Ron Lam

Japan-based writer and traveller, specialising in design, lifestyle and travel journalism. Ron previously served as an editor of MING Magazine, ELLE Decoration and CREAM.

Revitalising Japanese communities

06 2015 | Issue 6

“As the population continues to age, national health insurance will get more and more expensive because there will be fewer people contributing to it,” said one of my Japanese friends with a feeling of concern as we sat beneath beautiful sakura trees.

The problem of Japan’s greying population is indeed a worrying one not only in terms of its national insurance programme. It also creates policy problems for labour, healthcare and housing, as more and more elderly people live alone. Another problem is as young people desert their hometowns, many areas of Japan only have old people remaining there. In some cases, after elderly inhabitants die, homes are literally left abandoned, turning some places into virtual ghost towns. How can these areas be revitalised? Some organisations are trying to come up with ideas to answer this question.

A well-known example of this sort of revitalisation lies on the island of Shikoku, in a chain of islands including Naoshima, Toshima, Inujima and others. A non-profit organisation led by Soichiro Fukutake has managed to turn this chain of islands in the Seto Naikai into an internationally-famous group of art islands. Visitors from around the world come to see architecture by Tadao Ando such as the Chichu Art Museum, Lee U-Fan Museum, as well as a giant pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama at an abandoned ferry. Every three years, the Setouchi International Art Festival is held there. Some original Japanese inhabitants, or people from other cities, saw the opportunities on the islands to meet people from around the world, and chose to stay and open cafés or guesthouses, breathing new life into the area.

But it isn’t perfect. Two years ago, I went to Inujima for work. There was a scrap metal factory that was due to be redeveloped into an art space. The area was a playground where dozens of elderly people living on the island played as children. They were unhappy that the place, which was filled with their memories, was suddenly under lock and key and they were prohibited from entering.

I recently read a Chinese translation of Ryo Yamazaki’s book Community Design. Yamazaki is a renowned community designer in Japan. In the book, his description of Ieshima left a deep impression on me. Originally a quarrying town, Ieshima’s population started to dwindle with the demise of the industry. Yamazaki guided students to go to the island and use their perspective as outsiders to discover the island’s unique characteristics, such as the abandoned refrigerators that are used as storage lockers on the side of the highway. It was something that was normal for locals, but curious to the students. The students created booklets and postcards of Ieshima and distributed them to people in Kobe and Osaka, especially university students. This helped raise awareness of Ieshima among people, but also deepened Ieshima inhabitants’ love for the island. The most touching thing was that local women formed a non-profit organisation to develop and sell locally-produced goods and then used those funds for community purposes. The people of Ieshima changed the fate of the island.

This begs the question, what is the purpose of rejuvenating a place? Is it to make it prosperous again, or to allow local inhabitants to have a more vibrant way of life? Is it about the land, or the people? These don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive of course, but it is a matter of which is more important. Ultimately, whether it’s about the economy or the people, any rejuvenation project should have the best interests of the local community in mind, otherwise it would be futile.