September 30, 2008


Small Japanese Town Goes Its Own Way to Be Self-Sustainable

Keywords: Newsletter 

The Story of Yamatsuri in Fukushima Prefecture

JFS Newsletter No.73 (September 2008)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.22

To get to the remarkable town of Yamatsuri, first go to Ueno Station in central Tokyo and take the eastbound Super Hitachi express train on the JR Joban Line. After the one-hour trip to Mito Station in Ibaraki Prefecture, transfer to the JR Suigun Line, which goes north along a peaceful river for about one and a half hours, and get off at Higashidate Station. This is the stop closest to Yamatsuri's government office, which is surrounded by beautiful, green countryside. The town of less than 7,000 people is located at the gate of the Tohoku region, in Higashi-Shirakawa Gun, in the southernmost part of Fukushima Prefecture.

The town's boundaries include an area of 118 square kilometers, of which 70 percent is forested. The Kuji River flows leisurely through the middle of town, and the Abukuma mountain range stretches to the east, while the Yamizo mountain range lies to the west. Major farm products of the town are flowers such as cyclamens, and fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, yuzu citrons, and shiitake mushrooms. In summer, many tourists come to fish the Kuji River for ayu, also called sweetfish.

Yamatsuri Declares Its Independence

This small town attracted attention across Japan when it declared that it would not merge with any other municipality, a decision unanimously adopted by the town assembly on October 31, 2001, and a move that caused somewhat of an upheaval. The central government of the time had announced its policy to reduce the number of Japan's municipalities from 3,200 to about 1,000, in order to cut back on costs such as local tax grants and subsidies, which represented a drastic cutback of important financial resources for small municipalities. To accomplish its goal, as an incentive, the government amended the Municipal Merger Law to provide special financial support for municipalities that merged by March 2005. Small local governments facing financial difficulties, of course, actively promoted merging during the time called the "Great Mergers of the Heisei Era."

Against this backdrop, Yamatsuri's decision not to merge with any other municipality created a sensation throughout Japan, because, here was a small town that had decided to maintain its independence despite the financial challenges, rather than resort to a municipal merger.

The town's declaration made newspaper and TV headlines, and a steady stream of administrative officials from other parts of the country visited the Yamatsuri local government to find out more. The town also received questions from many about how it thought it could survive without merging with another municipality. Through the meetings with visitors and with the focus of the whole country on them, the Yamatsuri town officials came to be aware of the significance of their declaration and their grave responsibility, and they were challenged regarding the wisdom of their decision and their ability to act.

Yamatsuri Town Declaration to Not Merge with Other Municipalities
(Japanese only)

Creating a Town Filled with the Happy Voices of Children

In August 2003, the Yamatsuri town government launched its administrative and financial reforms through radical structural changes and personnel relocation. It was able to reduce a large amount of human resources costs by reviewing and restructuring the town's operations and systems, while at the same time increasing the quality of public service, extending its service hours by adopting flexible working hours for its workers, and also opening branch offices at the homes of town officials for residents in the deep mountains and elderly people living alone.

In order to show the basic stance of the town's aim to be self-sustaining, they enacted the Yamatsuri Town Basic Ordinance in 2006 as its constitution. Its preamble describes the declaration that it would not merge with other municipalities as "the manifestation of a strong resolution of the Yamatsuri townspeople who love and want to protect their hometown." In addition to enacting the ordinance, they launched the Third Five-year Yamatsuri Comprehensive Plan under the slogan, "Creating a Town Filled with the Happy Voices of Children."

The most critical issue for Yamatsuri in being a small but self-sustaining town was to pay attention to its population. Because the town chose not to merge with any other municipality, it had to at least retain the current number of households to maintain its current level of population. They decided that the most important way to realize that goal would be to create a town where the next generation, their children, could continue to live there with love and pride. Therefore, they decided to place the support for childcare at the center of its policies, so that the benefits of their administrative and financial reforms would be effectively utilized to benefit their children, the future of the community.

The town's first step was to integrate the services it provided at its single day care center and two kindergartens. In Japan, while day care centers, which are supervised by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, provide childcare services mainly for working parents, kindergartens, which are supervised by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, provide the education service to children aged three to five. The town's move was to eliminate the administrative differences between the two systems and categorized a day care center and kindergarten by the age of children to be cared for; the former is for newborns to three-year-olds and the latter for four- to five-year-olds. Kindergarten hours were extended and offered for free, and the fees for the daycare center and kindergartens were set much lower than in other municipalities. With these revisions now in place, working mothers in the town don't have to worry as much about where to send their small children while they worked. In addition, the town gives a cash gift of one million yen (about US$9,520) to a family at the birth of the third child and 1.5 million yen (about US$14,290) at the birth of the fourth child. Besides these incentives, other measures were put in place to support the raising of children.

