Kamiyama’s Success in Creative Depopulation

Kamiyama’s Success in Creative Depopulation

YOSHIMOTO Mitsuhiro (NLI Research Institute)

The disappearance of Japan’s rural towns through depopulation and aging

Japan’s population is rapidly aging and began to shrink in the year 2010. According to government forecasts the 2015 population of 127 million will fall to 100 million by 2050. The proportion of elderly people will rise from 26.8% to 38.8% meaning roughly two in five people will be over 65. This is illustrated in the graph below [Fig. 1]. The first time I saw this diagram of the population pyramid I was terrified. But this is the reality that Japan faces.

Another aspect of demographic change in Japan is the concentration of people in large cities, which has continued at a high rate since the end of the Second World War. At present, one in five people live in cities of over one million while nearly half live in cities of over 300,000. In May 2014, the Japan Policy Council (JPC) announced shocking results from a research study: if depopulation, aging, and youth outmigration to large cities continue at the present rate, approximately 30% of current local municipalities are in danger of vanishing by the year 2040. [1] Given that the number of women of child-bearing age in rural municipalities will fall by half between 2010 and 2040, those with current populations under 10,000 are considered to be in danger of disappearing.


Fig. 1 - Forecast Future Change in the Population of Japan Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Note: 1920-2010: National Census; 2015-2100: Population Projections with medium-fertility and medium-mortality.

Fig. 1 – Forecast Future Change in the Population of Japan. Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Note: 1920-2010: National Census; 2015-2100: Population Projections with medium-fertility and medium-mortality.

Small, regional cities, towns, and villages are where population decline and aging have the greatest impact. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) have conducted three rounds of research into communities in depopulating areas. [2] The survey carried out in 2015 sampled 76,000 such communities (with a total population of 15.4 million and an average population of 206), almost all of them small towns and villages. [3] The results showed that about 3,000 of those communities would disappear (i.e. drop to zero population), with 300 likely to disappear within a decade. What becomes clear in this and other research is that the question of how these small, regional towns and villages that are falling into ruin through depopulation and aging can maintain their vitality, has become one of the most important questions facing Japan.

In terms of this question, there is one town that is attracting particular attention among the small-sized cities, towns, and villages struggling with depopulation and aging, for its residents’ success in using art as a starting point in their initiative to generate local vitality: Kamiyama-chō (Kamiyama Town), located in a mountainous part of Tokushima Prefecture, which is one of four prefectures on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is the region with the greatest proportion of communities likely to disappear, according to the MLIT and MIC research.

Fig. 2 - Location of Kamiyama.

Fig. 2 – Location of Kamiyama.

What is happening in Kamiyama?

Kamiyama is located about one hour by car from the city of Tokushima, mid-way along the course of the Akui River, famous for its clear waters and blue-tinged stones. The blue stones are also known for having been used in a sculpture by Isamu NOGUCHI located at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The town is blessed with rich natural surroundings and is known as a leading producer of sudachi citrus fruits and plums. With the decline of its main industry of forestry, however, depopulation and aging progressed rapidly, until the number of deserted houses began to stand out. 

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Image 1 – Kamiyama.

By 2015, the population had fallen to 5,400, less than one-third the 1955 population of about 21,000, and the proportion of elderly people was 49%. According to government estimates the population will fall to 3,000 by 2035 and the proportion of elderly will be 54%. The research done by the JPC put it at very high risk of disappearing, the population of women of child-bearing age projected to fall by 82.6%, the twentieth most severe decline among the 1,800 local municipalities (cities, towns, and villages) in the nation.

Fig. 3 - Forecast Future Change in the Population of Kamiyama.

Fig. 3 – Forecast Future Change in the Population of Kamiyama.

As if to defy that prediction, however, Kamiyama’s in-migration surpassed its out-migration for the first time in history in 2011. Today, there are a number of IT company satellite offices that have created new employment, and residents have started up all kinds of businesses, making Kamiyama one of the country’s most creative and dynamic towns. In their June 2017 issue, Forbes Japan put Kamiyama in second place in their Innovative City Ranking, behind Fukuoka City. It has even appeared in a junior high school social studies textbook as an example of successful regional regeneration.

Below I will trace the route by which this small rural town that government research predicted had a high chance of disappearing achieved such a miraculous feat.

Regional revitalization that started with a blue-eyed doll

The regional revitalization initiative in Kamiyama started with a small doll sent from the United States. [3] Around 1930, during the world financial panic, the movement to expel Japanese immigrants from the US was gathering strength. An American who had spent time in Japan as a missionary lamented this situation and launched an appeal to send dolls to Japan as a gesture of peace and goodwill, resulting in over 12,000 dolls being shipped to preschools and elementary schools around Japan.

When the Pacific War began in 1941, these dolls became gifts from the enemy and almost all of them incinerated or thrown out. Only about 300 remained. One of them was a doll with blue eyes named Alice who had been donated to Jinryo Elementary School in Kamiyama. It survived to future generations thanks to a female teacher who, believing the doll to be innocent, hid it from the eyes of the military police.

The doll was discovered when Jinryo Elementary moved into a new building around 1990. It had been stored in a handsome wooden box together with a passport and a postcard that bore the name and address of the sender. Some members of the school’s PTA felt that if they could locate the sender and return the doll to its home it might lead to international exchange that would help revitalize the town in some way. So they began to work on it.

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Images 2 & 3 - Alice with passport. Photo courtesy of Green Valley, NPO.

Images 2 & 3 – Alice with passport. Photo courtesy of Green Valley, NPO.

Bringing in some former members, the PTA formed a Committee to Return Alice Home with about 30 members including children. They were successful in returning the doll to the original sender’s relatives in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, and this taste of success gave the group momentum to work with other local people to bring some life to Kamiyama.

At the center of this group was ŌMINAMI Shinya, who had completed graduate study at Stanford University after graduating from a university in Tokyo, and had returned home to Kamiyama to take up the operation of his family’s construction company. He had been wanting to create opportunities for international exchange for Kamiyama’s children at the time Alice was discovered and as the vice-president of the PTA he ended up leading the campaign to return her home.

Other participants in the campaign included IWAMARU Kiyoshi, who runs a clothing store, SATO Hideo, who runs a hardware store, and MORI Masaki who runs a camp/caravan site. Iwamaru and Sato had served as presidents of the Jinryo PTA in the past while Mori would later serve as head of the Kamiyama Chamber of Commerce. At that time, these four were about 40 years old and since then they have taken a central role in supporting Kamiyama’s regeneration. In 1992, the year following their success, the Committee to Return Alice Home went on to form the Kamiyama International Exchange Association.

A local artist in residence program

The International Exchange Association had been offering homestay experiences to Assistant Foreign Language Teachers (ALTs) from foreign countries who were stationed in elementary and middle schools around Tokushima Prefecture, but that activity had never developed into something that could connect with a large project like regional revitalization. But then an opportunity caught their attention: the new long-term plan issued by Tokushima Prefecture in 1997 put forward the idea of an international culture village. Mori, the campground owner, had already been toying with the idea of starting an artist village, thinking that if young people came to the town to experience art and culture it would bring life to the whole town, not just the campground.

When they discussed their ideas with officials in the prefectural government they suggested the group consider an artist in residence program (AIR), so they embarked on a case study trip to nearby Awaji Island to visit some AIRs that were already up and running. That gave them the feeling that they could really do something, but they still lacked funding and facilities. They pulled together money from donations and grants from Kamiyama Town and Tokushima Prefecture. They used an empty classroom in a local elementary school for the studio and one of the cabins at Mori’s campground as a residence, and launched the Kamiyama Artist in Residence (KAIR) in 1999.

The organizers of KAIR have sometimes sought advice from outside experts in the visual arts but the selection process remains in the hands of association. They focus on artists who might bring some vitality to the town by interacting with town residents during production of their work and who they can enjoy interacting with as human beings.

KAIR invites two artists from overseas and one artist from inside Japan every year. The first time they put out a call for applications only four people applied, but by their fourth year it had increased to 170. It is not a large-scale AIR by any means, but it has gradually gained some international recognition: out of the 163 applicants in 2015, 141 were from overseas. Over the past 19 years they have hosted 68 artists, 46 from overseas, from 21 different countries.

Fig. 4 Change in Number of Applicants to KAIR. Data courtesy of the KAIR executive committee. Note: Prior to 2007 there is no record distinguishing domestic and foreign artists.

Fig. 4 – Change in Number of Applicants to KAIR. Data courtesy of the KAIR executive committee. Note: Prior to 2007 there is no record distinguishing domestic and foreign artists.

KAIR emphasizes hospitality towards the artist. They developed something they call the “mom and pop system,” choosing one person from among approximately 20 resident volunteers who can assist in producing the artwork (the pop role) and one person who can consult on questions about daily life (the mom role). The “mom” and “pop” keep in touch with KAIR executive committee members and other volunteers by text message and respond to requests from the artist. In one instance they sent out a notification that the visiting artist was feeling cold and the artist awoke the next morning to find three kerosene stoves left at their door.

Visiting artists stay for about two and a half months and are required to produce and exhibit at least one artwork. Presently the studio is housed in a space that had previously been used as a nursery school and a shoe factory, and a former playhouse built in 1920 called the Yorii Theater. The artist’s residence is a house that used to belong to a local teacher. All of these would otherwise be unused buildings. The artist is provided with up to 150,000 yen for travel, 150,000 yen for living expenses, and up to 250,000 yen for production costs (which totals about $5,500 USD). If you look only at the facilities and funding it’s not necessarily a very attractive AIR.

Image 4 - Works on display in the Yorii Theater.

Image 4 – Works on display in the Yorii Theater.

Image 5 - The artist’s studio housed in a renovated nursery school.

Image 5 – The artist’s studio housed in a renovated nursery school.

Their idea is that even if the facilities are modest and the funding is limited, the value of KAIR lies in the special kind of hospitality which is hard to find outside of Japan. The support from local people strives to ensure that none of the artist’s wishes will go unanswered. Artists come looking for an encounter with the genial residents and natural beauty of Kamiyama.

