Local to Local

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mishima-machi's Sense of Community

In Love with the Paulownia--Mishima-machi's Sense of Community
(Sharon Wu/photos by Hsueh Chi-kuang/tr. by David Mayer)

In the late 1960s and early '70s, rapid economic develop-ment in Japan triggered a lopsided concentration of population and infrastructure in that country's urban areas, and a serious decline of rural towns and villages, as people flocked to the cities and misguided development schemes wrought havoc left and right. At the same time, the signing of a US-Japan security treaty spawned protests throughout the 1960s by university students concerned about the possibility of Japan returning to its former militarism. The student protest movement died down in the 1970s, but graduates returning to their rural homes nevertheless retained their idealism and turned their attention to improving their local communities. They hoped that the "hometown movement" could change the "Japanese spirit."

Taiwan has also seen a vibrant community-building movement grow up in recent years. The Council for Cultural Affairs is working to encourage local neighborhoods and communities to establish their own websites, Taipei City Hall has launched a number of environmental projects, and an assortment of groups have been carrying out social movements and hometown revitalization movements across the island. In all of these activities we find local culture bursting with energy and dynamism. These efforts are progressing bit by tiny bit, and in the process, activists in Taiwan have often sought to learn from the hometown revitalization movement in Japan. Exchange between Taiwan and Japan in this field has been carried out at large conferences and through the dispatch of study delegations. What are the distinguishing features of Japan's community-building movement? What can Taiwan learn from Japan? Sinorama decided visit three typical communities in Japan to see how community-building is carried out in Japan. In addition to the two articles here, we will also publish two more on the subject in next month's issue.

It would probably be fair to describe the town of Mishima-machi, in Fukushima Prefecture, as the fountainhead of Japan's community-building movement. In this mountain town that sees two meters of snowfall every winter, how did the locals manage to create a vibrant and beautiful community in spite of the fact that the snows of winter virtually cut off transportation each year?

Mishima-machi sits amidst a huge forest of paulownia trees. Aging but sprightly locals forage among the trees for paulownia wood to use in their handicraft activities. The trees lift their branches skyward as if in prayer, the rushing Tadami River provides background "music," and the Tadami River Bridge looms in the distance. A sense of communion with nature envelops the quiet mountain town.

Located to the west of the Aizu Basin in Fukushima Prefecture, Mishima-machi lost many of its young people during Japan's period of rapid economic growth, with the population declining at a rate of over 17% at one point. The town was included on the list of localities undergoing depopulation. Imported lumber from Canada and China made inroads into the market for locally produced Aizu paulownia, and the resulting tumble in prices struck a heavy blow to the lifeline of the Mishima-machi economy.

Paulownia makes a good dowry

Takeshi Suzuki, chief of the Planning Section at the Mishima-machi Town Hall, recalls: "In Mishima-machi they used to call paulownia 'gold wood' because you could pretty much sell the wood from one paulownia tree and buy a new car with the proceeds. When you gave birth to a daughter, you'd plant three paulownia trees, so that they'd be grown by the time she was ready to marry, and you could use them as dowry." Back in the 1970s, a rich person was someone who owned a lot of paulownia trees. But all good things must come to an end. After imports yanked the rug out from under the paulownia market, the wood from a single paulownia tree was only worth a few hundred thousand yen.

In 1972, Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs amended the Law for Protection of Cultural Properties and made it easier for community activists to pursue their objectives in the field of cultural and historic preservation. With the help of a supportive government, former participants in the student movement turned their attention to the task of revitalizing Japan's declining rural towns and villages. The activities they launched came to be dubbed the furusato undou ("hometown movement"). Mishima-machi was swept up in the tide.

It was sometime around 1974 when the "community paulownia mill" was established in Mishima-machi. The idea was to develop high-quality paulownia products to bolster the local economy and stop the population drain. Pop superstar Teresa Teng even went to Mishima-machi to sing her new Furusato wa doko desu ka? ("Where is my hometown"). Soon, thanks in part to Teng's song, the word furusato seemed to be on everyone's lips, and the furusato movement in Mishima-machi gained unstoppable momentum. Today, 30 years later, the people of Mishima-machi continue to carry out their "paulownia handicrafts movement," and it is regarded as a classic example of community building in Japan.

