2017 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Mayville State University

The future of the back roads and little farm towns in an urbanizing Asia:
A case study exploring cultural change in the rural communities of Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Mentors: Aaron Kingsbury, Assistant Professor of Geography and Political Science; and Lonamalia Smith, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Students: Cherokee Durant, Cheyenne Durant, Ingrid Hefta, Megan Maassel, Nicholas Peterson, and Donte Stevens

Project Abstract

Asia is urbanizing, and Japan is no exception. Agriculture continues to decline in importance, and people move to urban spaces for better opportunities. In turn, this leaves the countryside marginalized. With six students and two co-faculty mentors, our research team worked under the broader framework of socio-economic change in rural Japan through case studies in the Kofu Basin of Yamanashi Prefecture. The Kofu Basin has one of the longest histories of horticultural cropping in the country, but it has never been an area known for rice. Rather, its history is that of mulberry and sericulture, peaches, and somewhat unique in Japan, hillsides covered in verdant, pergola-trellised grape vines. Socio-economic change in the region has been constant and often profound.

The projects of individual student team members focused on the impact of the declining farm sector on the rise of wild boar, traditional health care in a greying society, K-12 education in smaller towns, innovative marketing by the local wine industry in revitalizing rural economies, and LGBT+ social justice concerns in provincial places. Our understanding of the myriad of cultural landscapes and the changes affecting rural communities was documented with a collaboratively scripted and student-directed film shot with a prosumer camera and a sUAS (i.e., a drone). Every project of our team stood alone, yet each team member was directly involved in the research of other members. Projects and activities for individuals, multiple people, and the entire group were organized in a manner that encouraged and supported individual agency, yet tied us together as a cohesive and dynamic research team. Students had ample opportunities to interact with Japanese collaborators and gained confidence in the field research process to achieve specific personal research and/or professional objectives. Overarching collective experiences for the entire team in support of these outcomes included volunteering at a rural LGBT+ pride event, attending social outings with local university students, assisting members of a grape growing cooperative in light farm work, regular meals and BBQ events with farmers, interacting with pupils at various K-12 institutions, joining in a choir group for elderly women, and collaborating to produce our film that is expected to be submitted to a regional film festival.

Various end products and new professional directions are being produced both individually and as a team. Students have presented at an international conference in Tokyo and are scheduled to present at a number of regional conferences in the fall. Two students have recently entered graduate school in areas related to their Japan research experiences. Overall, our research team better understands the little farm towns in Japan and the USA. Our experiences investigating the culture and people of smaller and less studied Japanese communities was spectacular. It re-conceptualized our own notions of rurality, and provided hope for the more sustained maintenance of socio-economic vitality in peripheral places.

Cherokee Durant

Comparing Traditions in Rural Healthcare for the Elderly in Japan and Native American Cultures

Cherokee Durant braves a traditional Japanese snack…grasshoppers!

 A key focus of public health research is examining medical practices and health disparities in diverse populations. The focus of my project was to assess factors contributing to the health and well-being of the elderly population of rural Japan. Changes in contemporary Japanese society have resulted in younger generations migrating from rural areas to the cities, seemingly leaving aging relatives on their own. This is a trend shared in many Native American communities in the United States. I sought to draw from experiences in Japanese healthcare to better understand how to improve public health in my own tribe.

My research was largely focused on the practice of Kampo medicine, which is a Japanese incarnation of Chinese traditional medicine. It is a set of practices Japanese have relied on to maintain health for many generations. Interestingly, Kampo is often blended with more Western styles of medical care, such as when patients are not improving using more contemporary methods. Like Japan, many Native American cultures value this combination of traditional herbal practices with more modern medicine. To better understand my research topic, I conducted an in-depth literature review. Data for this study was then taken from interviews with a number of Kampo doctors and patients. I intend to expand on this research during my current graduate degree program. Overall, my goal is to serve underserved populations, such as the elderly, in public health. This will bring success in closing the generation gap and assist people of every background to live long and healthy lives.

On the surface, Japanese and Native American cultures appear quite different. Despite this, on deeper levels they share many similarities. Both show a great deal of respect for the elderly and have more traditional forms of healing. Both groups also share a level of friction between more traditional health cultures and the adaptation of more “Western” styles of medicine. This project studied the cultural context of using Kampo, essentially a Japanese adaptation of Chinese herbal medicine, in contemporary Japan.