Artworks produced by visiting artists remain in a number of locations around Kamiyama. In order to answer to artists’ desire to site their artwork in a forest that was privately owned, the KAIR office began to clean and manage that section of forest, restarting maintenance operations that had long been left unattended to. Among the works sited in the forest is one that I particularly like called the Hidden Library, created by a Japanese artist now living in Berlin, IDETSUKI Hideaki. There were no libraries in Kamiyama. This one was made thanks to the initiative of an artist. But it is a library that users loan to rather than borrow from. If you are a resident of Kamiyama you are allowed to donate up to three books that have changed your life; only people who do so receive a key that lets them use the library. It will form a collection that connects the thoughts and feelings of the people of Kamiyama to the future.

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Images 6 & 7 - Idetsuki Hideaki, Hidden Library. Photos courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

Images 6 & 7 – Idetsuki Hideaki, Hidden Library. Photos courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

Karaoke Torii, installed in 2017, is another unique work. Benoit Maubrey, an American artist who lives in Germany, used 300 mid- to large-size speakers to construct a torii-style gate four meters high and 4.8 meters wide. About 40% of the speakers actually emit sound and it is equipped with Bluetooth so you can play music from a smart phone. Karaoke Torii was originally exhibited at the 2015 Kobe Biennale but faced being scrapped at the end of the festival. When a member of KAIR learned that, they negotiated to have it moved to Kamiyama instead. In this example we can see how KAIR is alert to finding undervalued resources that they can support and that can support their mission.

Image 8 - Benoit Maubrey, Karaoke Torii.

Image 8 – Benoit Maubrey, Karaoke Torii.

KAIR is managed by an executive committee. At present the committee head is SUGIMOTO Tetsuo, who works in a precision instrument factory. He got involved with KAIR when Mr. Ōminami, a senior colleague in the volunteer fire department, came to him to ask if he could fix a visiting artist’s computer that had stopped working. There are nine core members in the executive committee, while the secretariat is headed by KUDO Keiko and run by her and a staff of volunteers. Apart from them, there are about 20 more volunteers who support the initiative.

From the start of KAIR to the present, Kamiyama Town has provided 1.4 million yen as an annual subsidy (about $14,000 USD). KAIR has also secured funds for operations through grants from Tokushima Prefecture, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and private foundations. Their total operating costs are currently about 3.5 million yen, of which about two million comes from public subsidies from the town and prefecture, 100,000 from a local bank, 800,000 from the Green Valley NPO discussed below, and 600,000 from sale of goods and fees collected at events and for renting out the house and studio when the KAIR residency is not using it (a program called Bed and Studio).

From artist in residence to work in residence

As KAIR established a track record, awareness gradually spread that Kamiyama was a place that was internationally open and that enthusiastically accommodated creative ventures such as contemporary art. In order to proactively promote creative community development, which in this context means development that does not rely on established approaches such as attracting a factory, boosting tourism, or promoting agriculture, the International Exchange Association established an NPO called Green Valley.

In 2008, Green Valley started a bilingual information website called “In Kamiyama,” as part of a Ministry of Internal Affairs initiative to model regional use and application of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. It was initially divided into three sections: “Art in Kamiyama” which introduced KAIR and served as a contact point for applications and inquiries, “Kamiyama Diaries” which profiled daily life, and “Live in Kamiyama” which provided information about how to relocate to Kamiyama. As it turned out, the information on relocating to Kamiyama was the most popular, getting many times more hits than the other sections, demonstrating that there was demand to relocate.

The demand came mostly from I-turn migrants. These are people, usually in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who want to escape life in the city and begin a new life in the countryside. [5] There had been very few I-turn migrants in Kamiyama, but within 2-3 years of starting KAIR, a handful of artists had relocated to the town. In the process of using their network to introduce those artists to houses they could move into, the International Exchange Association gradually accumulated the know-how to assist people wanting to relocate there. Another of the entities supporting relocation was the Relocation and Exchange Support Center that Kamiyama’s municipal government had established the year prior to the start of the In Kamiyama website. Similar centers were set up in 11 other towns and villages in Tokushima Prefecture that were struggling with depopulation and most of them were run by the local governments. In Kamiyama’s case, however, the town contracted management to the Green Valley NPO.

When run by a local government, such an entity would limit itself to asking about the size of the family and the kind of house and property someone was looking for and then finding properties that matched the criteria. Green Valley did not take such a passive approach, but actively recruited particular kinds of workers and entrepreneurs who were necessary for the town’s future. They would post recruitments inviting people to come and start their businesses, such as a bakery or design studio, for instance. As part of the application form, in addition to the family size and property criteria, they asked applicants to write about what they hoped to accomplish in Kamiyama and in their future, as well as to provide a basic life plan for the next ten years. The idea was to encourage people to move to Kamiyama who could contribute something the town needed and were likely to invigorate it economically and socially. Likening the program to the artist in residence program they called it “work in residence.” It functions to get local people to think about how they want their town to develop into the future and strategically recruit people who can make it happen.

The structure of In Kamiyama emerged from this background: visitors to the site could get a sense of Kamiyama’s atmosphere through “Art in Kamiyama” and “Kamiyama Diaries,” find out what kind of old-style house they could rent through “Live in Kamiyama” and then decide whether or not to relocate there. This evolved into an initiative to revitalize residence and commerce simultaneously by recruiting people to open new shops in the high-street shopping area where many storefronts stood conspicuously empty.

