Virtual Special Issue: Rural Japan Revisited Contemporary Japan

Rural Japan Revisited - Introduction to a virtual special issue of Contemporary Japan

by Wolfram Manzenreiter, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Vienna

This virtual special issue is dedicated to contemporary studies exploring a Japan beyond the country’s metropolitan areas. Over the past decades, rural Japan nearly vanished from the Western research agenda, as urban Japan had come to dominate the attention of most social scientists studying contemporary Japan. Particularly the cityscape of Tokyo, the epitome of the Asian mega-city, has shaped the popular cultural imagination of Japan from abroad to an extent that the countryside, if seen at all, acquires all qualities of a museum or cultural repository of the past. Yet it should not be forgotten that millions of Japanese continue to live in quite different social spaces, such as hamlets, villages, or rural towns in mountainous and coastal areas. Even though urbanization, consumption and media usage have left their imprint on everyday life, social values and behavior rules in even the most remote part of the country, there is ample reason to take the urban-rural divide as a meaningful line of distinction between the two structurally different and inherently distinct spheres of city and countryside. This virtual special issue has been compiled as a reminder of the significance that life and living in regional Japan is having for an adequate understanding of contemporary Japan, the changing faces of the “rural imaginary” (Schnell 2005) and the plurality of lifeways in late-modern society.

Rural imaginaries

Rural society featured high on the agenda of the early years of social science research on Japan only. Well into the 1960s and until the 1970s, social sciences meant anthropology, and ethnography and community studies were the prevailing methodological approaches to Japanese society. Often researchers grasped Village Japan (e.g. Beardsley, Hall and Ward 1959) as handy proxy and microcosm of Japanese social organization at large. Numerous ethnographic accounts starting with John Embree’s Suye Mura (1939) and continuing well beyond Robert Smith’s Kurusu (1978) and Gail Bernstein’s Haruko’s World (1983) contributed to four decades of highly prolific research on rural community life in regional Japan. Over time, however, the focus shifted from a monolithic and static image to a more fluid and diversified perception of Japan. As Japan changed from agrarian to industrial and postindustrial society, the focus of social science research shifted towards urban Japan where change and innovation rapidly took place. Ted Bestor’s Neighborhood Japan (1989) or Jennifer Robertson’s Native and Newcomer (1991) are emblematic for the new wave of anthropological community studies located in (sub)urban Japan. As metropolitan Japan provided the spatial background and incubating ecology for social change, cultural innovation and dynamism, the countryside tended to be seen as traditional, if not backward and resistant to change, and increasingly as problematic.

The dystopian vision of the countryside in irreversible decline dates back to the heydays of economic growth in the 1960s. The large-scale transformation of farmers into workers that was sparked by the expansive forces of industrial growth entirely changed the demographics of regional Japan and the social fabrics of rural life. Outmigration laid the foundation of the public discourse on “depopulated areas” (kaso chiiki) that after years of continuous social aging, economic stagnation and fiscal vulnerability in Japan’s regions regained momentum in recent years (Tanaka & Iwasawa 2010). For Japan’s central administration, almost every second municipality is nowadays facing the threat of extinction; every second town and village qualified in 2014 (ZKJR 2014) for special support measures under the Special Law Promoting Independence in Depopulated Areas (Kaso chiiki jiritsu sokushin tokubetsu sochi hō, enacted in 2000 and extended in 2010 and 2011; Feldhoff 2013). Since 2009, each cabinet included a minister of state for the promotion of regional sovereignty or the vitalization of local economies. Current key words of the political debate on rural Japan mirroring the problematizing view are “settlements at the borderline of their existence“ (genkai shūraku; Ōno 2005) and their incipient “disappearance“ (shōmetsu; Masuda 2014).

The disaster perception is paralleled by a nostalgic discourse that transfigures the countryside as repository of the “real,” pristine and therefore better Japan (for a critical discussion, see Robertson 1988; Ivy 1995; Tokuno 2007). The social ills of urbanization, including anomy, alienation and social disintegration as consequences of the increasing size, density and social heterogeneity of urban and industrial agglomerations, that classical social theorists such as Durkheim (1893) or Toennies (1887) already identified in the outgoing 19th century, are countered by a conceptualization of rural society as solidary community based on the lived tradition of common values and customs, mutual support, and face-to-face interaction within the pastoral idyll of rich scenery and comforting natural environment. The projection of past, if not entirely lost forms of communal everyday life on rural sociability has a long history stretching back to the dawn of modernity and the early years of folklore studies in Japan by Yanagita Kunio (Shintani 2014).