My experience in Japan was enlightening. I didn’t know schools taught children to be self-reliant at a young age. They participated in activities that fostered team work, such as cleaning their school. The people were very courteous and would offer to help if they felt they could. I was surprised that most people in Japan view traditional medicine like Kampo as complementary to contemporary medicine instead of being antagonistic. Despite it being a developed and technologically advanced society, Japan has not abandoned all of its traditions. In principle, Western medicine is at odds with more traditional forms of healing. However, the Japanese have been able to embrace Kampo in addition to contemporary medicine. It’s not uncommon for Japanese doctors to refer patients to Kampo practitioners when there is no marked improvement resulting from modern medical care.

 Cheyenne Durant

Farm Abandonment, Wildlife Invasion, and Possible Solutions

Cheyenne Durant works with local farmers on ways to keep pests out of orchards and vineyards.

Socio-economic changes in rural Japan have resulted in the creation of new habitat for wild boar, deer, and crows. In effect, many of these animals are now able to thrive in abandoned farmland in areas at lower elevations, causing extensive crop damage to the surviving rice paddies, vineyards, and orchards in the Yamanashi Prefecture. Surveys of the Yamanashi countryside and interviews with local farmers were conducted to provide insight on the problem and to find optimal solutions that might both protect the wildlife while preserving the livelihoods of local residents.

This study found that urbanization and more specifically a migration of Japanese youth from rural to more urban areas has been a major cause of farm abandonment.  Additionally, the decline in populations of feral dogs and a reduction in human maintenance of the landscape (e.g., abandoned fields of mulberry for silkworm) have also contributed to the problem.  Furthermore, the importation and later release of exotic pets, such as raccoon and palm civet, has complicated the challenge of defending crops. Finally, the likely influence of Buddhism and strict gun restrictions have discouraged hunting from becoming a lucrative career, meaning farmers must rely on fences, decoys, and other preventive measures to protect their crops.

Through this project I learned to explore environmental problems not simply by looking through a biological lens, but through multiple, and often interconnected, perspectives. I have also learned to better work with people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to effectively solve complex issues. The experience I gained in designing, organizing, and conducting such projects will prove vital to my career in resource management.

This project helped me develop skills in properly conducting interviews. Speaking with the residents strengthened by ability in communicating questions in an effective manner, especially when interviewing people with differing backgrounds and perceptions. My listening skills have also improved with this experience, as I learned to better take in answers and try to see from the respondents’ perspective. Listening to others’ ideas to possible solutions also helped broaden my worldview, which is imperative when working with others. I have learned to condense necessary information into concise notes rather than drawn out with excessive detail, which helps keep interviews flowing in a timely manner. These interviews also exposed me to the use of different technology to help record data, which helped me gain confidence working with various equipment to obtain what is needed for the project.

This project has already helped me prepare and connect with a graduate program of interest. Looking into the relationships of how humans, invasive species, and environments are influencing each other helped me gain experience in researching topics in natural resource management. Scientific research doesn’t focus solely on the biological aspects, it incorporates the anthropological as well. When it comes to preserving natural resources, such as land and fruit-bearing crops, it’s vital to consider the factors of the community and how it interacts with the local wildlife. My ultimate goal is to help find the right balance so both people and animals can coexist peacefully in a sustainable environment and to study how the evolution of Yamanashi’s rural communities affect wildlife, and in turn how they affected farmers’ livelihoods provided a solid foundation to complete that goal. This project allowed me to hone my skills as a researcher, such as planning how to conduct research, collecting and organizing data, and then analyzing it to help find the best possible solution in combatting the problems presented.

 Ingrid Hefta

LGBT+ Communities in Rural Japan

Ingrid Hefta and Donte Stevens meet a local producer of soymilk and tofu after a morning group run with Dr. Kingsbury.

This experience came at an ideal time in my life. I had just finished my freshman year in college and had never traveled abroad. I knew I would learn a great deal, but did not figure it would have such an impact. My research project compared the LGBT+ community in rural Japan and its counterpart in rural America. While there I was able to conduct a total of six interviews with respondents from Kofu City and Tokyo. Throughout these interviews, I realized that despite considerable geographic and cultural differences, LGBT+ communities in both countries shared a number of similarities, particularly in how they are viewed by the heteronormative population.  I found that the Japanese LGBT+ community faces a lot of the same problems, yet also draws strength from organizations trying to help educate and spread acceptance.