Beautiful paulownia mill

"We were trying to figure out ways to make it so that our town could do more than just ship out unprocessed logs. We wanted to take advantage of our paulownia to build up a profitable industry. But it also had to be one that represented a certain outlook on life, one that the residents of Mishima-machi would be happy to embrace. That is the key focus of the community-building movement in our town." So says highly regarded town mayor Shigeki Saito, whose name cards and even his briefcase are made from paulownia. He adds with a laugh, "All the gifts that I give people are made by local craftsmen from paulownia wood!" Most name cards used by the locals are made from paulownia. Each time they exchange their paulownia name cards, the story of their hometown echoes in the mind and gives them a sense of pride.

The local paulownia industry is involved with every step of the product life cycle, from planting, cultivation, and logging to the working of the wood and sales of the final products. Besides chests, other paulownia items from Mishima-machi include lamps, hand fans, and charcoals (used for deodorizing the home, or filtering water). The town organizes periodic shows to promote sales. These beautiful handicraft items are expensive though; a large paulownia chest can cost over ¢D1 million (about US$7500 at current exchange rates), and an elegant paulownia lamp might run ¢D400,000.

Women all over Japan are in agreement that the best wood for a chest of drawers is the Aizu paulownia of Mishima-machi, because a kimono must be stored in a high-quality chest. The paulownia goods of Mishima-machi are all made of locally grown Aizu paulownia, as are the fine-quality paulownia chests on display at famous national museums all over Japan. Masakazu Nihei, who started learning his craft at age 18, spent ten years in apprenticeship before finally gaining recognition as a master craftsman in his own right. He spends every day at the paulownia mill, taking logs and working them down to size to make them into beautiful chests inlaid with seashells. The long, difficult process practically doubles as a spiritual exercise in self-cultivation.

I love my briefcase

The Mishima-machi area also abounds in porcelain-berry vines, which serve as yet another raw material for handicrafts. A lot of porcelain-berry basketry can be found on display at the Mishima-machi Handicrafts Museum, a past recipient of the Japan Architectural Culture Prize. Items include straw sandals, bags, baskets, and other things made from porcelain-berry vine, and all were made by the talented hands of Mishima-machi's old folks. Deputy director Miyoshi Igarashi recalls fondly: "Even Prime Minister Tanaka visited our museum!"

Igarashi, who is an active participant in Mishima-machi's handicrafts movement, personally wove the briefcase that he now uses every day. It took him four days to finish. His voice betrays a hint of wistful nostalgia as he recalls the time Teresa Teng sang Furusato wa doko desu ka in Mishima-machi: "The furusato movement brought a famous singer to our hometown. The old folks really enjoyed the performance. I'm glad we were able to do that for them."

Says Mayor Saito: "I want to establish a 'handicrafts artisan village' to help artisans open their own little shops, and I would like to make it so that customers who come here are not just 'buying products' but sharing their lives with us, and us with them. I'd like to seem them partaking of the 'life spirit' of the old folks who make these products."

Another person who has made a big contribution to the community-building movement in Mishima-machi is Professor Kiyoshi Miyazaki, of Chiba University, who carried out an in-depth study of Mishima-machi's handicrafts and helped the town's craftsmen design a craftsman's badge in the shape of a hand to serve as proof of craftsmen's qualifications and bolster their sense of pride.

Happy town

Besides giving the older folks a chance to specialize in a craft, the local handicrafts industry has also enhanced the experience of growing up in Mishima-machi. Every year the town organizes over 30 small-scale handicrafts festivals, and a "Workman's Festival" held annually for the past 15 years draws some 4,000 participants, while the mid-summer mushi okuri ("good riddance to bad bugs" festival) is very popular with the kids. A local man who had done his Master's thesis on Mishima-machi's mushi okuri festival, explains with a chuckle what it involves: The town's children go out together into the fields to catch bugs, which they put into sacks. Then they take the sacks and hand them over to the older kids in exchange for lanterns. The mushi okuri is an old tradition in Mishima-machi.

Absolutely everyone is involved in the community-building movement in Mishima-machi , from the elders who contribute their handicraft skills, to the younger generation returning from the big cities to promote the community-building movement, to the children who just think all the festivals are a lot of fun. If love for one's hometown is a virtue, then perhaps bucolic Mishima-machi is proof that there is at least one spot on this planet that isn't so far from heaven.

SINORAMA Magazine

(From website:
http://www.taiwan-panorama.com/en/print_issue.php3?id=200239103098e.txt&mag=past)

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