The bipolar take on the city-countryside is by no means restricted to Japan but part of an enduring tradition dating back to the awakening of civil society and European romanticism (Langner 2016: 42). The current longing for nature, simplicity, emotional embeddedness and epistemological assuredness within the harmonious order of communal village life has given birth to alternative lifestyle trends in Europe as well as in Japan. The search for slow life, healing (iyashi), and self-realization (jibun sagashi) are contributing to urban outmigration and a new ruralism at both sides of the Eurasian continent (Ishikawa 2014; Macclancy 2015). Survey data reveal that wellbeing and life satisfaction of urban residents actually is more often than not lower in urban Japan, and more city dwellers contemplate about moving to the country than rural residents fancy a transfer to a city (Manzenreiter 2016).

In order to tackle the problem of conflicting views on rurality and to go beyond the simplified bifurcation of rural/urban and traditional/modern, researchers at the University of Vienna have embarked on an interdisciplinary research project in southwestern Japan to understand the complexity of rural happiness. The choice of the Aso basin in central Kyushu as principal research site has been prompted by an earlier study in the same region that laid the foundation for the birth of the Vienna School of Japanese Studies (Slawik et al. 1975). Building on insights and networks from 50 years ago, The Vienna University Aso project 2.0 is similarly designed to gain from the combined strength of qualitative research, in particular ethnographic fieldwork, and quantitative survey methodologies (Lützeler & Manzenreiter 2016). Hosting the 2017 Annual VSJF Conference of the German Association of Social Scientific Research on Japan, where more than 20 researchers from Japan, Europe and the US are “revisiting rural Japan” is part of a research tradition that banks on the benefits of close collaboration with Japanese specialists and Japan specialists from abroad.

As a matter of fact, the lamented dearth of academic studies on rural Japan is first of all a question of perspective. Within Japan, numerous scholars and academic societies are dealing exclusively and extensively with the manifold challenges of rural Japan. In addition, Japan’s national government encouraged regional universities to team up with local administrators and entrepreneurs in order to design strategies for rural revitalization or, at least, stabilization. But most of the native research is communicated in Japanese only; international visibility hence is low, and many studies remain constrained to purely descriptive accounts of meticulously researched singular case studies. Even though their findings bear the potential of informing Western societies about the challenges they will be confronted with in the foreseeable future, the lack of theory often prohibits generalization. Also, from an international perspective, it is far from being true that the Aso 2.0 research group is the only initiative from abroad reclaiming a focus on regional Japan. A noteworthy contribution stems from the Shrinking Regions Research Group (Matanle et al. 2011), an international network of researchers that analyze rural agency under regional shrinkage and population decline. Based on extensive communal research, the study group contends there is potential for benefitting from a “depopulation dividend” (Matanle 2017).

Contributions to the special issue

Contributions to this virtual special issue on “Rural Japan Revisited” demonstrate that research on rural Japan has moved a long way forward from the comparatively narrow focus of community studies. Largely because agrarian labor has lost in significance for the livelihood of most Japanese, including those living in the countryside, the economic foundation of rural society has completely changed and dissolved the spatial autonomy of villages as a whole way of life. Instead, the countryside has been filled with new meanings, for natives (Klien, Lahournat) and newcomers (Rosenberger), as well as for temporary migrants (Liang) and passing visitors (Funck, Yotsumoto). Hence the studies contribute to a much more diversified picture of rural Japan with regions differing in the quality and quantity of resources they command over, such as wine-producing Yamanashi (Kingsbury), ecofriendly Kyushu (Yotsumoto) or exotic other Okinawa (Hein). For example, Hein shows how Japanese mass media and popular literature construct Okinawa as a ‘different Japan’, though local authors subvert the mainstream discourse on ‘Okinawan difference’ by playing with cultural stereotypes, or inverting and transforming them.

Furthermore, all studies suggest the entanglement of rural and urban Japan, most pronounced in terms of people’s movements and national government regulations. Rosenberger studies rural newcomers that pursue the classic goals of living in harmony with nature, intimate others, and community. Though while their lifestyles in rural localities as organic farmers produce selves that are alternative to the neoliberal narrative, they ironically act as entrepreneurial subjects that risk bringing their version of morality to the market, via the organic food sold to self-creating consumers. Klien also shows that the collaboration of locals and non-locals in regional revitalization processes often goes hand in hand with conflict that undermines the sustainability of such projects. Constant negotiation is necessary to mitigate conflicting interests and positions. Even without outsider involvement this is the case, for example when local traditions are exploited for the same purpose, as in Lahournat’s case study on the kagura in Ogatsu, where socioeconomic issues predating the triple disaster of March 2011 became more pressing and endangered not only the continuity of folk practices but the communities themselves. Local stakeholders are often put at risk by political deregulation, such as in the case of farmland use that Jentzsch analyses. The establishment of farmbanks caused predatory land grabbing by corporate holdings, threatening the influence and power of local agricultural cooperatives, local administrations, and not least farmers themselves. Walravens’ study also shows how policy changes that combined consumer education and consumer protection as essentials of food safety governance gradually shifted the accountability for food risk to the individual.

