June 26, 2012


In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness -- Community-building in Koura Town, Shiga Prefecture

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.117 (May 2012)

In April 2012, a high-level meeting on well-being and happiness was jointly held by the United Nations and the Royal Government of Bhutan at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has been proposed by the government of Bhutan, is receiving increasing attention throughout the world.

Through the courtesy of Mr. Shuichi Hirayama, a development consultant, in this issue we will briefly introduce the approach taken by Koura Town, Shiga Prefecture in western Japan, as described in his book, "GNH (Gross National Happiness) -- To Create a Contented Society for All Humanity" (Kaizosha, 2011).

Town Left behind by Development

Koura Town is located southeast of Hikone City on the left bank of the Inukami River, which flows from the Suzuka Mountains into Lake Biwa. Koura has a population of nearly 8,000, but its landscape of an old-fashioned farming community still remains. Koura has made efforts to conserve its landscape and community, and we feel it could be considered a "Japanese version of Bhutan."

Koura has neither broad arterial roads nor highway interchanges. There are no prominent industrial parks, either. It is also a long commute to large cities such as Nagoya and Kyoto from Koura, which is not close to Lake Biwa. Thus, it can be said that Koura has virtually no outstanding features and has been left behind by development. However, it was the residents of Koura themselves who chose not to pursue development of their community by promoting industry and transportation.

Farm consolidation started around 1981 in Koura. Traditional gently terraced paddy fields were flattened so that large-scale agricultural machinery could operate smoothly, and many persimmons and other miscellaneous trees planted on levees between rice fields were removed. Far from being happy to see paddy field management become more efficient, residents at that time developed a sense of crisis, thinking, "Although the rice fields are neater and the scenery has been simplified, we no longer have water running in our community canals. Is this truly good?" or "If this large-scale farm consolidation project advances, how will our lives be affected?" This sense of crisis triggered a review of development options from that time on.

Between 1988 and 1989, the government led by then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita granted 100 million yen (about US$1.26 million) to each and every municipality in Japan as part of the Hometown Revitalization Project. This grant, which could be used for regional promotion, actually changed Koura residents' attitude toward development. At this time, they thought: "Let's spend the money to realize the dreams and promote the well-being of residents rather than simply seek economic efficiency." As a result, they used the national government grant to foster their community.

As a result of these decision, residents of Koura, "left behind by development," have now built a beautiful town with archetypal Japanese landscapes. In Koura, development activities are called not "community promotion" but "community conservation." This is a phrase coined by the late Mr. Toichi Nose, a well-known figure in Koura, whose idea was: "If development cannot make people in the community happy, then development is meaningless."

This approach taken Koura, like a top runner one lap behind as is said of Bhutan, is now highly appreciated in various quarters as the latest pioneering approach.

The Virtue of Soil

From olden times up until today, fireflies were familiar to Japanese people as a sign of the early summer season. Koura residents became alarmed at how the rapid disappearance of forests caused the disappearance of many species that used to live in irrigation canals. However, when asked by an out-of-town researcher whether they knew where fireflies are born, what they eat, and how they grow, residents became awkwardly silent.

Fireflies lay their eggs in weeds and grass, and their larvae survive the winter in the mud of river bottoms. However, weeds and grass were assiduously mowed in Koura. Moreover, as part of irrigation canal management, mud was cleared from the channels in autumn after the rice was harvested. One of the leaders of a community-building project noticed that in this situation fireflies wouldn't be able to survive. He thus began to clean water channels in a way that would not disturb fireflies.

His actions would seem useless from the standpoint of economic efficiency, but not from the standpoint of contributing to a higher quality for himself together with the protection of the local natural environment. Human activities are not the only factor in creating regional landscapes. The natural environment and ecosystem are also important factors that help create the characteristics of any region.

Koura residents often mention "the virtue of soil." This phrase indicates a way of thinking in which virtue exists not only in the human community but also in the qualities of the regional environment that have cultivated the local community.

Koura residents have learned to grasp the essence of things by considering fireflies. In addition to an improved landscape, the quality of residents' spiritual lives was also enhanced. Knowledge and experience of familiar species, even tiny fireflies, have been converted into assets that improve the quality of life which had formerly gone unnoticed.

