2019 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: The University Of Findlay
Rural Communities in Japan: Challenges, Revitalization Strategies, and Future
Mentor: Hiroaki Kawamura, Associate Professor of Japanese
Students: Valerie Jacksack, Garrett Brown, Amy Evaniuk
Our team researched issues facing rural communities in Japan and their revitalization strategies. Both students are majoring in Japanese, and one of them is also majoring in computer science. The faculty mentor is a Japanese language instructor with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.
The project started with proposal preparation in the fall 2018 semester, and will complete with several more presentations during the 2020-2021 academic years. The 2019 fieldwork took place in three prefectures; Fukui, Hokkaido, and Saitama. These prefectures were chosen for their rural characteristics and institutional affiliation. We interviewed government officials, non-profit organization staff, university students, educators and community people.
The issue of rural community revitalization is one of the pressing issues in contemporary Japan. A combination of persistent urbanization, aging and declining birthrates is contributing to this issue. These are not unique to Japan, and the issue of urbanization and the growing gap in quality of life between urban and rural areas are serious issues in many Asian countries and the world. Many of our Japanese interviewees asked us, “How about in Ohio? What strategies do you use to revitalize rural communities?” These questions made us think about cases in Ohio.
The team used an ethnographic approach, and we were in the community every single day. In addition to a total of 86 formal interviews, we interacted with local people at social events and festivals. For the students, it was a major challenge to conduct ethnographic interviews in Japanese. However, they gained confidence little by little. One student said, “When we did our first interview, I was so scared and sweated a lot. I probably understood 1% of what I was hearing. I was desperate and wanted to quit. However, I decided to stick to it. Then, I gradually started understanding what people were saying because they often use the same vocabulary.”
Japanese language skills development was one of the main goals of this project. Language training took place throughout the project. The students used Japanese during the preparation phase (e.g., interview practice, literature review, document preparation), during the fieldwork in Japan, and after the fieldwork (e.g., transcription of interviews). The team member is producing several artifacts, some of which will be shared during the 2021 ASIANetwork conference. In addition, development of effective presentation skills was important. The students did several presentations in both Japanese and English for different audiences. They will do several more presentations in fall, 2020 and spring 2021. One student majoring in Japanese and computer science is writing a computer game program with the theme of rural Japan.
Connecting the research experience with the students’ future career is important for all of us. Another student is writing a research paper based on this project for her future graduate school application. Also, the student with the Japanese and computer science double major will develop a portfolio with a developed game.
Overall, both students gained skills that would prepare them for their future career. They also found the challenges and joy of doing research in the target language.
Through our project “Rural Communities in Japan: Challenges, Revitalization Strategies and Future,” I learned deeply about the diversity that can be found in Japan, whether it be a diversity of opinions, geographical characteristics, or local cultures, and how this diversity impacts the strategies used in rural community revitalization. We collected data primarily through ethnographic interviews, which helped us learn about our topic through the perspective of the local community and its residents. This approach significantly impacted how we came to understand the strategies and effectiveness of those strategies. This project also helped boost my critical thinking, oral, and written communications for both Japanese and English. With a future in Japanese-English translation and interpretation in the computer science industry, these skills will be imperative.
Recently, the world was shaken by the COVID-19 outbreak, and our project was no exception. Despite this, I have still been able to make some progress toward my end goal of this project. I was able to present my project to my Japanese language course in January, and again for visiting Japanese students from Fukui prefecture in February 2020. I’ve also begun creating a prototype for a city management simulation game inspired by our findings. Although many presentations I was scheduled to do were postponed, in fall 2020 and spring 2021, I plan to make up the four missed presentations during the school year, including presenting a poster and the prototype for my game at the 2021 ASIANetwork conference. For the 2021-2022 school year, I hope to study abroad in Okayama, Japan. This is a decision influenced by this project, as it is in the southern part of Japan, which is an area not covered in our fieldwork. I hope to learn more about that area’s views of rural revitalization while studying Computer Science and Japanese at Okayama University of Science.
This experience has been monumental in my college life. Before I joined this project, I had an opportunity to work on a faculty member’s research project as a student assistant. I transcribed recorded interviews on forensic work in Uganda as well as human trafficking issues in the US. Although it was a rewarding experience, this project was fundamentally different. I had the opportunity to develop research skills, including how to conduct interviews, document field notes, and perform participant observations, i.e., primary research. Since we did not rely on a translator, my Japanese language skills have grown as has my confidence in my language ability. In addition, I have strengthened my writing skills, become a better communicator, and learned to work with our team under pressure. I am confident this experience will benefit me as I move towards applying for graduate schools and conducting research at the graduate level.
Our research focused on the diversity of rural revitalization in Japan, including current revitalization efforts by local communities, local and regional governments, corporations, NPOs, and educational institutions. Since our research project was based on ethnography, we relied heavily on ethnographic interviews and participant observations, although casual interactions with locals from our field sites helped build context for our research. Through our research, it became apparent how important it is to examine social issues at multiple levels, especially through the lenses of local people, since the needs of each community are incredibly diverse and strongly influenced by geographical location and what residents value. Although depopulation is frequently viewed as negative, we found that often communities, through innovative measures, find ways to create new opportunities from this reality.
Since September 2019, I have focused on analyzing our team’s research data and developing my personal project on international marriage. Although a sudden return from my study abroad in Japan removed opportunities for presenting on our research while in Japan, I plan on making up for this by applying for professional conferences with our team’s faculty mentor in fall 2020 and submitting my paper to a student paper competition in spring 2021.