March 12, 2017


Sustainable Community Building by Residents: Kirari Yoshijima Network

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter Resilience Well-Being 

JFS Newsletter No.174 (February 2017)

Photo: Kawanishi Dahlia Garden
Image by Suz-b Some Rights Reserved.

All 725 households in the Yoshijima District (with a population of about 2,500) of Kawanishi Town, Higashi-Okitama County, Yamagata Prefecture, participate in a "specified non-profit corporation" named the "Kirari Yoshijima Network." Kirari (meaning a sparkle of light) has been an active force in local organizing, with the aim of "creating a community where each local citizen lives a fulfilling life and feels rich in spirit in every field." This JFS article is an interview with its executive director, Yoshikazu Takahashi, who spoke with "Interviews with 100 Japanese Social Entrepreneurs"* on September 7, 2016.

* "Interviews with 100 Japanese Social Entrepreneurs" is a series of interactive lectures that provide social entrepreneurs with opportunities to learn from their forerunners. The lectures have been held approximately once a month since June 2012 by the Social Business Network (SBN) and International Institute for Human, Organization and the Earth (IIHOE).

Residents Themselves Plan, Decide, and Run Their Own Community

Photo:Mr. Yoshikazu Takahashi
Mr. Yoshikazu Takahashi
Copyright Social Business Network
All Rights Reserved.

Yamagata Prefecture faces the Sea of Japan and has a population of about 1.2 million in the Tohoku region. Here, traditional support systems/relations still exist among families and communities, but it is important for residents to understand changes that may occur in the near future and take appropriate actions. As Yoshijima is a relatively small region and has a declining population, regional sustainability will be impossible if residents themselves do not bring together the human and other resources required to create the services they need.

The issues facing us are big, but we would like to resolve them by having dreams and a sense of fun. Without depending on the government, we wanted to make a system to resolve the challenges of life here by fostering the love of one's hometown and promoting multi-generational interactions.

In a small community, it's often the case in Japan that numerous organizations are created to achieve different objectives, but there may be many issues, such as sectionalism, lack of mutual coordination, overlapping of managerial positions, activities falling into routine habits, and surplus funds of each organization which should be used as collective fund for entire community, not for each specific purposes. On the other hand, a unified community management framework can facilitate quick consensus-building and simplified, efficient processes. It can also help create a functional and equitable relationship with the government, by consolidating and prioritizing the wishes of the community.

In 2004, we started to hold meetings to discuss establishing a new citizens' organization that could play a leading role in community building. We explained the advantages and disadvantages to residents in terms they could easily understand, sometimes using cartoons. After obtaining consent from senior leaders of community associations that had originally opposed the dissolution of long-standing associations, we finally established Kirari in 2007.

In this process, I sensed strongly that residents had never really thought about or decided what the community should be like. The local government's proposals come in thick documents filled with jargon, and elicit in residents the desire to simply leave decisions up to someone else. They tend to lose sight of their own independence and become indifferent.

Workshops for residents were created to make residents think and decide by themselves. When we started, the people were accustomed to approving or supporting whatever was offered to them but not accustomed to discussing things openly to find a direction. It may have been a fresh experience for them to think for themselves and bounce action plans and ideas off each other.

Listen to Needs and Then Turn Solutions into Reality

In the very first workshop, we expressed our sincere thanks to 15 people who attended. Then we asked them to share their concerns, complaints and views in their daily lives, and praised anyone who stated an opinion. We aimed to have a free and flexible discussion. Just attending the workshop deserved appreciation, and any opinion was to be recognized and not denied.

The secretariat helped clarify opinions provided so that all the participants could work together to come up with solutions. For example, if someone complained that only a few young people attend community activities, the secretariat would ask such questions as "What do you want the young to do?" or "What do you think the youth are seeking for?"

To our surprise, the attitude of residents gradually changed as we continued to hold the workshops. The residents have come to think more about how they can solve problems by providing their resources, such as skills, time and space, to their community, instead of just counting on the local government to improve the situation.

Of course, there are some who make negative comments or complain in the workshops. The secretariat staff then tactfully intervene to avoid ending up with "we cannot" do something or "we want the government to do it." They lead the discussions toward happier and more proactive improvement plans.

Previously there was no place for residents to let off steam, and we offer that, so the number of participants has grown through word of mouth. To hear opinions from a variety of people, we sometimes hold workshops targeting women or the elderly in addition to the regular workshops. The secretariat prepares reports on the workshops and summarizes the results of resident surveys. Such information is to be reflected in making concrete plans at the levels of subcommittees, secretariat meetings, administrative board, and general meetings. Showing this process to residents creates a virtuous cycle; that is, residents develop a better understanding of the way to solve problems, and then more and more people attend the workshops.

Since the workshops are not meetings for decision-making, participants can say anything they want. However, we need to clarify the goal at the planning stage, and tell them what the discussions will be used for. Without this understanding, they will not attend the workshop next time. Combining a "listening" process with a commitment to "turn talk into action" allows us to continue grasping resident needs.