School Routes Where Children Can Drop by to Play

The intensity of our attachment to our hometown may be partly affected by our childhood experiences of daily life and play. People in Koura think that there are three factors that nurture people: time, friends, and play space, which were all abundant in the past.

"Children used to play in public spaces around paddy fields, rivers, temples, and shrines. But now, children play in parks, roads or in the front yards of their homes," says a resident of Koura. It is no surprise that the way people interact with nature varies depending on the places where they played in childhood. Children who play in artificially improved places interact differently with nature than those who play in less strictly controlled areas.

In Koura, local community roads did not formerly receive budget allocations for improvement and management works, but this policy was reviewed from the viewpoint of children. As a result, community roads have been improved under the town's environment improvement project for canal waterfronts. Flower beds and benches have been installed along canals to create "Pocket Parks" -- small open areas (small parks or rest areas) using limited areas of land mainly on the side of a road or in vacant lots downtown. In creating Pocket Parks, the town did not buy these boundary areas between public and private lands, but left them in the hands of private owners. Trees in the boundary areas were rearranged, and grass, flowers, and paving stones were placed in the areas so as to give them an open appearance.

This is one way Koura has developed public spaces to help children interact with nature. For example, under a policy to involve the entire community in watching and nurturing children, improvements were made to roads used every day by children to commute schools; as result they are not bleak but are beautifully maintained by the people in the community. It is quite different for children living in urban cities, who are not allowed to take a routes other than designated school roads that have been fixed for security reasons or for the convenience of their schools or parents.

In this town, children on the way back from their school can be found playing in canals with their school bags thrown on the road side. "I found river crabs here!" Just like that, without hesitation, children will greet a person they don't even know. It is hoped that school commuting roads like these will contribute to making the children grow into good people.

Village Where Anybody Can Play an Important Role

Nowadays in Japan, the number of single households is increasing. If you live in an urban area and don't go outside, for example, you could easily spend the whole day without meeting or speaking to anybody. On the other hand, if you live in a village, you cannot avoid participating in community activities whether you like it or not, because a village is an autonomous community that necessarily requires community activities.

Such a binding situation has its advantages and disadvantages. Looking at it in a positive light, we can see that all individuals are needed, at least by the community to which they belong. In order to feel happiness, it seems increasingly important to realize a society where people have many opportunities to play an active role in a community where each resident is respected as an individual.

In Japan, municipal employees are not elected by the people, in contrast to councilors and mayors. Therefore, municipal employees consider their work as just a job. Those with such a mindset may grasp the needs of citizens as a matter of business, but as long as they are not actual residents in the community, it would be natural for them to limit their involvement in community activities. Koura municipal employees make efforts to interact and talk with residents in various situations and try to grasp the needs of the residents at all times. As one municipal employee said, "It seems to be not so much citizens participating in official activities as it is officials participating in citizen activities." Koura's municipal employees play a central part in community-building activities. At present, employees of town hall live in 12 out of Koura's 13 districts, and play an active role as members of the community-building committees in their respective districts.

Partly with this background, town residents are the main players on Koura's community-building committees. Community-building activities in fact require all kinds of talents. Taking park improvement as an example, people blessed with intelligence alone won't be able to improve the park unless there is also someone who has masonry skills or can operate heavy machinery. You also need someone to explain the plan to residents in an easy-to-understand manner, as well as people who don't mind doing simple tasks without complaining. In this town, any resident can play a part and every resident is a necessary human resource in community-building activities.

When residents are needed by their community in some way and also have a desire to do something for the community, the bonds within the community will be strengthened if opportunities are offered. Many Koura residents consider that happiness comes from being able to continue offering such opportunities. They also believe that the mindset, sensitivity and values that allow them to feel happy just going about their daily activities have their roots in the way their ancestors protected and valued the natural environment, culture, traditions and people around them.

"We just want to build a community where residents can lead their lives with smiles on their faces." This epitomizes the attitude of the municipality about the direction of community-building to pursue Gross National Happiness.

Adapted from "In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness -- Community-building in Koura Town, Shiga Prefecture" Written by Shuichi Hirayama in "GNH (Gross National Happiness) -- To Create a Contented Society for All Humanity" (Kaizosha, 2011) Summary by Hiroyo Hasegawa

Further reading: Bhutan: Creating Index to Measure People's Happiness