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Eight Years of Progress in Gojome

JAMCO Online International Symposium

30th JAMCO Online International Symposium

February 2022 - March 2022

For a Sustainable World – Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis

Community Development through Learning
Eight Years of Progress in Gojome

Ryu Yanagisawa
Director, Dochavengers General Incorporated Association


The town of Gojome in Akita Prefecture has set itself the goal of becoming the “World’s Best Place for Raising Children,” and is working towards this objective through three-way cooperation between the private and public sectors and academia under the leadership of local citizens. Initiatives include workshops with local citizens to gather ideas for rebuilding a local primary school, a system for welcoming children from other parts of Japan to study in the town, and access for young residents to online degree courses offered by an outside university. The author relocated from Tokyo to Gojome to cooperate with this project and, now in his eighth year in the town, manages the community development association. This paper, written from the perspective of a resident, describes Gojome’s approach to reforming the structures of learning, and how change is being realized according to this vision. It considers the activities now being conducted and their prospects.

1. Encounter with the Town

  • Outline of the Town

    Gojome is located 30km south of Noshiro City, directly to the east of the reclaimed land of Ogata Village, and 30km north, 40 minutes by car, from the prefectural capital, Akita City. The town has a rich landscape ranging from steep mountain slopes to broad paddies, and its people engage in both farming and forestry. Additionally, the central commercial district is an old market center with a history of roughly 500 years. The businesses there range from timber, furniture, construction tools and knives to sake brewing and retail shops. The Koto district is the hub of local commerce and industry. The town’s population peaked at 20,000 in 1960 and had fallen to less than 9,000 as of 2020.

    The town hall had endeavored for more than 30 years to combat depopulation by luring large enterprises to the locality. Studies showed, however, that the combination of poor access and difficulty of securing workers in a declining population were overwhelming, and those efforts met with no significant success. The decision was made, therefore, to support local entrepreneurs, however small in scale, rather luring new employers to the community. The former Babame Elementary School, which was closed in April, 2013, after a history of 138 years, was converted for use as shared offices for local entrepreneurs and reborn as the Community Development Center (hereinafter, the Center). *1

    The Center started with three tenants when it opened in October, 2013, namely a local manufacturer, a digital content provider from Akita City, and a Tokyo-based educational company. It was run directly by the Gojome Town Hall Community Development Department, which recruited two staff members for that purpose locally.

    A Community Development Cooperation Team*2 was also established at the same time under a development plan to attract new residents launched in 2011, with the three specific goals of attracting new permanent residents from outside the town, creating new employment, and promoting fully integrated, “senary industries” (primary (1) + secondary (2) + tertiary (3) = senary (6)) through the Center’s activities. Three members were appointed in April, 2014.

    The author relocated to Akita from Tokyo as a member of this team and was based at the Center for a period of three years. Subsequently, the author established the General Incorporated Association, Dochavengers, together with colleagues and now manages the Center by appointment from the municipal authorities. This paper describes the advances made in the field of learning in Gojome during the past eight years from the author’s particular perspective.

    Figure 1: The Gojome Community Development Center

    Figure 2: The 3-member Community Development Cooperation Team with corporate tenants (The author on the far left)

  • The North Star Project – The World’s Best Place for Raising Children

    Very few people came to the Center when it was first opened aside from its managers, the three members of the Community Development Cooperation Team, and the representative of the tenant educational company. The latter four gathered frequently to discuss matters related to the town’s future. The team members had come to Gojome with the primary purposes of attracting new permanent residents and nurturing entrepreneurs, but all four members of this group were also keenly interested in education and learning, and sought together to develop a vision on which to base and expand their activities. In the process of discussing various ideas, it was realized that the goal of making the town the world’s best place for raising children could provide a foundation for every activity.