An architect creates the opportunity to link with IT company satellite offices

The next turning point came in the year 2010, when the president of the Tokyo-based Sansan IT company, TERADA Chikahiro, visited Kamiyama after a young architect suggested it to him. Before starting his company, Terada had lived and worked for a time on the west coast of the U.S. Rather than the long commutes, cramped offices, and rigid nine-to-five schedule of Tokyo companies, he wanted to create the same flexibility in work/leisure time and relaxed interpersonal style as he saw there, which would support freer and more imaginative thinking. Almost immediately upon visiting Kamiyama, Terada decided to open a satellite office there, feeling that its rich natural surroundings and tolerant citizens made it a place where his company’s stated ideals of “providing employees the best work environment” and “introducing clients to a new way of doing work” could be realized. At the time Sansan was only three years old and Terada was just past thirty.

A deciding factor in his decision was Tokushima’s fiber optic network, which served all parts of the prefecture with over 200,000 km of cable. It had originally been installed to solve the problem of poor reception in deep mountain areas that had accompanied Japan’s switch to terrestrial digital broadcasting in the mid-2000s.

Sansan provides cloud-management of business cards and is in the midst of a phase of rapid growth. From the Kamiyama office they can hold video meetings with head offices in Tokyo, and occasionally refresh themselves working outdoors. New employee trainings are held there and it is possible for employees stationed there to stay with their families while conducting business online with companies in the Tokyo area.

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Images 9 & 10 - Sansan’s satellite office. Photos courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

Images 9 & 10 – Sansan’s satellite office. Photos courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

Terada’s visit to Kamiyama was not simply a stroke of luck. As well as promoting relocation to Kamiyama, the Green Valley NPO had been working on a project to renovate vacant houses since 2010 called “Office in Kamiyama.” BANDŌ Kōsuke and SUMA Issei were the two architects in charge of building design.

Bandō was a native of Tokushima Prefecture who had graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts with a degree in architecture before going on to pursue graduate studies at Harvard. The 2008 financial crisis hit one week after he had moved to New York to find work in an architectural firm. He was not able to find steady work for two years. During that time he got married and returned to Japan to hold a wedding ceremony. While he was back in Tokushima, he and his wife visited Kamiyama because of the poor employment situation in New York and because they had taken interest in a house they had seen on In Kamiyama. In the end he returned to New York, thinking that there would be no work in Kamiyama suitable to his skills, but he returned to Tokyo in spring 2010 to take up a position as an adjunct professor at his alma mater.

When Mr. Ōminami heard this story he contacted Bandō, asking him to bring his students to work on renovating vacant houses as part of the Office in Kamiyama project. At that point Bandō contacted Suma, who he had met in New York, and the two of them ended up as architects on the project. In the summer of 2010, Bandō’s students worked together with local carpenters to renovate an 80-year old vacant house into a workspace for creators such as web designers and IT programmers under the name “Kamiyama Blue Bear Office.”

Image 11 - Kamiyama Blue Bear Office.

Image 11 – Kamiyama Blue Bear Office.

Suma, in turn, was a friend of Terada’s from university. His first job after returning from New York had been as the interior designer of Sansan’s new offices. Upon hearing from his friend how “this rural town in Shikoku was renovating old vacant houses,” and how it was “a beautiful area with interesting folks and fiber optic access,” Terada decided to visit. He had been wanting to find an environment that would be more humane than the high stress work and low quality of life in big cities like Tokyo. He went to look at Blue Bear Office, met with Ōminami, and decided then and there to set up a satellite office. Only two weeks later, Sansan set up its “Kamiyama Lab” in a 150 year old, formerly vacant house.

This chain of events symbolizes Kamiyama’s story of revitalization: “people attract more people.” After that Bandō and Suma formed an architectural partnership called Bus Architects (now just Bus), and have built up a portfolio of architectural accomplishments in Kamiyama. The name Bus comes from the fact that when they started, they had to take an overnight bus from Tokyo to Kamiyama because they couldn’t afford the plane fare. In recognition of their work in Kamiyama, Bus was selected as one of twelve representatives of Japanese architecture at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. In that sense, Kamiyama became a place where talented young architects could cultivate their talent and be discovered.

From 4K imaging to a made-to-order shoe store

Since Sansan’s Kamiyama Lab opened, businesses and satellite office launches have continued apace: there are now 17 companies with satellite offices, creating just over 40 new positions. The largest satellite office so far opened in 2013, repurposing a number of vacant residences. It was set up by Plat-Ease, a digital content planning and development company with head offices in Ebisu, Tokyo. Rather than a satellite office, they founded a new company, Engawa (the term for the porch that wraps around traditional Japanese houses), to specialize in 4K and 8K media. Inside the renovated traditional house is a high-tech IT office, the same as would be found in Tokyo, something unusual for a rural town of 5,400 and an attractive workplace for many young people.

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Images 12 & 13 - Engawa Office.

Images 12 & 13 – Engawa Office.

Image 14 - Pre-renovation house that became Engawa Office. Photo courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

Image 14 – Pre-renovation house that became Engawa Office. Photo courtesy of Green Valley NPO.