Human Resource Development for the Community

Kirari's secretariat, which consists of five full-time and 23 part-time members, supports the activities of community residents by coordinating 54 projects in such areas as disaster prevention, lifelong learning, local production for local consumption, conserving the community environment, nurturing young people, and creating community bases for sports promotion. Each resident plays a role in community projects, while receiving benefits from such projects. Individual projects can earn an income through participation fees or tuition, and also receive Kirari's subsidies which are based on donations from residents and businesses. We think that it is important for project entities, such as community organizations or residents' associations, to compete with one another.

It is generally said that human resource development is important, but typically there is not much discussion about what kinds of persons are required. It is essential to nurture the needed human resources, and continuously bring in new people from the younger generation. Kirari asks 19 community centers, nearly on a mandatory basis, to recommend young people aged 18 to 35 for the secretariat, and then gives them a wide range of experience for four years. Anyone who becomes a member of the secretariat wins praise from the community, so some students say that they want to be recommended for the secretariat after graduating from college or university. That's how popular it is.

Since they will be working in a coordinating role for regional projects, secretariat staff are required to receive training on coaching and facilitation. Individuals who are promoted from secretariat staff positions to become managers and directors attend lectures from outside experts on management and marketing. When management has a certain level of management skills, secretariat staff can more confidently focus on their support for residents.

Skills gained from training can also be useful in each person's company, circles and regional activities, thereby benefiting the community. Secretariat staff who have developed their own skills eventually have their turn to recommend young people to become secretariat staff, which accelerates the generational change of staff. Kirari often organizes training courses for residents to gain knowledge and skills for projects initiated by citizens themselves. If staff invite people from their own circles to take the courses, the number of people who work with staff for projects will increase.

Linking with the Outside World and Creating Opportunities for Every Resident to Participate

If a community relies only on traditional local bonds to sustain itself, it will face resistance to change and stagnation in the community. This is why it is so important to change our styles in order to accept resources from outside and openly welcome people who come with ideas, knowledge and experience to share with the community.

If opportunities are provided for a variety of residents to join, people who have received support can eventually make the transition into people who can then offer support. For example, a person with dementia ended up teaching things in a group setting, and a person who retired from a career got a new start offering footcare massage after obtaining certification. In an after-school care program, elderly persons help with the operation of the program, and a retired teacher teaches children on each individual's weak subject as a self-started program to meet children's and parents' requests. In an agricultural youth community with many "u-turn" farmers (returning to farming after living in the city), agricultural trainees are accepted, rural-urban exchanges are held, and products are developed and sold, through which young people help to increase the incomes of senior farmers.

We should always be conscious of how we can present our activities to others in order to increase the number of people who feel connected to us. This will help our projects continue and expand. It is important to have a combination of skills need to propose ideas, and also to implement them. If grant funding is used for a project, one should not use up all of the money until it is gone, but rather, use some of it to maintain momentum and invest in the next project.

It is also important to be willing to accept new arrivals from other places, including "U-turners" (people who were rural-born, worked in city, then returned to live and work in their original community) and "I-turners" (born, raised, and worked in city, but moved out to countryside to live). The preparation of housing alone is not enough for their settlement. For example, if newcomers complain that neighborhood association fees are too expensive, we go to them and explain the budget details and allocations, and how fees are collected. Resident associations help newcomers deal with things that may be unfamiliar for them, like clearing away snow and learning how to use a snow shovel. To facilitate their settlement in the local community, we encourage them to start by taking on less-demanding roles, such as being the vice-chair of a neighborhood association rather than chair.

First Improve Visibility from Outside, Then Earn Confidence from Local Community

For three years after we established Kirari, we received many inquiries about our achievements, from inside and outside the region. We made an effort to make our activities known to residents through frequent testimonials from people who had benefited from our activities. Stories appeared on cable television and radio, and we distributed activity reports to all households. As a result, we also attracted attention from other communities and were often asked for information on our activities, forging good relationships with them.

Since we are implementing many programs for women, children and the elderly, we are supported by people in the same generation as my parents and child-rearing mothers. If there is any resistance it is mainly from men of my generation. But since their parents and wives are supporters of Kirari, they have no choice but to keep quiet.

As for me personally, I do have a love and passion for community building, but what really drives me is the people. All I do is give my best effort to support the things the residents themselves have decided. I think that at this point, systems are in place so that things will work fine even without me. Recently I have been visiting other regions to introduce the "Kirari model," which I think could be described as "community-driven community building." Since I am often away, I am glad to see that the local residents realize that they can't always count on me to be here, and that they can handle things themselves.

This article is translated from Japanese in the website of Social Business Network:
"Interviews with 100 Japanese social entrepreneurs:
Learning from the business models of veteran social entrepreneurs"