There is a Japanese community in Higashi-Okitama County, Yamagata Prefecture working to a different kind of developmental plan. Here there is a focus on a new form of sustainability and development through community effort. The project covers areas from education and local consumption to the environment and disaster prevention.
There is a clear need for a new type of sustainability in Yamagata Prefecture. There is a declining population, and it is up to the residents to take care of themselves and their resources. This is precisely what is happening with the Kirari Yoshijima Network
The scale and vision of this network are impressive.
The Kirari Yoshijima Network covered 725 households in Yoshijima, Kawanishi Town and began in 2007. There are currently five full-time and 23 part-time members of the secretariat overseeing 54 projects. However, this has the potential to increase.
Donations and subsidies are providing funding for projects, as does the occasional fee for participation. The aim here is to use a unified community management framework. It is better than a series of separate organizations in conflict with each other – deliberately or unintentionally.
Unified frameworks place everyone on the same page with clear goals and objectives and forward motion. There is no time wasted on debates or red tape. Instead, this is one organization talking to one government and providing a better experience for the whole community
The change in focus and structure was quite dramatic, but the message of fun and positivity helped residents to adapt.
There is no doubt that there was something of a culture shock in the area at first. The Kirari Yoshijima Network were allowing residents to think for themselves and develop ideas. They no longer had to sign off on proposals handed their way simply.
With time, the penny began to drop, and residents realized their potential and worked to make the most of the organization’s meetings. It was no longer just about complaints, but also ideas. Then came the practical solutions, with some even offering their own time and skills for community issues.
There is still some resistance to the change from the men in the community. It may not be a shock to some as they are the most reluctant to follow the new approach. However, complaints and negativity are not allowed here. They soon learned to either stay quiet or contribute.
The reason for this is that this is all about love and positivity. The ethos at the Kirari Yoshijima Network focuses on the love for the town. It is a community inspiring its people to create something better and improve the situation for all.
There is an emphasis on dreams and fun, rather than cold, hard solutions. There are no government documents that aren’t written in layman’s terms, but rather fun meetings, cartoons, and a whole new outlook.
They also work with thoughtful comments and praise for attending the meeting and sharing concerns, even if they do not end up as policy. It’s all about celebrating the voices and views of the many and turning that into a shared experience.
One of the other significant benefits of this new approach is that it encourages multi-generational interactions.
There is a clear sense here that the Kirari Yoshijima Network is a system for young and old alike. Everyone that has an opinion and a home in the area has a say. There are sometimes workshops with a demographic focus – such as women or the elderly.
These are groups that could otherwise find themselves overshadowed in some cultures. Still, many of the meetings are inclusive affairs where everyone is welcome to share a view. That is, of course, providing that it offers some solution or constructive criticism, rather than a purely negative tirade against the government.
Other nations may expect this to be a group for older generations. A place where the retired and respected in the community use their time and expertise to make improvements. The truth is that this is just as important for the young as the old.
The secretariat is now encouraged to recruit younger people, as young as 18, to bring in new ideas. It also helps to provide experience and local knowledge to the next generation. There are college students from the area that are keen to join after graduation because they see it as a positive career move. It could be the chance for them to make a name for themselves.
These younger members bring something new to the projects and bring some fluidity to the structure of the organization. Also, their skills and training venture can provide new skills and opportunities for older people that want to help the community.
The impact of this inter-generational experience is striking. Some people are retraining in new areas after retirement. Some are perhaps even taking up part-time employment to provide services that were lacking.
This comprehensive, active approach to community development extends further to newcomers. It is not just for those born and bred.
It is not the only way that the Kirari Yoshijima Network is including others. The organization works with what they call u-turners and i-turners. The u-turners are the people that grew up there, moved away for education or employment and returned in later life.
The i-turners are those brought up in urban areas and relocated. These people have a gap in their knowledge about how to live in the region and need support. They receive appropriate roles and training for their experience level but are not shut out.
This Kirari model of sustainable community development is one that other communities can learn from.
At one point, Kirari Yoshijima Network was something of a novelty. Over time, the organization gained publicity from major news outlets. The model was now seen as an attractive notion in modern Japan. The ongoing success of the venture proves its worth, and there is the potential to see the scheme rolled out.
Other regions and towns in a similar situation may find it beneficial to follow their lead to improved their own sustainability. Officials are now traveling to other areas to teach people about the merits of Kirari. If successful, this oddity could become a pioneer.