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In-depth Boosting Japan’s Regions
Ama: A Remote Island Community Shows It Can Win the Fight Against Decline

Uno Shigeki [Profile]


A small island township of just 2,300 residents off the Shimane coast is often cited as a standout example of regional revival. How has Ama, once a depopulated hamlet facing bankruptcy, been able to reverse its fortunes and build a vibrant community that is luring young people from urban areas?

Ama’s Remarkable Achievements

At a time when many outlying areas of Japan are beset by aging and depopulation, there is one remote hamlet that has been thriving in recent years and has caught the nation’s attention. Thanks in part to an influx of new residents, notably younger people who have no previous ties to the district (a phenomenon known in Japan as “I-turn”), the town of Ama in Shimane Prefecture—perched on the island of Nakanoshima in the Oki Islands some 60 kilometers offshore in the Sea of Japan—has found new, lucrative markets for its many local products. It is also a community where local residents are actively engaged in securing their own future well-being through their participation in the drafting of the town’s comprehensive development plan. Ama’s achievements have been so remarkable that it was singled out by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in his September 2014 policy speech as a model for regional revitalization.

Ama, indeed, offers many hints for others to follow, which I will examine below. Of great importance in undertaking such an analysis is to recognize that the accolades Ama is winning today are not the products of isolated developments but represent the fruits of a grand project involving many interconnected factors. Also indispensable is the task of delving into the reasons behind the flourishing of such a project in this particular community. There are plenty of examples of outlying regions that have seen an influx of newcomers, a revival of economic activity, or a heightened awareness of local autonomy. How was it that all three came together in this remote island on the “backside” of Japan?

“Make Do with What’s Available”

Nakanoshima, the island on which Ama is located, is just 89 kilometers in circumference, and getting there from the mainland takes three hours by ferry. Because it is so inaccessible, the island is blessed by unspoiled natural beauty, and many political prisoners—including aristocrats—were exiled there. One of them was Retired Emperor Go-toba, who composed many waka poems during the 19 years he spent on the island after losing the Jōkyū War to the Kamakura shogunate in 1221.

Objectively speaking, by no means can Ama be said to be blessed with natural advantages. Its main link to the mainland is a ferry that takes three hours one-way (although a high-speed boat has recently begun servicing the island). Traveling to any of the other islands is also by boat, turning an errand on the other shore into a day-long excursion. Ferry service is often suspended when the waves are high, and one can be stranded for days during the typhoon season. Winter seas are also frequently stormy. As for flights, there is only one roundtrip service per day to Osaka and nearby Izumo.

Another serious problem for residents is the absence of obstetricians. There is a general hospital on the big island of Okinoshima with a department of obstetrics and gynecology, but there is no longer a full-time physician there—although one had been dispatched by a university hospital in the past—reflecting the nationwide shortage of maternal healthcare providers. Many pregnant women thus choose to give birth on the mainland, and they may need to be carried there by helicopter in case of an emergency. 

While these conditions apply to all of the Oki Islands, the situation is particularly severe in the town of Ama. It is not the biggest of the sparsely populated Dōzen group of islands; it has no airport, no obstetrician, and not even a convenience store. One of the first things that visitors see after coming ashore in Ama are posters at the adjacent Kin’nya Monya tourist center (the name refers to a popular folk song on the island) that read Nai mono wa nai (Make Do with What’s Available). If one were to list the facilities and services that Ama does not have, there would be no end to the task.

The Kin’nya Monya tourist center, located next to the port in Ama, at dusk (left); staff members and the Nai mono wa nai posters at the center (right).

While the poster defiantly proclaims that there is no point coveting what you do not have, it also draws one’s attention to the riches that are available. Surrounded by the sea with abundant marine products, Ama has many springs of clean, pure water that allow the island to be self-sufficient in rice. Rather than dwell on the negative, the poster urges residents to enjoy the abundance at hand. Interestingly, Nai mono wa nai can also be read to mean that there is nothing unavailable—that is, everything is already here, if you just use a little ingenuity. For instance, there was no library in Ama, so residents donated books and turned the entire island into one big library. The town’s slogan thus appears to embody the positive, can-do mentality of its citizens.

Ama may be a small island, but it is rich in tourism resources. Top row: The Amanbō semisubmersible leisure boat cruising around the Saburō Rocks (left); Akiya Beach, popular with campers and swimmers in the summer (right). Middle row: The summer festival at Utsuka Mikoto Shrine in honor of a local deity (left); Oki Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Go-Toba, is renowned for its cherry blossoms (right). Bottom row: The Kin’nya Monya Festival in August is one of the biggest events of the year. Mayor Yamauchi Michio throws “fortune rice cakes” into the crowd (left); dancers, young and old, step to the lively strains of “Kin’nya Monya” holding large wooden spoons.

  • [2015.01.30]

Professor, Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1967. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo, in 1991 and received a doctorate from the university’s Graduate Schools for Law and Politics in 1996. Areas of specialization include the history of political ideas and political philosophy. Received the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2007 for Tokuviru: Byōdō to fubyōdō no rironka (Tocqueville: A Theorist of Equality and Inequality). Is the author of many other books, including Watakushi jidai no demokurashī (Democracy in the Age of the Individual) and Minshu-shugi no tsukurikata (How to Build a Democracy).

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