52-year-old ‘alien’ helps boost small town’s fortunes

Nobuaki Uchiyama, second from left, inspects pawpaws with local residents in Misato, Shimane Prefecture, on October 16.

MISATO, Japan - A middle-aged transplant is helping revitalize a depopulated town through such audacious projects as selling gelato made from an unusual local fruit and manufacturing clocks from the rotary blades of discarded mowers.

Nobuaki Uchiyama was 52 when he joined Chiiki Okoshi Kyoryokutai (Local community revitalization corps) in Misato, a Shimane Prefecture town struggling with the aging and decline of its population.

Now 54, Uchiyama drives his car around to monitor conditions in the Hinomiya district, a farming settlement he oversees. He is always dressed in full workwear and trainers.

When he spotted a resident toiling in a field as she harvested green peppers, he addressed her forthrightly: "Hey, granny. It's not easy to earn pocket money, is it?" The woman replied, "Nope, it sure isn't."

Uchiyama's frank words put a smile on the faces of the people he met, one after another.

Misato has a population of only 5,216, and 44 per cent of its residents are elderly. Contrary to all expectations, however, its revitalization efforts have gradually born fruit.

Town residents have created gelato from pawpaw, a fruit native to North America that is grown locally. They have also been farming honmoroko, a species of freshwater fish that is commonly found at small eateries, and making clocks by painting the rotary blades of old lawn mowers.

Uchiyama has played a leading role in such efforts.

Initially, the town residents were dumbstruck by his ideas. One told him, "Gelato? Clocks? I can't even imagine." Uchiyama laughed and said, "That's because, to this local community, I'm like an alien from outer space."

Born in Hamamatsu, he helped run a stationery store owned by relatives in the city after graduating from university.

He seemed to have a knack for business: The store grew into a company with 60 employees and traded a wide range of products, from office supplies to Internet hardware.

At that time, Uchiyama came home around dawn and went back to the office at 9 a.m. "I lived on alcohol, tobacco and coffee," he said jokingly.

In his late 40s, he suddenly collapsed. Diagnosed with an intractable disease that resulted in a low blood platelet count, he was hospitalized for three months.

"In my mind, I didn't think there was a problem, but my body was probably screaming," said Uchiyama, who resolved to live a radically different lifestyle and resigned from the company.

Uchiyama found himself seized by an intense desire to work with the soil, even though he had never handled shovels and sickles before. He applied to be a member of the local community revitalization corps.

Members of the team are provided houses in rural areas, and Uchiyama thought it would be interesting to draw on his perspective as an outsider in trying to solve the challenges facing local residents.

He arrived in the town, where he didn't know a soul, in May 2012.

When chatting with residents over a cup of tea, Uchiyama at first heard only stories of grief and despair. One person said there was nobody to hold a funeral ceremony for him, and another said the township would soon vanish if things continued the way they were.

Uchiyama told the residents, "Then let's try to increase the number of people who move and resettle here."

His current duties include identifying local needs, searching for available resources, connecting people to one another and releasing products into the market.

It's similar to what he did at his company job, but this time the goal is not profit.

Many young people interested in living in rural areas, including university students, have travelled to visit Misato. Town residents' facial expressions have become much brighter.

Even so, Uchiyama keeps working hard. "I'll just keep trying different ideas together with the residents. It keeps everything interesting, and thinking about what I'll do next is just plain fun," he said.

The Chiiki Okochi Kyoryokutai system was introduced in fiscal 2009 by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. A member's term lasts up to three years, and recruits each receive up to ¥4 million (S$47,000) a year as compensation and to cover activity expenses.

Under the system, people from urban areas move their resident registrations to depopulated communities in farming villages, mountainous areas and remote islands. They become responsible for revitalizing the local communities.

Members' work varies from reviving deserted arable land, to development and sales of products that can serve as local specialty brands.

About 80 per cent of the corps members are in their 20s and 30s. Members in their 40s to 60s who utilize their past work experience, like Uchiyama, are still a minority.

Many corps members want to continue living in the communities after their terms have expired, and local residents also want them to stay.

But because jobs were not available, their hopes have not been realised.

The system must therefore create means of assistance to allow corps members to continue living in the communities they have helped revitalize.