The process that led to the office being opened in Kamiyama is extremely interesting. Company president SUMITA Tetsu had been researching candidate locations for a satellite office since 2009 but most of the initiatives to attract business to the countryside were for things like factories and logistics hubs. About the only thing related to IT were call-centers, with local governments promising tax breaks and subsidies for anything labor intensive. These didn’t fit the situation of a relatively small IT venture like Plat-Ease. In addition, because the campaigns were being led by local government agencies, Sumita realized that the people living there might not actually support them. When he came to Kamiyama, Green Valley’s Ōminami told him, “there aren’t any tax breaks and we won’t beg you to come.” But when he consulted other IT companies that were located there they all spoke highly of the location, saying that people were genuinely open and flexible, and that their comfort in dealing with people different from themselves was remarkable.

Plat-Ease and Engawa employ about 100 people between them, 22 of whom work in the satellite office. Fifteen of those are from Tokushima Precture, six are from Kamiyama. The Tokyo and Kamiyama offices do essentially the same work, meaning employees can choose which one they want to work at. It is organized so that any employee can work at either office, regardless of their field or department.

Utilizing their image technology, they started the “Tokushima 4K Film Festival” in Kamiyama in 2015. They screened about 40 works in spaces such as old playhouses and abandoned schools, traditional houses and sake breweries. In 2016, they filled about 50 empty storefronts in the old high street with an assortment of food stands and booths selling various goods, interspersed with ten spots where 4K monitors were installed, bringing the film festival to the whole street.

Shoemakers, producer/directors, media artists, creators, and craftspeople have begun to move into the empty storefronts in the Yorii high street where the Plat-Ease office is located. A French bistro opened there in 2013. Also in 2013, the Kamiyama Satellite Office Complex opened inside a renovated garment factory. In July 2014, TERADA Takashi, a 31 year old 3D modeler moved from Tokyo to open an office there.

A made-to-order shoe store named Licht Licht (Light Light) opened in 2015. The owner is KANAZAWA Kōki, born in Aichi Prefecture. Wanting to make shoes that anyone could be comfortable in, he went to Germany to study orthopedic shoe-making and worked for prosthetic foot makers in Nagoya and Yokohama after returning to Japan. One might wonder how a town of 5,400 could support a made-to-order shoe store but it currently has a six month order backlog. Kanazawa is also working with a 3D modeler named TERADA Takashi who moved into the Satellite Office Complex to produce affordable shoes using a 3D printer that fit feet deformed by rheumatism.

Image 17 - Café on y va.

Image 15 – Café on y va.

Image 18 - Kanazawa, bespoke shoemaker.

Image 16 – Kanazawa, custom shoe designer.

One venture that brings young people to Kamiyama is the Kamiyama Juku, an annual five-month training course that started in 2010 as part of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s “Initiative to Support Training in Urgently Needed Vocations.” It was set up when Green Valley successfully applied to the program for funding. Kanazawa is one of the school’s graduates, as are others working on new ventures in Kamiyama. Most students at the school are young “creative types” from the Tokyo area who are interested in design, editing, photography, etc.

Food-related businesses that emphasize care in selecting natural ingredients have also taken root and have a strong connection with the work-in-residence initiative. A pizza restaurant and a delicatessen have repurposed vacant houses, and a number of shops selling organic farm products have recently opened; new possibilities for revitalizing one of the town’s mainstay industries—agriculture—have thus emerged from a movement that started with art. In 2015, a food hub opened, to promote local consumption of locally grown food. They opened a cafeteria and a bakery this past March. The food hub is an idea promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; by aggregating locally grown food to be sold and consumed in the same region it aims to connect Kamiyama’s agriculture and food culture to the next generation. [6]

Image 19 - The Kamaya cafeteria.

Image 17 – The Kamaya cafeteria.

Artists, IT experts, entrepreneurs, creators, and young people from the cities are welcomed into the houses and traditional-style homes that depopulation and aging had emptied. Through the various businesses that emerge from this process, Kamiyama is hoping to escape the fate of a town labeled as likely to disappear

Why did Kamiyama’s regeneration succeed?

Thus KAIR has played a large role in Kamiyama’s regeneration over the past 20 years. Taken on its own, it might seem like nothing more than one more case of regional revitalization through culture. But unlike the approach taken in many other locales, KAIR is not focused directly on leveraging cultural activities. Rather, their focus is on the artist and how to support them in their creative work. The strength of their approach lies in letting the artist in residence operate as a separate autonomous space where things happen in their own way. I will now examine some of the background factors that might have contributed to Kamiyama’s success.

Historical context

First, there are historical roots related to Kamiyama’s creative redevelopment. Tokushima Prefecture boasts the largest number of farm stages in all of Japan, with over 100 still surviving. Farm stages are outdoor theaters that were built on shrine grounds around Japan beginning in the Edo period (1600-1868). They were places for villagers to hold dances and performances for entertainment, and for farmers to offer songs and dances together with other offerings in prayer and thanks for bountiful harvests.

Image 20 - The farm stage in Inukai.

Image 18 – The farm stage in Inukai.