Yamatsuri Mottainai Library

Among them, however, there was one measure that the townspeople would not be able to accomplish on their own, which was to establish a public library. Reading is an essential part of every child's development, but there was no bookstore in town, so parents had to go to a neighboring town to buy books. Lacking the financial resources to build a public library, the townspeople began searching for a solution to establish one without spending too much money. A certain newspaper company became aware of the situation and published an article about the town's efforts on its domestic news page, calling on readers nationwide to donate used books from their households.

After the article was published, on July 18, 2006, the town government received nearly 400 phone inquiries and 80 to 90 boxes full of books every day. Forty-three volunteers worked as members of the "library launch committee" to sort and organize the donated books. They were deeply touched by the good will of the people who sent them books, but still overwhelmed the incoming flood of donated books.

In total, an amazing 435,000 books were donated. Unfortunately, however, some volunteers fell sick due to the hard work of book sorting day after day. Soon, one after another, town residents who came to know about this hard situation started to help with the sorting work, and the number of volunteers grew to as many as 191 in the end. On January 14, 2007, half a year after the news article was published, a long-cherished dream of the people of Yamatsuri, a public library, was finally opened in a remodeled hall, once used for martial arts training, with plenty of wood from the management of local forests in the prefecture used in the interior, making the place warm and cozy.

Named the Yamatsuri Mottainai (meaning "not wasting what is valuable") Library, it holds 60,000 books, donated through the goodwill of people from all over Japan, and sorted and organized by townspeople, all neatly lined up by category. During school summer holidays, many children do their homework there, reading, or enjoying chatting. On peak days of the summer holiday season, there are as many as 140 people visiting the library daily.

The chief librarian, Kumeo Sagawa, was one of the volunteers who sorted out the books for the library. Looking happily at the names of book donors inscribed on glass panes at the library, he expressed his gratitude toward the donors throughout Japan and pleasure at the establishment of the town's library. He said that, although the town is not currently accepting book donations, the books sent through the goodwill of people nationwide are all being stored, with not one of them discarded. Some are lent out to community centers in remote mountainous areas and so on. Sagawa, a former junior high school science teacher, seemed to enjoy interacting with children visiting the library more than anything else.

Allowing the Use of Trading Stamps to Pay Public Utility Charges

Yamatsuri used another unique approach in town. Starting in August 2006, it began allowing residents to use trading stamps and shopping coupons issued by the local store association to pay nursing-care insurance premiums, childcare fees, public utility charges such as water service rates, residents' taxes, property taxes, and so on. Shoppers receive one stamp per 100 yen (95 U.S. cents) they spend when shopping at participating stores. A sheet with 280 stamps is worth 500 yen, and the two types of shopping coupons are worth either 500 yen or 1,000 yen.

Japanese law does not allow the use of trading stamps or other such things to pay taxes, so under the town's tax payment system, if local residents bring their stamps or coupons to the town's office, the official personnel bring them to the chamber of commerce to issue checks worth the amount of the stamps or coupons, and then they can cash their check at any financial institution. Today, the town gives out shopping coupons as gifts for residents aged 80 or more to celebrate their longevity, rewards for regional fire crews, and a part of bonuses for town personnel. In this way, the whole town is engaged in revitalizing the local stores.

This payment system reflects the character of a community currency system, which is gradually spreading throughout Japan. Community currencies are interest-free currencies circulated in specific local regions, with the aim of promoting the local circulation of goods and services, and ultimately to revitalize regions by actively using the currencies in each local community. Yamatsuri's approach is mainly aimed at revitalizing local stores so far, but if trading stamps and shopping coupons could be exchanged for a wider range of goods and services, such as local farm products and volunteer services by local residents, then this approach could further energize the whole town.

"How can they survive without a merger?" Seven years ago, many people raised this question over the town's decision not to merge with any other municipality. But now, by capitalizing on the advantages of a small town, the municipality of Yamatsuri is steadily revitalizing the town for the sake of the happiness of its residents. Small is beautiful; big does not necessarily bring about happiness. No matter how small a local community is, a truly affluent town can be built if all the residents pool their wisdom and help one another take steps towards their goals. In this sense, this very small town, Yamatsuri, and the people who love their hometown will continue to thrive.

(Written by Ichie Tsunoda)