Last but not least, these studies also emphasize that rural Japan cannot be separated from global forces and processes, such as international migration, tourism, global warming and branding strategies. Liang’s take on Chinese peasant workers in Japan’s countryside goes beyond the convenient labeling of migrants as victims of harsh work conditions and exploitation, as these workers manage to contest local institutions by creating their own places of provisional security and mutual support. Like Rosenberger’s organic farmers, also the foreign newcomers demonstrate an agency to negotiate, navigate, and survive in rural Japan. Funck analyses how inbound tourism has become a viable source of income and economic stabilization in some regions. But it also bears the risk of sidelining the many small business operators at the backbone of the local tourism sector. Environmental challenges have also sparked opportunities. Awareness of global warming and its increasing heavy toll on rural Kyushu in the past years has caused a boom in ecofriendly tourism. However, Yotsumoto argues that the Japanese sense of ecotourism with its emphasis on revitalization of local communities actually tends to impact negatively on environmental protection. Examining food and branding, Kingsbury finds that the global branding of Japanese food as healthy and delicate has affected the marketing of Japan’s native grapes as marker of Japanese identity and “Japaneseness,” albeit in the fashion of invented tradition, for economic profit and rural revitalization.

Future directions

Building on these insights, the conference on “Rural Japan Revisited” focuses on the challenges Japanese peripheries and their communities are nowadays confronted with. It brings together specialists from different disciplines in order to address the future of regional diversity and autonomy in Japan and the challenges regions in the peripheries are confronted within a globalizing world. By putting Japan’s experience with rural development onto the agenda of social analysis, we intend to initiate a significant perspective shift within social scientific research on Japan in general and within the debate on regional Japan in particular. We think that revisiting rural Japan helps understand the future challenges some cities in Japan and many rural areas in other OECD countries are going to face under the impact of population decline on economic productivity, communal life and public infrastructure density. The topic is of high significance for a nuanced understanding of one of the most pressing problems of contemporary times: social division caused by a combination of economic, administrative and demographic forces. Japan is a valuable case study for researchers of post growth society and policy makers alike who want to maintain vibrant and sustainable regions.

“Rural Japan Revisited” is also of high significance for social research because the conceptualization of the rural-urban dichotomy has become increasingly blurred. Public imagination and rural politics all-too often reduce the countryside to the supply of goods from primary industrial sector activities. However, for forty years agricultural labor in Japan has transformed into part-time and sideline family farming, while the majority of household income stems from employment in industrial work and service industries. The urbanization of lifestyles has also been propelled by the mechanization of agricultural production that dissolved mutual support networks of villagers and changed a whole way of life since then. The conference will deliver a significant contribution to experts’ knowledge about the diversity and variability of the rural and its manifold linkages with the urban in Japan.

Finally, we think that the multidisciplinary approach is well suited to highlight the tensions between autonomy and heteronomy in rural areas. Japan’s regions are dependent on central fiscal spending to a degree that the scope of decision-making at the local level has been rendered as “30 percent political autonomy”. In addition, many salient problems in the peripheries have been caused by decisions and processes initiated at national and global centers, such as the liberalization of trade in agrarian goods or pollution of soil and irrigation by industrial pollution from neighboring areas or even abroad. While heteronomy characterizes regional politics to a large degree, there is ample evidence to argue that autonomy is an important prerequisite for rural areas to realize their full potentials and to live up to the increasing amount of expectations they are confronted with, including the preservation of landscapes, cultural traditions, environmental protection and contributions to improving Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate. Policy makers in the EU as well as elsewhere have realized the limitations, if not futility, of a universal strategy that fits all cases, thereby acknowledging the significance of local knowledge, resources and practices. A more nuanced understanding of the relationship between autonomy and heteronomy of regional Japan therefore is of crucial significance for crafting efficient and effective state politics and calibrating public institutions in line with the long-term needs of society.



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