One of the unique features of farm stage culture in Tokushima is the performance of Awa Ningyōjōruri. It is a form of ningyōjōruri, or puppet theater, with three puppeteers—a form of the world-renowned bunraku, but with the distinctive characteristic that the puppets’ heads are larger. The use of a staging technique known as the “sliding door switch,” in which the backdrop painting is rapidly changed by use of sliding panels, is also unique to the area. The Onosakura farm stage in Kamiyama has 1,500 sliding panel paintings, some dating back to the end of the Edo period. These sliding panel paintings were created by painters who would be invited to the village, staying at the estate of the village head or wealthy landowner and enlisting villagers to assist with the painting. In some sense there was already an AIR in Kamiyama in the mid-19th century. There are still periodic performances at the Onosakura farm stage, using puppets from the Yorii Theater and sliding panel paintings from the Preservation Society.

Image 21 - The “sliding door switch” at the Onosakura farm stage.

Image 19 – The “sliding door switch” at the Onosakura farm stage.

Kamiyama is also home to Shōsan Temple, one of the stops along the Henro pilgrimage route which links 88 temples around Shikoku and is still popular with pilgrims and hikers. Pilgrims are referred to by the respectful name “Ohenro-san” and are offered food, drink, and lodging by people who live along the route, a long-standing custom called osettai.  It is not only in sympathy and support for the people undertaking a hard pilgrimage. Ohenro-san are thought to be accompanied by Kōbō Daishi (the Great Master) and osettai is in part an offering to him. Kōbō Daishi is the honorific posthumous title given to the monk, Kūkai, who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism in the early 9th century and who originally anointed the 88 sacred grounds in Shikoku where the temples on the pilgrimage route now stand.

Deep roots of this culture of osettai remain in Kamiyama, and I am sure that the generosity of the citizens in warmly welcoming people from the outside has come into play in making it possible for the people of this small mountain town to welcome entrepreneurs, IT engineers, and contemporary artists with whom they have no previous familiarity. People from around Japan as well as overseas continue to come to Shikoku to perform the 88 temple pilgrimage and it remains well known so it is quite likely that young people and transplants in Kamiyama will carry on the tradition.

“Creative Depopulation”: accepting depopulation while aiming for a sustainable community

As described above, Kamiyama’s depopulation and aging is severe, even by Japan’s standards. While accepting that reality, Kamiyama’s residents have developed a strategy to turn themselves into a sustainable community: an approach Mr. Ōminami calls “creative depopulation.”

Ōminami had a great shock once, when he saw in a government population forecast that Kamiyama would have only 187 people under age 15 by 2035. He realized “Kamiyama will die if nothing changes.” He asked Tokushima University to run a simulation that would show what had to happen in order to maintain an under-15 population of 300—the minimum needed for an elementary school. The answer he got was that the town would maintain that level if five households (two parents and two children) moved in every year.

In an era when Japan’s entire population is shrinking, there seems to be no way that a farming village like Kamiyama can stem the decline. But even if the population declines, so long as there is a balance between young and old the town can survive. Based on the results of the simulation, Ōminami set annual quantitative goals towards becoming a sustainable community, even if the total population declines. As mentioned above, Kamiyama’s efforts bore fruit: in 2011, in-migration exceeded out-migration for the first time, with an increase of 12 people. In the eight years since 2008, 91 households totaling 161 people have relocated, just topping the creative depopulation target of 20 people per year. For a town of 5,400, 161 is not a trivial increase. It has the potential to overturn the otherwise high likelihood of disappearance described in JPC research.

Ōminami defines creative depopulation in this way: “Accepting the reality of depopulation; not trying to change it in absolute numbers but in its content. Aiming for a balanced, sustainable, local community, that reduces its dependence on farming by attracting young, creative, talented people from outside to create a healthy population composition; by utilizing the IT infrastructure that is here; and by increasing our value as a place for businesses implementing various new approaches to how they work.”

The benefits of starting small and not overdoing it

In Japan’s regional cities, most cultural and regional revitalization initiatives are directed by prefectural and municipal governments. Kamiyama’s initiatives over the past twenty years, however, have few traces of bureaucratic administration. The fact that a small rural town has led the way this far without relying much on government institutions, deserves special mention in Japan, and demonstrates that nongovernmental citizen groups can make effective interventions with a flexible approach.

While operating through the private sector, there were no big corporations or capital investments involved. The changes that took place started from the activities of a group of concerned citizens, and as an NPO they undertook activities that suited their stature. They didn’t jump into a large scale project from the beginning: the accumulation of activities where they could have some effect is what led to their present achievements.

Green Valley’s Ōminami has a saying he often uses, “yattara eenchau,” Tokushima dialect for something close to “just do it” in English. Meaning that there are challenges to getting things done and you don’t know if you’ll succeed or fail, so rather than looking for a reason not to do something it’s better to just give it a try. But that is not an easy thing to carry out in any large organization, least of all public administration, where there is no tolerance for failure. The words also express a forward-looking but easy-going attitude that counsels you to start where you are and don’t try to overdo it. You often hear from the people who have moved to Kamiyama that they like this “looseness” about the place. People who move to Kamiyama to do something in one of the old houses are encouraged by the words “yattara eenchau” to follow their urge and give their business a try. The fact that people don’t have an overbearing perfectionism connects to the flexibility and the ability to make decisions without a fuss, giving birth to great achievements.

