I was excited to be visiting Japan again, where I would get to marvel at the technology, cuisine, culture and urban spaces. But when we visited a small remote island town of Ama-Cho, I felt that it had a different story to tell from what we usually observe in the urban areas of Japan. I realised that they face similar challenges of dwindling population in the rural areas, lack of accessibility, limited economic activities, and employment opportunities.
Ama-cho is one of the islands along the Japanese archipelago, located about 60 kilometres off the coast of the Shimane peninsula in the Sea of Japan with an area of 33.46km sq and a population of just over 2,300 people. As we disembarked at the Hishiura port, I could feel a sense of familiarity even though I had never been there before. The quaint hamlets with traditional structures, terraced rice fields, posh green corridor along the roadways and the crisp air reminded me of home.
Ama-cho has been dealing with one of the key issues that Japan and many other countries are now facing – rural-urban migration. The population in the island had been decreasing rapidly, from 7,000 in the 1950’s to 2,368 in 2010, which is further exacerbated by its remote location, similar to some of our remote mountainous villages in Bhutan, the only difference being that our villages are surrounded by mountains, whereas it is the sea of Japan in the case of Ama.
Revitalisation of Ama cho
In early 2000, the municipality of Ama town was under immense pressure to merge with other municipalities due to its declining population and lack of economic activities. The officials of Ama resisted the merger and instead developed strategies to revitalise the economy and the community. They wanted to encourage the residents of Ama to continue living there and make it appealing for people from other parts of Japan to migrate to Ama as well.
The defensive strategy comprised of administrative reforms, some of which included reduction of expenses for the town officials including the mayor and executives, by as much as half of their pay. Other fiscal measures also included increasing public service fees and recalling of subsidies. The reduction of expenses was used for providing incentives to promote and support childcare services.
The offensive strategy aimed at measures to revitalize the economy by creating industries and employment opportunities. One of the major initiatives under the offensive strategy was to successfully brand the island and its produce. The island also aimed to develop senior high school popularisation projects, which would offer high quality education programmes while making the program more appealing by incorporating curriculum and projects on natural environment, the local history, culture, and innovations.
Both strategies seem to be working well for Ama-cho. For the first time in seven decades, the population decline is slowing down, and in the last decade the town has seen more than 10 percent of the new habitants move into Ama-cho. During our visit, we met two persons, who had moved to Ama-cho after quitting their jobs in multinational companies in Japan and the United States. They said they moved to Ama-cho in order to get away from the stressful city life, and that they were really happy with the decision of moving to Ama-cho, where they could pursue a balanced life between work and happiness. Similarly more than 200 inhabitants have made a “U-turn” or return migration.
Ama town is enjoying its success by promotion of its local produce and culture, through a mix of public and private initiatives. The local entrepreneurs making use of innovative technologies have made lot of contribution, to help improve the quality of local produce and add value to it, as a result of which it has managed to penetrate the markets across major cities in Japan.
One of key strengths of Ama-cho is their community. The small population has been an advantage in enhancing the social capital of the island. Building on this strength, the people of Ama-cho have developed many initiatives and activities using the bottoms up approach to revitalize the socio economic activities of the island.
Community vitality for revitalisation
Such cases of revitalisation of rural towns in Japan are not unique to Ama-cho alone. Other towns like Kamiyama are also attracting young IT professionals working for various IT ventures to establish their satellite offices. The key advantages of such revitalisation are not only the immediate economic benefits, but also the creation of emerging creative rural towns with people centric development, which would develop into sustainable and harmonious communities in the future.
Thinking back, I wondered whether some of the villages in Bhutan, facing problems related to rural- urban migration, have the potential and determination to undergo such revitalisation. Among the nine domains of the GNH framework, community vitality would be one of the key domains to be considered for revitalization of villages in Bhutan. Incidentally, the 2015 GNH survey reported that people who reported their sense of belonging to the local community as “very strong” has reduced from 72.48 percent in 2010 to 65.75 percent in 2015. More specifically, it declined from 79.6 percent in 2010 to 71.6 in 2015 in rural areas of Bhutan. This leaves us Bhutanese to introspect and act seriously, when our ethos is inculcated around community and culture.
The guidelines for the preparation of 12th Five Year Plan focuses on achieving just, harmonious and sustainable society through enhanced decentralisation, this seems highly appropriate framework for promoting and implementing revitalisation of villages in Bhutan.
The increasing urban employment rate could be an opportunity, which could be tapped for making them the main instruments for the revitalisation process to counter rural-urban migration. Some of the initiatives like, Village Skills Development, Rural Community Enterprise Development, Community Based Sustainable Tourism, and User Right Scheme are good initiatives to involve the youths of the communities for them to be possible leaders for revitalization of communities in the future. They will now need to be supported further to reinvest the profits in new projects. I believe that following such investment cycles would eventually lead to cycle of self-sustaining growth, community development and eventually happiness.
Contributed by Krishna Subba
Senior Program Officer
JICA Bhutan Office