Lessons from Ama town in Japan

Composed of 14 small costal villages on the island of Nakanoshima, Ama town is one of the four inhabited islands of Oki archipelago. Detached from the mainland by a sea, some 60 kilometres off the coast of Shimane prefecture in western Japan, Oki archipelago consists of 180 isolated islands. These islands are popular for many reasons. It begins with its geo-historical evolution. The place on which these islands exist today was once a deep sea. Out of this sea surfaced several landmasses now known as Oki islands, in consequent to repeated volcanic activities over a million of years ago.

Surrounded by unique geological formation and remoteness of their location, these islands possess striking landscapes, unique ecosystem, rich marine diversity, and distinct culture and lifestyles.  Oki islands were designated as one of the 120 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 2013 in recognition for their rich geological heritage. These islands are now turning into a much sought-after holiday destination, fishing and sightseeing excursions. It is gaining increasing publicity in the media, among policy makers and academics from Japan and other countries in recent years.

However, at the core of this newly discovered popularity is the town of Ama, with a population of roughly 2,300 inhabitants, battling to reverse the tide of migration and rural depopulation. Like any other rural communities across Japan, Ama was overwhelmed by demographic crisis following a huge population loss to migration since 1960s. The town had lost two-third (67%) of its population already from 7,000 inhabitants in 1960. Coupled with huge population shrinkage, the town is also plagued by low birth and high ageing rates. Current ageing rate of the town population is 39%, which is significantly above the national rate of 23%. That is, one out of three residents in the town is above the age of 65. Young population below the age of 19 constitute only 10%.

Independence of Ama town itself was at stake at some point in time due to its poor financial circumstances. While most townships, bogged down by financial difficulties, would prefer a merger with other municipalities to receive special subsidies from the central government, Ama opted to remain independent. Thanks to a visionary Mayor Michio Yamauchi, who took a brave stand to restore the town’s financial situation and receding local population. Yamauchi has been the Mayor since 2002 and is serving his fourth consecutive term today. Local authority and the members of community adopted a two-pronged strategy known as ‘defensive and offensive strategies’ under the town’s governing principles, ‘independence, challenge, and interaction.’

Major educational, financial, administrative, and settlement reforms were initiated over the course of time. One of the defensive strategies adopted was voluntary salary reduction by the local government authorities and employees to improve fiscal balance. The mayor set a high financial discipline by cutting down his salary almost by half as soon as he was elected. Other town hall officials and local assembly members followed suit drawing on the mayor’s high principle. As a result of voluntary pay reduction, the town is estimated to accrue a saving of nearly 200 million yen annually.

Local people were overwhelmed by generosity of their leaders. They reciprocated by forgoing some of their traditional benefits such as subsidised transportation fees from the government. Furthermore, they welcomed tax reforms by increasing tax on the existing structure and widening tax base of their local economy. Outlook of their local financial position, which was predicted to enter into negative by 2006, however leapfrogged to a comfortable position.

Set to arrest town’s declining birth rate, revenue generated through this reform has been utilized to support marriage and child raising schemes. Monetary gift for childbirth ranges from USD 1,000 to 10,000 depending on the number of childbirths in the family. With it comes free medical, educational and transportation services. The initiative instantly yielded positive results. Average annual childbirth in the community doubled to 18 between 2013 and 2015 from eight children a decade ago between 2003 and 2005. The only childcare centre in the town constructed to cater to maximum of 90 children has run out of space forcing 30 families to keep their children at home.

The only Senior High School in the town was once on the verge of closure due to low enrolment rate. A Miryokuka Project was launched to address declining student population in 2007. Extensive consultations and sensitization campaigns were conducted in all villages on the desperate future of the school. Parents were requested to send their children to local schools instead of sending them to the mainland. The project prioritized curriculum reforms by introducing additional syllabus on the island’s pressing issues such as depopulation, declining birth rates, and economic challenges. While students learn about these issues, they are also encouraged to come up with different ideas to overcome them. In addition, students are also taught about the island’s rich natural resources and their economic values. These subjects are introduced to infuse entrepreneurial ideas so that students can return to the islands after their studies to exploit these resources.

To supplement regular classroom learning and prepare local students to face competition with the students of the mainland, Oki Dozen Learning Center was set up. This Center primarily facilitates students to prepare for their common examinations, formulate future career paths and gain admission into competitive universities. It also provides live video tutorials to students on different subjects by experts from all over Japan. Due to these initiatives, student population rebounded to about 180 students in 2016 from a record low of 86 students in 2008.

On the economic and trade fronts, the town has been successful in exporting some of its products in competitive markets in the mainland and overseas. Two famous export commodities of the island are Oki beef and rock oyster. Behind this successful marketing was exclusive local branding and packaging, accompanied by high quality products. To encourage spending and boost locally owned businesses, the town has its own community currency.

It depended on the expertise of ‘I-turn’ residents who have come to work and live on the island. I-turn residents are migrants from other parts of Japan and constitute about 10% of the town’s total population. They have played crucial roles in the town’s revitalization process. The town hall has leased empty houses from the owners, who are currently living in the cities so that I-turners can occupy them at subsidised rents. This initiative has been introduced to encourage inflow of I-turners to the island with their unique skills and expertise.

A town that was once destined to fade away in all aspects of economy, administrative autonomy, population, and local lifestyles has taken the edge off the path of disappearance. Each village has at least one project designed to stimulate village economy and realize the town’s long-term vision. Backed by regular monitoring and tight feedback system, all undergoing projects have made notable breakthroughs.

Bhutan is currently at some stage of urbanization. Issue of rural-urban migration will continue to plague this nation and will get worse in the years to come. Uncontrolled migration into the urban centres will soon empty some of the villages. As early as 2005, about 44% of population are found concentrated in western Bhutan and only about 27% of people living in the eastern part of the country.

To prepare for eventualities of rural-urban migration and draw lessons from Ama, JICA Bhutan Office had already sent three batches of Bhutanese officials to learn from and study this town. The first and second batches, consisting of senior civil servants including Secretaries and mid-level civil servants from different ministries, visited the town in 2016. The recent group consisting of Gewog Administrative Officers, officials of CSOs and research officers of CBS and GNH took part in JICA Knowledge Co-Creation Program. Though fundamental disparities exist between Japan and Bhutan, in terms of technological advancement and literacy, the latter can definitely learn from Ama’s remarkable initiatives.

Contributed by

Melam Chozang

Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH