Seeing Japan from the Bottom Up

Shane BarterKenichi Ebisutani

Japan is typically understood as an especially homogenous country, one featuring a uniform, hierarchical administrative system.  It is also typically seen as urban, with rural areas associated with depopulation, aging, and decline. Rethinking Locality in Japan, a new edited volumed helmed by Sonja Ganesforth and Hanno Jentzsch, challenges these conventional understandings. Part of the Nissan Institute and Routledge series on Japanese Studies, the volume interrogates ‘local’ spheres across the country, discovering immense variety, complexity, and contestation. Rethinking Locality in Japan shatters top-down views of a uniform Japan, providing a readable, fun perspective from the bottom up.

The book is set in the context of municipal ‘Heisei’ mergers and rural depopulation, seeking to understand changing conceptions of locality given these trends. Ganesforth and Jentzsch have assembled an array of experts, combining various disciplinary and methodological approaches to better understand Japan’s micro-level dynamics. The book is mostly sociological and anthropological, complemented by chapters on history, geography, politics, and economics. Its 16 chapters are organized into four sections: Lived spaces, social worlds at risk, contestation, and local-national linkages. After some conceptual discussion, the chapters move from local, micro-level studies to more macro-level research on economic and political decentralization. Most chapters grapple with rural decline and municipal mergers in the early 2000s, analyzing how shifting administrative boundaries exist uneasily with localized identities and self-understandings.

Rethinking Locality in Japan invites readers to reflect on locality in a great variety of contexts. This includes, in order of chapters, localized education and accents, urban-to-rural migrations and investment, cosmopolitan communities in Hokkaido, contrasting insider and outsider views of community, competing local views of nuclear power plants, innovative senior care and health care policies, welfare associations and urban renewal, opposition to mergers, transport and rideshare policies, fishery cooperatives, wine certification, redistributive taxation, political motivations for mergers, and local democracy. Readers will find that the chapters are engaging, often quirky, and above all highly informative. For instance, Aaron Kingsbury’s contribution analyzes Japan’s inchoate wine industry, focusing on efforts to implement local branding certification based on fuzzy, changing place and grape names. Isaac Gagné’s chapter focuses on rural areas with shrinking, aging populations and dwindling budgets. In one town in Nagano, he documents innovative policies to provide care to seniors, with coordinators navigating, and then setting an example for, national policies. Hansen’s study in central Hokkaido was conducted through his own household and community, reflecting on local gatherings and tastes. And although we might expect a discussion of taxation policy to be dry, Rausch and Koji’s chapter analyzes policies that allow Japanese taxpayers to choose which municipality they pay a share of their taxes to, a creative, fascinating effort to stem urban/rural inequalities that has had mixed results.

Although the varied topics and methods of each chapter could be seen by some readers as a shortcoming, we feel that this is one of the book’s key strengths. If anything, we can think of several other chapter topics we would have liked to have seen – perhaps Ainu communities, domestic tourism, Okinawan cultural revivals, resistance to high speed rail, the rise of populist parties in Osaka and Tokyo, and more. As the editors would no doubt agree, the volume scratches the surface of locality in Japan. That readers may be left reflecting on still more varied localities is hardly a critique, but instead an indicator of the collection’s success.

More substantively, the book’s micro-level perspective might be complemented by some more quantitative measures, noting broader patterns of small-scale phenomena and their aggregate importance. As the book moves from micro-level to macro-level perspectives, the concluding chapters on decentralization and mergers provide information that might be useful earlier on. Earlier chapters mention administrative mergers in passing, and it is only with later chapters that the reader is provided with a clear sense of the scale, timing, and logic of the reforms. It is also notable that the later chapters focus on mergers in tandem with decentralization. The book focuses a great deal on changing municipal boundaries, but less is said about decentralization and how enhanced subnational government power might also impact locality. Next, the collection would probably have benefitted from more diverse perspectives. The contributors are mostly talented outsiders, with only a few Japanese scholars featured in this project. Especially for topics so localized and intimate, it seems that Japanese authors would have especially valuable insights. Linked to this, it would be useful to feature more sustained discussion of varied Japanese terms for ‘locality,’ such as jimoto, furusato, and chiho, each of which has slightly different connotations. Jimoto refers to places around one’s residence; furusato is a place where a person has resided for a long time (implying nostalgia); and chiho is a neutral term that most resembles ‘local’ in English. Given the primacy of locality in the book, it would be useful to return to these different meanings beyond some brief, early mentions.

“What is (the) local” in Japan (p. 2) is clearly an unanswerable question, but Rethinking Locality in Japan goes a long way towards answering it. Minimally, the answer is that ‘it depends,’ with the chapters showing how, where, and for whom ideas of locality varies. It is worthwhile to state emphatically that, even in a relatively uniform country, the meaning of local spaces varies immensely across persons and places. The book succeeds in exposing nuanced, heterogeneous localities that are often masked by the top-down, administrative divisions as well as by dominant narratives about Japan. This fun, informative volume will appeal to specialists of Japan, but it is also approachable for non-specialists. It will be a valuable collection for those studying place-making, anthropology, urbanization, aging, care, decentralization, diversity, and much more. The reader walks away with a better appreciation of Japan’s dynamic grassroots, as the book succeeds in its goal of rethinking locality in Japan.