    The concept of the world’s best place for raising children was filled out step by step. It was decided it would not be taken to mean IT and English-language education, for the world had great diversity, but should, first of all, seek to nurture the qualities and sensibilities of the people of this particular community. Likewise, “raising” was not the same as school education. The aim, instead, was to respect and nurture the powers that spring forth from each child. It was agreed that the attitudes of the surrounding adults are crucial when raising the child, and this made it vital for the children to see those adults set the example of continuing learning. It was concluded, therefore, that the goal would be to build a unique community, based on the features of this particular town, where adults and children would enjoy learning together.

  • Spreading the Vision

    This vision was shared with local residents at special events organized together with them. The vision spread naturally as people who sympathized with it incorporated it in their own future events. About fifty local residents have now joined in propagating the vision. Three years after the vision was first proposed, the mayor, too, used the term, the world’s best place for raising children, in a public address.

2. The Process from Small Innovations to Policy Initiatives

2.1 The Accumulation of Learning Initiatives during the Past Eight Years in Gojome

Various, small-scale initiatives related to the concept of the world’s best place for raising children commenced in 2014. Looking back over the past eight years, all of these initiatives emerged from certain common elements. As described in Transition Theory (Geels, 2002), each began as a niche innovation, then adapted to societal requirements, and was systematized through adoption by governmental agencies. The series of small initiatives within the community accumulated, and local society responded by adapting to the changes.

    2.1.1 Initiatives of 2014

  • Let’s Talk about Gojome’s Future (Organized by the town’s planning department)
    Mode: A gathering with networking for the general public
    The Cooperation Team’s members came to know many local citizens in the course of their activities, and organized this event to learn their thoughts and wishes regarding life in the community. A party with food (nagashisomen noodles) was prepared for the children and the parents were encouraged to stay and participate in the discussions. The three members of the Cooperation Team introduced themselves and explained their activities, and the participants were divided into groups to share ideas about what, for example, they would like to see happen in the town, and initiatives they might like to participate in. About twenty local people joined in this event.

    The event provided the opportunity for residents to gather, share ideas and discuss their town’s future with each other. The participants told each other about their own connections in the community, and this became a trigger for a further expansion of connections.

  • Gojome Morning College (New organization)
    Mode: A community development project with gatherings and networking for the general public
    Organized together with participants of Let’s Talk about Gojome’s Future, the Gojome Morning College was established to host study meetings with invited guests, including Masayuki Kishikawa, the man behind the Magono restaurant for senior high school pupils in Taki, Mie Prefecture. This initiative continued for two years.

    These links connecting people on the theme of community development led to the formation of an association. The experience gained through working together as an association, and knowledge relating to community development acquired through the study meetings, continued to accumulate. This holding of regular events, and of study meetings convened on different themes each time, provided opportunities to forge links between people with very different interests.

  • Around the World in Gojome (Program for primary school children)
    Mode: Exchanges between the local primary school and a university in the prefecture
    The Around the World in Gojome program was organized for local children to “travel the world” without leaving Akita. The tenant educational corporation approached the Gojome Elementary School and arranged for foreign citizens of three countries at Akita International University to visit for five consecutive weeks to talk with 11- and 12-year old children of the school’s sixth grade. The guests from very different backgrounds to the children’s own spoke about their own home towns and, on the basis of what they had learned, the children responded by going to the university to introduce theirs. The children’s parents helped with those presentations, served local dishes, and brought gifts of local products.

    The university, primary school and other public educational institutions also involved private companies and private volunteers from the community, including PTA members. The experience of communication between sectors produced an accumulation of knowledge regarding the management of voluntary activities and led to a further sharing of the vision for community development through the PTA.

