Last weekend I was able to make a trip to Nagano for an Autumn Festival in Otaki village, where I am planning to do fieldwork. I was really impressed by the beauty of the village. It's located in the southern part of Nagano in a valley known as Kiso. The Kiso valley itself has been famous for its forests for hundreds of years in Japan--the Tokugawa government controlled it strictly in the Edo Period (1600-1868)--and this continues today with the majority of Otaki village under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries as national forest.
According to the village head, this situation doesn't bode well, either ecologically or socially, for the village itself. Part of the problem is that in 2005 most villages in Japan were amalgamated into larger, administratively simpler, municipalities. However, because of a ski hill that had been built some years earlier, Otaki's yearly revenue wasn't low enough to be considered for amalgamation by the national government. Therefore, the village has essentially been left to its own devices to generate tax revenue and provide services for its citizens. This is difficult, as the town has NO access to about 80% of the surrounding land because it is designated as national forest.
Fortunately, the village head recognizes that Otaki does possess a wealth of social and natural resources and provides a legitimate function for the nation by maintaining its surrounding environment. The struggle, according to him, is finding a way to get the rest of the nation to understand this. In line with this thinking, he is attempting to establish relationships with businesses and communities located on the Nobi Plain (Nagoya City and Toyota's main offices are here), which depends on water that flows from the Kiso Valley. It seems to me this could be a dangerous line to walk--a Faustian pact in the making--however, there are few options for Otaki.
Otaki's population is a little over 1,000, with about a third of residents over the age of 65. There is no high school in the village and the combined elementary and junior high school has only about 50 students. From what I could see in the couple of days I spent there, most of the residents still participate in agricultural and forestry activities to some extent; though most probably make their living through some form of employment. Radishes are the major agricultural crop, which the residents prepare in various ways, including pickling. Many homes had piles of firewood next to them and I heard from residents that many people use wood burning stoves to get through the winters, which sound as if they are extremely cold.
Everyone I met in the village was really nice. All of the residents seemed to care deeply about the village, but seemed worried about the future--I gained a sense of desperation. Otaki is located at the bottom of a sacred mountain called Ontake; one of Japan's tallest. From what I experienced, the residents of Otaki still revere the mountain and I was surprised by the amount of people (including pilgrims) I saw when I visited the mountain's shrine located in the village.
I really hope that my research will be of some value to Otaki and its residents as they seek to find pathways into the future. The village is truly beautiful and the people are really warm. It is important that the people and government of Japan begin to recognize the value of these communities as part of the national landscape. Indeed, this is an issue that is prevalent across the globe in the late modern age.
Here's to the past;
and to bright futures.