Art as a starting point for social entrepreneurship and regional regeneration

Kamiyama’s efforts to tackle regional regeneration may have begun with the symbolic return of a doll to the United States, but the real starting point of the accomplishments to date was unquestionably the artist in residence program. If not for KAIR starting in 1999, Kamiyama’s stock of old-style Japanese houses would not have been restored, IT satellite offices and a French bistro would not have opened, and young people would not be relocating.

When KAIR started there was almost no one in Kamiyama with an interest in contemporary art. “Where’s the art in that?” was a common reaction to the artists’ creations; for the first few years not many people took them seriously. But that may also be an important ingredient in their success. The people who shrugged them off also didn’t interfere, enabling them to organize their activities how they wanted to. Ōminami speculates that if they had tried to revitalize the area with a new campaign around sudachi there would have been immediate pushback. As a nationally known brand of Kamiyama’s, many people and organizations are invested in the current structure of the sudachi business so introducing new ideas to it would be difficult. He also believes that if they had tried to attract IT ventures first it probably would not have worked as well. Inviting an artist was something they could handle at the beginning. Sato, a member of the KAIR executive committee, also remarks that it wasn’t the fiber optic network alone that brought IT engineers to Kamiyama but the presence of art as well.

I explained above how KAIR was a small-scale residence program, established and run by local people. In the second year they added a statement to their call for applications. “If you are looking for a place with great facilities then Kamiyama is not the best place to look. If you are looking for lavish funding then Kamiyama is not the best place to look. If you are looking for a rural Japanese town where you will be surrounded by warm and friendly people—if you are looking for a people-first program—then Kamiyama is the place to look.” In other words, they took their lack of facilities and funding as a starting point to build other forms of attraction.

Ōminami states, “Artists work in their own way. They cut into people’s established ideas with tremendous strength. They make unexpected things happen and the process of dealing with that forces people to come up with new ways of thinking. That process brings out potentials in us that we hadn’t realized were there before. That’s what’s interesting. If we hadn’t been working with artists we wouldn’t have come this far. What opened the door for us was art and all the people who came from outside the area.” It seems clear that Kamiyama’s current successes would not have been possible without KAIR.

The creative magnetism by which people attract other people

Kamiyama’s approach to regional regeneration is different from many other places in Japan in that none of the activities aim to bring in large crowds or customers. KAIR does have open studio events and exhibitions of finished works, but it is nothing like the international art festivals held around Japan. Many regional cities take tourism, events, and increasing the visiting population to be important goals for regional revitalization. “B-class gourmet” and yuru-chara mascot characters are some recent popular strategies to attract people from outside. [7] Without doubt, increased tourism and the visiting population benefit the regional economy, but such things do not fundamentally change life in an area or generate self-sustaining activities.

In contrast, Kamiyama’s approach attempts to build the capacity to sustain the community into the future by discovering and attracting talented people and entrepreneurs—creative people—who can change the situation the area faces. It is not an attempt to bring in thousands or tens of thousands of people to stimulate the economy through consumer behavior but focuses rather on creating change through the work of a single individual, or perhaps a handful of individuals who will start something new in Kamiyama.

All the initiatives in Kamiyama do is search out talented people and give them a chance. The team of young architects, Bus Architects, is the best example of that. Green Valley invited a young architect who had just become an adjunct at a university that year to come and renovate an old house and a garment factory. They paid for the travel and building costs but had no money for a designer’s fee. On the other hand they trusted their talent and ideas and made no demands about the design. The renovations demonstrated the architects’ abilities, leading to contracts to renovate the Engawa Office and design the new construction, WEEK Kamiyama, and eventually to representing Japan in the Venice Architectural Biennale. The young president of an IT company who decided to open a satellite office, the founders of the French bistro and natural-ingredient pizza restaurant, the 3-D car modeler and custom shoe maker, were each attracted by the “creative atmosphere” and the chance to do something in Kamiyama, which KAIR had initially engendered. They began businesses one would not normally expect to be possible in a small mountain town.

This kind of accumulation has given Kamiyama a creative magnetism where “people bring more people.” The people who have moved from outside and started something new in Kamiyama have become creative icons of the town, which in turn attracts more interesting people who bring in new ideas. Kamiyama’s current strength is in that chain and cycle. For Ōminami, “every day is really fun—I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.” Recently he has begun learning what Green Valley is doing by reading about it in the newspaper. They had previously been searching out the people necessary to Kamiyama’s future through the work in residence initiative, but now they are working to minimize the possibility that searching for particular kinds of people will end up being restrictive. Now that things are moving, leaving things to take their course will keep the movement more fresh—their thinking about how to promote relocation is changing.

Rural potential in an age of population decline and aging—what Kamiyama demonstrates

As I explained in the introduction, Japan’s population decline and aging are major issues, and the problem is most severe in small, regional towns and villages. It is in this situation that the idea of a “creative village” has taken hold. It is a new term that borrows from the creative city idea promoted by Charles Landry, and shows how initiatives and accomplishments like those associated with creative cities are spreading to farming villages.

