A while ago a resident of Takigoshi 滝越 lent me a DVD copy of a television program produced by NHK (nihon housou kyoukai 日本放送協会--Japan Broadcasting Corporation ). The program was called 追い詰められた村 ("Cornered Village") and suggested that the village may be in the most dire situation among rural areas in Japan.
NHK’s assessment of Otaki can be said to be true in several senses. First, geographically Otaki is located at the back of a long canyon that leads to the base of Ontake-san. A single winding road links Otaki to Kiso-machi (木曽町), the nearest modest sized town with a hospital, train station, and large supermarket. The presence of this vital road means that Otaki is socially oriented towards the Kiso Valley and Nagano prefecture; however, accounts of interactions with residents of present-day Gifu, which borders Otaki on the west, suggest that this orientation has not always been exclusive.
Second, environmentally speaking, 95 percent of Otaki’s surface area is comprised of forestland. This means there is little space for large scale agricultural, or other pursuits. The majority of this forestland (86%) is national forest (国有林), which is owned and managed by the national government. This means that Otaki’s natural environment can also be thought of in political terms.
Finally, Otaki has also been backed into a corner economically through a series of external impacts and poor decisions. Japan’s rising importation of foreign timber resources from the 1960’s brought a drop in domestic timber prices and effectively ended a forestry boom that had brought mild prosperity to Otaki. As Japan began its miraculous economic climb, Otaki, with little natural resources at its disposal, was at the mercy of larger national trends and faced an unstable future. The completion of Makio Dam in 1981 brought a much needed influx of money and the promise of a new way forward for Otaki. However, what was viewed as a blessing has evolved into a nagging curse as a ski hill constructed with the dam funds steadily dragged Otaki into heavy debt. A bid to amalgamate with neighboring municipalities in 2005 was denied to Otaki because of this debt. Coupled with national restructuring launched under Prime Minister Koizumi, Otaki’s debt has forced this small mountain village into dire straits. The current village government is working, with significantly reduced salaries, to make Otaki a stable and independent village.
The Otaki of today is somewhat difficult to define. The village seems to be in a state of transition: attempting to find a new path into the future as it deals with the repercussions of decisions made in the past. Demographically, Otaki is undergoing drastic changes. The population structure of Otaki is similar to that found in rural areas across Japan; a rising elderly population coupled with a decline in overall population. Otaki’s population currently stands at 995, down from 1,768 in 1980. During this same period the rate of elderly residents has risen to 32.4%.
Though tourism remains the primary industry in Otaki, tourist numbers (including skiers and worshipers) have declined in recent years. After tourism, manufacturing jobs are the most prevalent, followed finally by agriculture. On the ground, this pattern takes the form of elderly residents engaging in agricultural work, while younger family members (if any remain in the village) work outside of the home.
Otaki also continues to struggle economically. For 2008 roughly 3/4 of Otaki’s annual budget is slated for administrative and financial operations, with almost a quarter of this being used to pay back public debt. This leaves only a fraction of funds for use in providing basic services such as sanitation, health, and education. Major cuts have been made to the salaries of village employees and to money spent social, cultural, and educational activities.
"Cornered Village". . .it's one way to look at Otaki. However, this view is made at a high level using statistical data. The anthropologist's job is to get on the ground to try to round out. . .or completely break apart. . .some of these numbers and to question the conclusions they make. At least one resident that I've talked with has embraced the idea of Otaki as being "cornered" to express her feelings of love and respect for, and also her desire to protect, the village. Indeed, "cornered" is a definition that comes not from those in the mountains, but from those down below in the cities where NHK programs are made.
In the mountains you're never really cornered, you're simply at the bottom a mountain--this requires vertical thinking--only place to go is up. Those in the mountains climb to gain a vantage point, one that often provides the best view. My own research takes this perspective, starting on the ground in the village and then moving up to gain a fuller vision of what is occuring. You can say that Otaki is "cornered", but it's always been cornered. Otaki's residents are mountain people who have, through their own unique history, learned to live among the trees and clouds and this requires that we leave our biases at the foothills and then climb up to meet them.