I did experience a fair amount of cultural shock when I first arrived in Japan. Kofu City, although small by Japanese standards, is huge compared with my hometown of less than 2,000 residents (and only one traffic light). I also had to adjust to the considerably different cultural and language barriers. However, with time, I grew accustomed to these differences and began to feel confident in doing things alone. Toward the conclusion of the trip, I felt very well adjusted to my new surroundings and had no desire to return home. This progression is also mirrored in my confidence conducting qualitative fieldwork. Although nervous at the start, I became more confident over time. I even had my best ever experience speaking publically at the conference our group attended in Tokyo.  Overall, I am still unclear what direction I wish to pursue for a career. However, I feel as if I will be able draw from these experiences, and the new confidence I earned, no matter the career path I choose.

I also feel that I personally grew as a person as a result of my experiences in Japan. Before departure, I was nervous knowing that I would feel out of place while in Japan. Indeed, I had never been outside of the Upper Plains of the USA. With that said, I was surprised with how quickly I was able to adapt to my new surroundings. One thing I was not expecting from this experience was my new-found love and appreciation for the Japanese public transportation system. I was surprised not only by its reliability and the Japanese citizen’s respect for it, but also their respect for public places in general.  During this month, I learned a great deal about Japanese culture. By the end of the trip, I had grown comfortable not only in a Japanese cultural setting but also conducting interviews with local respondents. I was sad I had to leave and would have stayed given any opportunity to do so.

To be honest, through my experiences in Japan I have become more confident in myself. For example, I was able to travel alone to Osaka to see a K-pop concert (something I would never have dreamed of doing before). I also hated public speaking, but while presenting at the Lakeland Conference in Tokyo felt calm in a situation that would usually have caused me a great deal of stress. Although I have still yet to declare a major and still have no idea what path I wish to pursue as a career, I feel this new-found self-confidence will be helpful in whatever field I choose. Indeed, I am also somewhat surprised to say I am excited to be able to present at upcoming conferences and look forward to the new things and professional directions that may result. Finally, I am very excited to add that I was just accepted into an intensive Korean language course this summer in Seoul. I feel ready for this next challenge, and hope to create a much longer and more meaningful relationship with the people and places of Asia.

Megan Maassel

Teaching Methodologies in the Japanese Educational System

Megan Maassel organizing learning activities with the students of Yoshida Elementary School in Fujiyoshida City.

The difference between a prosperous country and a less fortunate one often relates to the quality of its education system. A truly effective system employs a range of teaching methods to achieve a more capable citizenry. My research focused on understanding the nature of teaching in the Japanese educational system. My experiences and conclusions were informed by being a participant observer in different K-12 educational settings and having the opportunity to interview numerous local teachers and administrators. I was able to explore how the culture of Japan informs the values and forms of education it provides its students.

The experience has inspired me to strive to make new goals for my career following graduation. I am now interested in teaching overseas, possibly even returning to Japan. I would also like to go to graduate school to study diversity in the elementary school classroom. Overall, I have a new-found sense of confidence resulting from my experiences in Japan, both in terms of my own teaching skills and willingness to try new things. I feel I am now more creative and able to think outside-the-box. I look forward to continuing to speak publically about my experiences and how they have affected me and in pushing myself to be more comfortable in areas I didn’t think were possible.

I hope that my life will be full of the kind of experiences I had during my trip to Japan. It was a trip that allowed me to explore different modes of education and broaden my horizons as a pre-service teacher. As I am now close to graduating from Mayville State, I am excited to say I will be taking my experiences and new perspectives to create a more globalized classroom.  My project on the Japan trip compared the Japanese and American school systems. Throughout the study, I also conceptually collected different elements in diverse practices that I could take back in order to increase the cultural and global perspectives of my own future classroom.  These perspectives are going to help my students propel themselves forward in our digital world and contribute to fostering an awareness of different cultures and mindsets. I will also be able to give my students a more personal connection to the content that they are learning. Further pursuing this line of thought, contemporary students are becoming more technologically savvy, and can easier connect and share information across boundaries. Students need to learn how filter and then can benefit from the ability to interpret media. Compared with the methodology of past educators who relied on textbooks and sometimes dated information, educators can benefit from this modernity and infuse classrooms with more critical and informed perspectives. The experience of going abroad has helped me understand this.