    2.1.2 Initiatives of 2015

  • Gojome Senior High School Social Laboratory (Program for local upper secondary school pupils)
    Mode: Exchanges between local high school pupils and a university outside the prefecture
    A chance meeting with a staff member of the Tokyo University Graduate School led to the founding of the Gojome Senior High School Social Laboratory for local studies in partnership with the high school’s student council. The pupils were asked to write about issues that concerned them in their town and interviewed local citizens about them. The interviews and themes were then collated and, with their teacher’s help, presented at a public hall. The themes included such items as making fuller use of the town’s forestry resources, and local faiths of the urban and rural areas. The project was organized for two consecutive years. Members of the student council became involved in activities for preserving the local heritage and, in these and other forms, engaged with their local community in new ways.

    This forging of links between the local school and an outside university led, through local publicity and the PTA, to a sharing of knowledge about the new activity. The initiative led to an accumulation of both knowledge relating to communication between different organizations, and, through coordination with the PTA and town hall, experience in the execution of public relations activities.

  • Gojome Land – (Program for local adults and children to enjoy seasonal activities)
    Mode: Linkage between local private-sector companies and citizens’ groups
    Rice planting and harvesting activities were organized with the cooperation of a local farming corporation to give local citizens experience of work on the land. In the planting season, participants went into the paddies to plant by both hand and machine, and played in the river afterwards. In the harvest season, likewise, participants harvested by hand and machine all of the way to hanging sheaves out to dry, and enjoyed a pork stew (tonjiru) and balls of new rice (onigiri) together afterwards. Elderly residents passed on the traditional manual farming techniques by teaching the children directly in the fields.

    The activity contributed to the accumulation of knowledge relating to linkage between private-sector companies and citizens’ groups. Reports made to the neighborhood associations enhanced communication between private-sector companies, citizens’ associations, and those associations themselves. The fact that these activities could be organized in sequence provided continuing opportunities to share the community development vision with the associations.

  • AKIBIPLUS (Art education program for the general public)
    Mode: Linkage between a university in the prefecture and local citizens)
    AKIBIPLUS*3 is the Akita University of Art’s program for nurturing art management specialists. Seeking to nurture art in Akita and connect local citizens to art and artists, the program undertook a three-year fieldwork project, including the hosting of exhibitions in the local gallery, to lay the foundations for art appreciation and nurture art management knowhow in the community.

    The university admitted local citizens to lectures and engaged in various activities in situ, leading to an accumulation of knowledge about these activities in a district with no prior involvement in art or art-related educational projects.

  • Meiji University x Gojome Senior High School – Thinking about Me in 2030 (A career development program for upper secondary school pupils and the general public)
    Mode: Linkage between senior high school pupils and a university outside the prefecture
    This workshop was organized for participants to consider how society would change and what they might be doing in 2030. A university student facilitated the discussion for 10 senior high school students, who first imagined how society might have changed by that year and then addressed such intangibles as what their own lives might be like, and how schools may have changed. The pupils prepared for this event for roughly half a year beforehand, including through study meetings with the university student via the internet, and their prepared viewpoints and questions proved most fruitful for deepening the discussion on the day.

    This long-term exchange between local senior high school pupils and a university student outside the prefecture produced a rich further accumulation of experience. Rather than being limited to members of the student council only, the program involved all pupils in that particular school year and their class teachers.

  • Children’s Art Village Forestry Experience (Art program for children and the general public)
    Mode: Art linkage with a university outside the prefecture
    Seeking to bring local children closer to the trees, forests and mountains all around them, this workshop provided an opportunity to observe felling of the native Akita cedar, fire making, and the manufacture of wooden products. A local forestry corporation cooperated by demonstrating felling, mushroom cultivation, the counting of tree rings to know a tree’s age, and how to build a fire. Afterwards the children visited a workshop, where woodworkers demonstrated how to fashion dried wood.

    The activity involved cooperation with an outside university and multiple corporations in the community, as well as the primary school and kindergarten, which informed the children and parents about the project.

    2.1.3 Initiatives of 2016

  • Tokyo University GPSS Fieldwork (Field trips for graduate school students involving a university from outside the prefecture)
    Mode: Implemented by a university from outside the prefecture
    The University of Tokyo Graduate Program in Sustainability Science – Global Leadership Initiative (GPSS-GLI) *4 organized a roughly 10-day research field trip to Gojome as a part of its course work. The fieldwork project was conducted in collaboration with universities in South Africa, Sweden and South-east Asia, and students and research staff members from around the world visited the town. The fieldwork included interviews with local citizens and questionnaires performed at commercial and old people’s facilities. A meeting was also held to present the research findings to local citizens, and an exhibition was held at the gallery.

    This local fieldwork by a university from outside the prefecture provided valuable experience in the form of the cooperation, through the good offices of the town hall, of many local organizations ranging from neighborhood associations to businesses. The accommodation facilities and local restaurants gained the experience of catering as far as possible to foreign tastes. The foreign guests stayed in the town for an extended period and, through the surveys they conducted at the supermarket, morning market etc., provided residents with unprecedented opportunities to encounter foreign people in their local living space and sense the changes taking place in the town.

    2.1.4 Initiatives of 2017

  • Dochaben Local Venture Accelerator Program (Prefectural initiative for nurturing would-be entrepreneurs)
    Mode: Prefectural educational policy measures
    A tenant organization, Habataku inc., at the Center planned and managed this activity under Akita Prefecture’s Dochaben program for generating and nurturing exciting new businesses in the prefecture.*5 Specifically, the proclaimed goal was to share rich educational resources with the world. Whereas the population of Akita Prefecture has dropped to below one million and continues to grow older, the prefecture does have top-level educational resources. The radical project aimed to create a new model for local society by sharing these.

    The prefectural initiative aimed at making education more attractive imparted an added impetus to the changes already under way in Gojome. The linkage of grassroots activity with public sector policy marked a fresh turning point for the town.

  • School Talk (Ideas for rebuilding the primary school)
    Mode: Citizen-led policy formation through the gathering of ideas from local residents
    The Gojome PTA federation hosted workshops to gather the opinions of citizens on the rebuilding for the Gojome Elementary School. The number of primary schools in Gojome had fallen through a series of mergers from seven at the peak to just one. The last remaining primary school was now going to be rebuilt, and the idea was to involve the whole town in the process. Interested citizens gathered at the PTA federation’s appeal and exchanged proposals and opinions in groups. Each group presented its opinions at the finish. The opinions were all collated in a leaflet, which was then presented as a formal proposal on how the school should be rebuilt.

    The workshops were the starting point for three years of studies led by the town hall. Guests were invited to lead study meetings, and other issues such as how to make better use of the library and parks were addressed. The opinions gathered from local citizens were reflected in the rebuilding plans for the school and vision for its operation thereafter. *6

2.2 A Local Attempt to Change the Structures of Learning

Eight years of activities in pursuit of the goal of turning Gojome into the “World’s Best Place for Raising Children” have taught townspeople they can change their community through their own efforts. They know now that learning involves everyone, and everyone has opinions to share. Far from insisting on any single method or mode of learning, and irrespective of ideology or assertions, the sharing of views on how to make the basic educational environment more attractive produces mutual benefits for each other’s activities. It has been realized that a community development association should not assert any single viewpoint but needs instead to increase the number and range of educational options. We turn now to what the community development corporation is doing to reform the educational environment on the basis of this accumulated experience of the past eight years.
  • 1. Support for Study Visits for Children

    Akita takes pride in providing the best educational environment for primary school children in Japan. Children wishing to experience this environment for themselves are received by the local school for study periods of from one week to one month. The corporation prepares the environment for receiving the children by arranging host families for the children, and medium- to long-term accommodation for families. The aim is to provide a wide range of learning options in the district.

  • 2. Online University Courses

    In Akita, 60% of young people in the 18-22 age group leave the prefecture to work or study in large urban areas, notably for Sendai and the Kanto area, centered on Tokyo. Only seven universities are located in Akita, mostly in Akita City. Municipalities that have no university are devoid of university students. Young people wishing to advance to university have no choice but to leave.

