October 31, 2003



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.14 (October 2003)
"Report on Environmental Education" Article Series No.3

In the last few years, a new movement to "rediscover one's community" has been growing throughout Japan. Local residents are leading this new drive, known as "Jimoto-gaku." It encourages citizens to rediscover the uniqueness of their lifestyles and regional culture in order to plan a thriving and livable community while being aware of outside influences.

The movement originated in Minamata City, where one of the world's worst cases of industrial pollution started unfolding in the 1950s, with its aftereffects still lasting today. The city came up with the idea of "Jimoto-gaku" to redesign itself as an environmental model city, transforming a bitter legacy into a positive future for its citizens. How was it possible? Let's take a closer look.

What is "Jimoto-gaku"?
All residents in a community take part in examining and learning about the wisdom, skills, human and natural capital of their community. In "Jimoto-gaku," local people are referred to as "people of the earth" and non-locals, "people of the wind." When working together, "people of the wind" offer ideas and viewpoints to "people of the earth," an approach that helps keep the community vibrant. Sometimes unique characteristics of the community can only be seen through the eyes of "people of wind." This "cross-breeze" helps to stimulate co-operation among residents who may have had little contact with each other. In addition, the wisdom of the elderly is a vital part of the equation of "Jimoto-gaku." The elderly have valuable ideas and lessons to impart to the next generation. In return, the elderly are infused with the power of youthful ideas and exuberance.

In "Jimoto-gaku," a community is defined as an administrative district such as a city, a town, a village, or an area sharing a common environment, history, or livelihood. It could also refer to a geographical area, such as a watershed, a basin, or an island.

The first step to understanding the uniqueness of a community begins with an evaluation of the strengths and assets of a community. Locating and understanding all assets is an important part in this process. A community's assets can include its environment, climate, culture, tradition, history and ethnicity. The next step is studying how these assets have evolved through time. Unique ways of life exist in unique environments, this is known as "shindofuji" a Buddhist term (meaning our bodies are inseparable from the environment, that is to say, the environment makes us what we are.) Understanding the uniqueness of the environment and daily life helps local residents to decide how much outside influence is appropriate.

Minamata's Transformation from "Polluted" to "Environmental" City Minamata City has long suffered from what has become known as Minamata Disease, an industrial disease caused by eating polluted fish and shellfish. Around 1954, many cats started dying of an unknown cause in local fishing villages. Although methyl mercury discharged by Chisso Co. had been suspected as the cause, the central government took no measures until 1968 when it acknowledged that the disease was caused by pollution from the Chisso factory. The government's failure to take prompt measures such as banning fishing, and the company's failure to stop producing the pollutant pushed the number of direct victims to over 10,000. Forty years since the discovery of the disease, no cure is yet available, and many victims of fetal Minamata Disease are suffering to this day.

Although the disease became known internationally, however, other than people in the fishing villages, residents of Minamata City knew little about the disease and its victims. Not only the local government but also ordinary citizens with various interests clashed with the victims. Over the years, citizens have learned to avoid touching this issue.

Mr. Tetsuro Yoshimoto, a local government official in charge of promoting regional revitalization at the time, thought that if citizens understood correctly what had happened in Minamata City and knew more about the community, it might contribute to solving the problem. To ensure that the many Minamata Disease victims had not suffered meaninglessly, he thought of applying this idea of community regeneration. He proposed a new idea for the community where local citizens could feel connected and proud. This was the birth of "Jimoto-gaku."

Yoshimoto then gathered ten citizens from the age of 20 to 50 from each of the 26 districts and organized a group that facilitated various activities in the area. Under the motto, "We will stop asking for things we don't have, and will start doing what we can," the group began searching for positive aspects around them. They also reexamined how Chisso Corporation had contaminated the food chain, the plight of the victims and the state of their community. Gradually, dialogue between the victims and the rest of the citizens started taking place, and their communication improved.

The conflict generated between the citizens and the victims transformed itself into positive energy to generate something new. Open, non-judgmental dialogue helped each group to recognize and accept differences with other groups. Citizens became eager to create a new community by and for themselves.

The first theme the citizens took up was water. They investigated the source of their water and wrote down the findings on a map. They then began inventorying other assets, including locally-grown yams, mountain plants and herbs, sweetfish, Shinto shrines, and ancient trees. Anything in a community could be seen as a precious asset. At first, people didn't imagine these things could be their assets. "These are assets? We have lots of them!" The residents all cooperated in making a local "resource map."

By practicing "Jimoto-gaku," the citizens realized how the city had capitulated to outside influences for short-term gains. They now have a clearer vision of what they would like to bestow on future generations and how to best accomplish that vision. Their conclusion was the creation of a community in harmony with nature, industry, local traditions and customs.

Today, Minamata City declares itself be an environmentally conscious city. The city established the "Minamata Environmental Prize," and "Environmental Meister System" that recognize producers of environmentally friendly products. As of October 2003, a total of 23 producers of organic green tea, rice, mandarin oranges, additive-free dried fish, and chemical-free traditional Japanese paper were officially recognized.

The city has also introduced what it calls "Environmental ISO," for home, schools and private businesses, a local version of the ISO 14001 international standard for environmental management. The city is also focusing on waste treatment. All waste is divided into 23 subcategories under five basic categories (recyclables, landfill, hazardous, bulky, and combustible waste). This is one of the most rigorous waste management efforts in the world. Minamata City is implementing its 10-year Basic Environment Plan, ending in 2005, aiming to be the world's most eco-friendly city.

"Jimoto-gaku" on the Rise
The concept of rediscovering your community has spread to over 100 municipalities across Japan. Mihama Town in Aichi Prefecture, which was one of the first to take up "Jimoto-gaku," has become a successful bamboo charcoal-producing village. This charcoal has become a specialty item in the area. The citizens in Yuta Town, Iwate Prefecture have been promoting alternative energy sources such as wind power and biomass. On a prefectural level, Iwate launched an "Iwate Jimoto-gaku" project in 1999 as part of a ten-year development plan, and has been reassessing local assets in the prefecture. Similar efforts are now underway in the prefectures of Gunma, Gifu, Kochi, Miyagi.

"En" (a wonderful Japanese word, translated as bond, fate, or karma in English) is appropriate in considering the underlying ideas of "Jimoto-gaku." There is "en" with nature, "en" with ancestors, and "en" with local residents who share a common future. "Jimoto-gaku" helps remind citizens of their communal "en," a feeling that had been fading in recent years.

By taking good care of the precious gifts of nature and the value of local customs and traditions, residents develop a wonderful sense of pride and love for their community. Ultimately we all are connected and decisions we make at a local level have the power to extend around the globe. Across the mountains, crossing the oceans, each community is connected with an invisible bond.

Minamata City:

(Staff writer Ayako Takahashi)