Walk Japan is working to put life into Japan’s ageing rural communities.
Every so often companies talk about having a soul. It is now commonplace for businesses to build corporate social responsibility into their plans. But aside from helping the immediate beneficiaries to such programmes, will such initiatives have a lasting effect on communities?
As part of its corporate social responsibility efforts, Walk Japan has found a way to revitalise Japan’s forests and farmlands. In its hometown of Kunisaki, Walk Japan provides funding to the local workforce in projects centred on the revival of plantations and the natural environment. But it is also doing it at the community level, putting the power back in the hands of its people. Its CEO Paul Christie says: “Japan is an ageing community. Like so much of rural Japan, where we live in Kunisaki, the average age is about 75 and the majority is female. In another 10 years, there won’t be much of a population. There certainly won’t be much agriculture. Because they just won’t be able to do it. What we’re trying to do is provide them with help working their fields and also start building a community that can actually take itself into the future.”
But farming alone is not a sustainable means of livelihood in rural Japan. In Japan, there are very few full-time farmers, because the scale of the business doesn’t work. People who farm typically hold a separate vocation, either in bureaucratic administration or construction; neither fields generate as much money as they used to.
The answer to that problem, Walk Japan believes, lies in creating alternative jobs to complement farming. Christie explains: “What we’re proposing is: you can work with us. Become a tour leader if it suits your skills. Or in IT, admin or something else, so that where agriculture can’t support an income, they can combine it with other new sources of income that are typically less obvious in the countryside of Japan.”
And this method, he believes is immediately transferrable to towns like Kunisaki. He says: “We’re building a model that others can refer to and use wholesale in their own areas; or take the bits that they know will work in their areas. Over the next year or two, we will be getting people to join us, where some work in our office and others work as farmers with the local community, learning the skills required. We’re bringing in ideas and ways of doing things that are not common in rural Japan at the moment.
“People are coming to visit us. Some are helping out. Others are coming to see what we do, write about it, take ideas away and maybe just apply it elsewhere. Ageing and declining populations are serious problems in Japan. But they bear enormous opportunities as well.”
Founded in 1992 by Prof Richard Irving and Dr Thomas Stanley, Walk Japan creates original tours in a country that often remains inaccessible to visitors, both geographically and culturally.