SASAKI Masayuki defines a creative village as “a farming village which is rich in ‘creative spaces,’ where global issues like the environment or local problems facing the regional society are addressed by implementing creative solutions that emerge from the autonomy and originality of residents and provide for the local economy as a self-sustaining cycle, by nurturing unique aspects of the culture while preserving the abundance of the natural ecosystem; introducing new art, science, and technology; and combining artisan-like small manufacture with farming and forestry.” [8]

The factor that makes ‘creative city’ and ‘creative village’ different is the important emphasis on the natural environment in addition to human creativity. Kamiyama is recognized as a pioneering creative village.

Green Valley’s mission is “Make Rural Japan Cool!” Rural Japan includes Kamiyama as well as other small towns and villages that suffer the same problems of depopulation and aging. If that kind of rural town has any advantages over the big city it is that the town itself is compact, made up of people who know each other by sight, and the fact that even small initiatives can have large effects that are easy to see. Kamiyama’s own changes over the past 20 years are a perfect model of that. If Kamiyama can change its future, perhaps other rural areas can as well, raising up Japan as a whole. Green Valley’s mission contains that hope.

Kamiyama’s success does not end with Kamiyama but also puts a question to the economic development and urban life that Japan has pursued single-mindedly since 1945. Its experiment asks us important questions: what is real wealth?, what is a humane way to live?, and urges us to change our values. The pursuit of efficiency in every facet of business and life in Japan has sacrificed margins and gaps as being useless. Art, whose direct impact on the world is difficult to see, as well as artists, who experiment with things that people don’t “get” at first glance, are similarly pushed to the fringes of society. Kamiyama gave such artists a chance, and with artists in residence as a point of origin, succeeded in the social venture of regenerating the region. Population decline and aging are not particular to Japan. The experiments afoot in this small town demonstrate how art spins new possibilities for rural areas in an era of population decline and aging.

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro is Director of the Center for Arts and Culture at the NLI Reseach Institute. He investigates the effects of integrating art into social programs such as education, social welfare, regional development, and care for the elderly.  http://www.nli-research.co.jp/company/social/mitsuhiro_yoshimoto.html

Translated by Justin Jesty.


[1] Nihon Sōsei Kaigi (Japan Policy Council) (2014) ‘Seichō o tsuzukeru 21 seiki no tame ni ‘sutoppu shōshika / chihō genki senryaku’’ (Strategies for stopping declining birthrate and revitalizing regions in order for growth to continue into the 21st century), Tokyo: Nihon Sōsei Kaigi.

[2] In their research a “community” is defined as “a fundamental unit of local governance and a basic unit of residential life, composed of some number of households in a given geographical area that cohere socially.”

[3] Kokudo Kōtsūshō & Sōmushō (2016) ‘Kaso chiiki nado jōken riji chiiki ni okeru shūraku no genkyō haaku chōsa hōkokusho’ (Report on research assessing the conditions of regional communities from the office of the director of conditions of depopulating regions), Tokyo:  Kokudo Kōtsūshō & Sōmushō.

[4] This research is based on information gathered over the course of five visits to Kamiyama which took place in September 2011, October 2012, December 2014, September 2014, and September 2017. All quotations come from subject interviews with the author conducted during those visits.

[5] In Japan, people who return to the town they were born in are called “U-turn,” while people who move out of the city to an area they were not born in are called “I-turn.” The motivation for the I-turn varies but many people are looking for a slower lifestyle, more time for family, friends, and self-care, and a life closer to nature.

[6] A link to Kamiyama’s food hub project is here: http://foodhub.co.jp/about/project/. A resource guide issued by the USDA can be found here:

[7] B-class gourmet is like roadside cuisine: inexpensive food that is good and unique but not high class. Yuru-chara are mascot characters that local governments and businesses use to promote their region or services.

[8] Sasaki Masayuki (2014) “Sōzō nōson to wa nani ka, naze ima, chūmoku o atsumeru no ka (What is a creative village and why is it attracting attention now),” in Sasaki Masayuki, Kawaida Sachiko, Hagiwara Masaya (eds.) Sōzō nōson: kaso o kurieitibu ni ikiru senryaku (Creative village: strategy for living depopulation creatively), Tokyo: Gakugeishuppan.


Chiiki Sōzō & Nissei Kiso Kenkyūjo. (2012). ‘Kamiyama atisuto in rejidensu: AIR o kiten ni shita ‘sōzōteki kaso’ e no chōsen’ (Kamiyama’s artist in residence: an attempt at ‘creative depopulation’ originating with and AIR). In Bunka/geijutsu o katsuyō shita chiiki kasseika ni kan suru chōsa kenkyū bessatsu shiryōshū (Data supplement to research on regional revitalization utilizing art and culture). Tokyo: Chiiki Sōzō.

‘Kamiyama no chōsen 1-52’ (Kamiyama’s Gambit) (Oct. 3, 2016 – Dec. 15, 2016). Asahi Newspaper.

Nobutoki Masato & Green Valley NPO. (2016). Kamiyama purojekuto to iu kanōsei: chihō sōsei, kankyō no mirai ni tsuite (The potential of the Kamiyama project: on the future of regional regeneration and the environment). Tokyo: Kōsaidō Publishing.