    The new, Satomana University*7 was launched in 2021 as Japan’s first university to enable students to study for degree courses online. Online classes are taught in the mornings from Tuesday through Thursday and students spend the rest of their time engaging in local activities. The corporation arranges for students to take these courses, makes accommodation arrangements, provides support for their local activities, and seeks to make use of the presence of university students in the community to expand the possibilities for learning-based community development.

3. Discussion: Laying the Foundations for a Town that Keeps on Learning

3.1 Constructing the Process for the Vision to take Root in the Community
 The citizens’ learning-based activities of the past eight years are shown in Figure 3. On the basis of this chart, Figure 4 shows how the activities have together expressed a single vision.

Figure 3: Chronology of activities in Gojome

Three-member Cooperation Team appointed
Let’s Talk about Gojome’s Future community-building discussions
Gojome Morning College
Around the World in Gojome international exchange for primary school children

Gojome Senior High School Social Laboratory with an external graduate school
Gojome Land farming experience for children
AKIBIPLUS local art project with a university
Meiji University x Gojome Senior High School – Thinking about Me in 2030
Children’s Art Village Forestry Experience

Tokyo University GPSS Fieldwork

Dochaben Local Venture Accelerator Program study tours with Akita Prefecture
School Talk workshops on school rebuilding program
Public sector initiatives

2018 –
Moving on from particular projects

  • A. Nurturing Social Networks

    The first step in producing an environment from which activities will emerge is to furnish opportunities for people who will share their thoughts with each other to gather. The act of gathering for discussions on particular themes provides people with a place where they can express and share their own ideas. The hosting of the Let’s Talk about Gojome’s Future gatherings in the offices in the former school, which so few people had been visiting, created the opportunity for interested people in the town to assemble. People with shared concerns regarding particular issues found each other and connected, and those connections led, in turn, to the Gojome Morning College, and the organization of regular events that further reinforced these social networks.

  • B. Systematizing Activities

    The gathering of people in A above made team formation possible together with the accumulation of the relevant knowledge for activities to proceed, leading in turn to the creation of new activities. The accumulation of knowledge by the various groups also laid the groundwork for searching for new partners. Connections so forged with local governments and corporations secured funding, and the connections made with programs offered by educational organizations generated entirely new links.

  • C. Linking Organizations

    The systems developed through the sharing of ideas in B above produced a further accumulation of knowledge and experience, and earned the rising trust of people in the locality. The implementation of activities in partnership with citizens’ groups, schools and other educational institutions, and local governments strengthened the links between organizations and, via the individuals concerned in each organization, disseminated knowledge about the activities more widely among local residents.

    Diverse joint learning-related programs have been instituted, including the one between Gojome Senior High School and the external university, the art program with the art university in Akita Prefecture, and the nature-experience program furnished in partnership with local enterprise. These activities, with their common purpose of furthering learning, have also been reported to the general population by the local newspapers and TV stations. 

    The reception of university field trips also began in 2016. Activities up to that point had been implemented through linkage with local organizations. The knowledge accumulated through locally-based educational activities had laid the foundations for external educational institutions, too, to operate fruitfully in the town.

  • D. From Systems to Standing Operations

    The continuation of A, B, and C above with expanding systematization and linkage with local government, private corporations and educational institutions, and growing fund-raising knowhow, has led to the establishment of standing operations. Bases and teams with standing remits have now been created in place of the single initiatives with the goal of making operations grow. As in A above, people are being gathered little by little within each activity field in a snowballing cycle that gives rise to new activities.

Figure 4: How local activities evolve

3.2 Nurturing the Confidence that Local Change is Possible

As the vision set down roots in the community, the turning points came with the advent of transmission by the local authorities and the transformation of particular projects into standing operations. These two advances have brought local residents opportunities to discover a burgeoning awareness that they do have the power to change their community through their own efforts.