This entire journey has prepared me professionally and opened doors to different realms of education unknown to me prior to the trip. Overall, this experience began with fulfilling a set number of requirements to become a selected member of the research team. It was a complicated application process that included building a resume, a wonderful skill that I will again be using in the near future.  Another portion was preparing a project proposal which stated my goals and aspirations for going to Japan. This process required visits to the campus writing center to revise phrasing and grammar in order to make my essay more structurally sound.  This will directly translate into when I want to write grants for bringing future academic experiences to my classroom. Finally, I had to go into an interview. This required me to prepare and then present myself in a manner both professional and convincing. I will have to go into many interviews for teaching positions in my lifetime and starting small with this interview will prepare me to walk confidently in any sort of job interview.

When we returned from Japan, I presented at a range of conferences and venues about both my research and experiences. While it is one thing to be comfortable talking in front of young children, I have gained confidence speaking in front of my peers and in more formal settings. This also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my teaching style.

Nicholas Peterson

Documenting Rural Change in Film

Nicholas Peterson works with a winery owner and farmer to pilot a sUAV over the vineyards.

During my time in Japan I was tasked with filming, editing, writing and directing a small documentary outlining agricultural changes in rural Japan. I quickly learned that many of the rural Japanese youth are moving to more urban locations and leaving their agricultural heritage behind. As there is no one left to farm, fields are often abandoned. Yamanashi Prefecture has a long agricultural history with noted drastic shifts in cropping. Mulberry grown to feed silkworms once thrived, before synthetic materials rendered production obsolete. Depending on location, grapes and peaches followed, which are now being replaced by fields of comparatively low maintenance solar panels.

I was able to use sUAS technology to capture video of Japanese agriculture otherwise unreachable. I got valuable footage including sweeping shots of vineyards or close ups of the roof tiles of an old house used to raise silkworms. Piloting of this nature directly translates to my professional sUAS pilot development and bolsters my resume going forward. Along with professional skills I also improved my communication ability, often having to overcome language barriers. This experience has been incredibly valuable both for me personally and for my career development.  I believe the skills I learned and honed during my time in Japan will prove to be prized assets as I continue into my career.

Donte Stevens

Marketing in Japanese Wine

The entire research team enjoyed regular BBQs with local Japanese farmers.

This research focused on wine from Yamanashi Prefecture to study the marketing differences between Japan and the United States. My study was largely qualitative, consisting of interviews with owners of local wineries and wine specialty stores. I was also able to spend time in the vineyards and with farmers. Overall, this combined approach helped me to better understand Japanese marketing techniques particularly in terms of culturally unique forms of branding and product labeling.

Language was by far the most challenging obstacle during this research. Knowing the language better would have helped tremendously. Personally, I would have liked to ask more questions and have more meaningful conversations with the people we met. With that said, while in Japan my professional skills developed greatly. In particular, my communication skills improved since I had to find ways to communicate with people other than speaking. Sometimes I communicated through Google Translate, and other times I was forced to use gestures. I also had to present at a conference in Tokyo at the end of the trip. As a businessman, I will have to present my ideas in front of large audiences on a regular basis. The experience of doing so in Japan will help me next time I have to present to an audience foreign to myself.

Although there was this barrier, that did not stop the process of experiencing and learning about Japan. The culture was very different—much politer, prompt, and detail oriented. The experience in Japan helped sharpen many of the professional skills that I have been learning in my classes. I believe that my soft skills were advanced the most. Since verbal communication was often not an option, gestures were the most effective way to communicate. Smiling was big, as there was typically no hand shaking (as there usually is in the United States). Also learning to exchange business cards properly was an important skill to master. With aspirations of being an international businessman, this trip helped broaden my experiences. It provided lots of insights on the Japanese culture that I otherwise would not have known and put me in a position of culture shock that also helped me learn about how to adapt to different surroundings. Collaborating with the university students, adding a line to my resume, experiencing more advanced technologies, and interacting with Japanese business professionals helped prepare me for my future career.