hoping to enroll their kids in the forest kindergarten, some people decide to move to Chizu-cho even before their baby is born. Some others move there to learn childcare and kindergarten operations as trainee staff, aiming to open a forest kindergarten in their home town in the future.
Tottori Prefecture now has three forest kindergartens, and almost all the staff members received on-the-job training at Marutanbou in Chizu-cho before opening a new kindergarten or working there.
The Ki-no-Yado Forest Project using Local Currency
Another project launched by the Hundred-People Committee in 2010 is the “Ki-no-Yado” project that collects forest-thinning materials and uses a local currency. The project was conducted under the Hundred-People Committee for a few years before becoming an independent project.
Forestry is a major industry in Chizu-cho, and trees need to be thinned out at the appropriate time, but many forests in Japan are in poor condition without being thinned because of the high costs of operations.
To promote forest thinning and maintenance, Chizu-cho buys forest thinning residues from people engaged in forestry, using a local currency at a rate of 6,000 yen (about U.S.$54) per ton. The thinning residues collected, an annual amount of 300 to 400 tons, are used as supplemental fuel for a heated swimming pool in town. The local currency can be used at about 40 affiliated shops in Chizu-cho. Shop owners who have received the local currency can use it other shops, or can convert
it to Japanese yen at the project office. The local currency is funded by subsidies from the town and the fuel budget for the pool.
It is worth mentioning that the designs of Chizu-cho’s local currency are created by elementary school children. A currency design contest is held annually at elementary schools and winners’ illustrations are used for the currency notes. This means that the local currency has completely different designs every year. Adopting children’s illustrations may help attract the attention of people who are not directly involved in forests and forest thinning. The currency notes say on the reverse side that they can be used at various shops, aiming to promote the economic circulation in the town.
Strengthening the Power of Community Development of the Next Generation
In Chizu-cho, community study projects “Making Proposals to Community” started at elementary and junior high schools in 2014. Budget funds have been allocated since 2015, and elementary and junior high school students are already working on projects.
Chizu Agriculture Forestry High School is engaged in indigo dyeing. As the town developed in centuries past as a post town, its students design a store curtain for each inn station and dye it with indigo. The school also launched a project to put grates outside of sash doors by being taught by joiners in the town. This work is very useful to keep the scenery of the post town beautiful. The students also sell agricultural products. They used to sell them at events only several times a year, but now they go out of their school to sell them once a month using vacant shops.
As part of the community studies program in junior high school, students learn about their community in the seventh grade, make proposals in the eighth grade, and act to achieve something in the ninth grade. As the first-year challenge, students made a “Reference Book of Experts in Town.” After being taught by a professional photographer, students took their own photos and wrote all the text. The book can be found at shops and libraries in the town.
In the second year, students initiated a project called “Making the Town Tourist Map for Out-of-Town Peers.” Students were divided into groups of ten, and each group conducted interviews and wrote write-ups. It is available at the tourist association office and other spots around town.
These kinds of citizen-centered initiatives are having an enormous impact against population decline, a headache of many municipalities in Japan. It had been expected that the population of the town (now 7,300) would be 3,700 in 2040, almost half of what it is today. However, thanks to the increase in people moving in or intending to do so to send their children to the forest kindergarten, the steep population decline has been stopped and the population prediction has improved to 5,000.
There are 120 inquiries about inbound migration a year, and more than 250 people have moved in just by the “empty house bank” since 2010. Inquiries have been increasing especially since 2012 when the town began offering grants to renovate homes for people moving in. Now it is more difficult to find homes for the newcomers than to attract them to come.
The “Evacuation Insurance” Program Launched to Thank Seniors
Chizu-cho started in 2010 to sell what could be called “evacuation insurance” to families anywhere in Japan. If disaster strikes, policyholders are given the right to stay in the town with free lodging and meals for seven days. If no disaster strikes in a given year, the policyholders will receive a town specialty, such as rice, vegetables or craftwork, once a year.
The policyholders also have the privilege of enjoying the town’s experience-based programs, such as staying at a private home or participating in “forest therapy,” at half-price. The annual insurance policy costs 10,000 yen (about US$ 89) for one person, 15,000 yen (about US$ 134) for two family members, and 20,000 yen (about US$179) for 3 to 4 family members. The number of policyholders is now about 250.
At first one might think this is a unique project to improve the resilience of urban residents, so it may be surprising to learn that its real purpose is to repay an obligation to elderly people in the area.
Chizu-cho is mountainous area of which only two percent is farmland. Most farmers cultivate vegetables and crops for home consumption, using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In most cases, they grow a little more than their family will eat.
The town buys up surplus farm products grown by the elderly farmers and uses them as gifts for the policyholders. The insurance was launched as an idea of the mayor who wanted to show gratitude to the elderly people who had spent their lives building the town.
A group named Chizu Yasai Shinsen-gumi (a “group for fresh vegetables of Chizu” in Japanese) was formed as the town’s purchasing mechanism for surplus farm products. About 80 farmers participate in the group. The town office takes charge of the group office and employs part timers for collection. The surplus farm products are now used not only as gifts for the policyholders. Farmers also go to Kobe to sell them directly, or restaurant staff from neighboring areas come to the farmers to purchase them.
Japan has rushed into an era of declining population numbers. While the Tokyo metropolitan population is still increasing, the rest of Japan is seeing drastic declines and an aging of the population, which results in big problems with how to retain and recreate communities.
Chizu-cho used to be a so-called village society where individuals could not freely express their own opinions. The town was divided in two due to the large-scale merger of municipalities from 1999 through 2010. Believing in the importance having ways for individuals to express their opinions, the mayor has been building mechanisms to attract the good ideas and energy of residents. This story has really been moving.
The local Zero-to-One movement has been creating money-making zones. The Hundred-People Committee has been playing a role as an incubation center to plan and carry out specific projects. We think a strength of Chizu-cho is they are making an effort from two perspectives: local focus and project themes. Other success factors in sustainable town building include involving elementary, middle and high school students in town building; and town officials exclusively playing the role of coordinators. We can expect many new projects of, by and for communities to appear in Chizu-cho.
In Chizu-cho projects, there are no national stars involved, but all residents here are the real stars, from elementary school students to the elderly folk working in the fields. The town could be a good model for towns and villages not only in Japan but also around the world. We look forward to watching its future development.
Photo credits: Chizu Town Office
This article was written by Yuka Kume and Junko Edahiro, based on interview funded by the Asahi Group Foundation, and first appeared in the May 2017 newsletter of Japan For Sustainability. Reprinted here with permission, and with the kind assistance of Noriko Sakamoto.