  • 3.2.1 Transmission by Local Authorities

    Akita Prefecture’s Dochaben Local Venture Accelerator Program for attracting and nurturing local entrepreneurs has issued an Education Sharing Declaration for sharing Akita’s educational resources with the world. This resonated with private sector educational initiatives to trigger new public sector educational projects, including even activities that addressed statutory issues. Within the town, the local government formalized the citizen-level School Talk activity by which the PTA federation and others met to discuss the rebuilding of the local primary school, and the citizens’ views expressed over the three-year period came to be reflected in public policy.

  • 3.2.2 Transforming Projects into Standing Operations

    Individuals who shared their thoughts with each other established bases for their activities, undertook new challenges, and continued to move their projects forward. Accordingly, no new separate projects were launched from 2018, Instead, this gap period was used to connect the various internal and external systems more firmly for the activities to continue and expand as standing operations.

    The activities implemented thus far had, in effect, taught the importance of systematizing the structures as standing operations that could place the aspirations for learning on firmer soil. Activities are not sustainable when conducted on a solely voluntary basis. Their conversion into standing operations earns both greater trust in the local community and enhanced access to funding. Activities aimed at reshaping the community have continued to grow.

4. Summing Up: Effective Community Building

On the basis of the accumulated experience of the past eight years, the author has realized the following points with respect to the town of Gojome and its future:

  • The Expectations of a Community are Expressed in its Language

    When the author first arrived, community members frequently asked him why he had come to the town. They said that it was not as if there was any work in the town, and neither did it have any substantial tourist resources. The author supposes they asked the question because they conceived of no reason for anyone to come there. As the author settled into the community and showed friends and acquaintances around the town, people started to ask instead only where the new faces had come from. There is now a sense that people take it for granted that outsiders will visit their town. The author interprets this as growth in confidence.

    The community development corporation is necessarily sensitive to the language local people use because, when the aim is to enhance local autonomy, misguided assistance can achieve the opposite result of reducing it instead. The very concept of assistance may easily be taken to assume a power relationship in which the givers are strong and the recipients, weak. The aim here is to foster emergence from the community. Like a stagehand, the supporter must provide inconspicuous support from the rear. Our community development corporation seeks above all to provide this support though ordinary daily communication and everyday words of encouragement.

  • Community Development Works Best when it is not the Primary Aim

    In the same way as NPO’s seek to address various societal problems, community development organizations identify and address community issues. The ultimate goal of any NPO is to solve the problems it has addressed and disband. The same is largely true as well of a community development organization. Its ultimate goal should be to build a contended community, lose its reason to exist, and face dissolution.

    The process of addressing community issues produces new issues, and this process has no end. Any such organization must also be aware, however, that the very positing of issues is a matter of perspective. If the people of a community are contented and the local democracy functions well, then the community development organization is not needed. It is not needed if each community member is able to perform a full role in the community and involve him- or herself in its politics.

    The proper aim for the community development organization, therefore, is neither to propose issues nor to seek to build the community actively, but rather to lay the groundwork that makes it easy for individual members of the community to propose and implement autonomous community-building projects by themselves.

Ryu Yanagisawa

Director, Dochavengers General Incorporated Association

Born in Nerima, Tokyo, in 1986, Yanagisawa graduated from the University of Tokyo Graduate School and worked for an IT company, Gaiax, prior to moving to the town of Gojome in Akita Prefecture in 2014 as a member of a local development team. Working from the Babame Base (Gojome Community Development Center) at the former Babame Elementary School, he helped launch various initiatives aimed at changing residents’ perceptions of their town. Projects coordinated included a consulting initiative for primary and traditional industries, a social laboratory for senior high school pupils to consider their community’s future, and an art management nurturing program in partnership with Akita University of Art. Yanagisawa became the founding director of Dochavengers General Incorporated Association when it was established by local companies and residents of Gojome in November, 2017, and has also managed the Babame Base since April, 2018.

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