Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reviving the Seto Inland Sea Islands

By Amy Chavez

It is not the fault of the Seto Inland Sea islands themselves that they are suffering from declining populations. It's the glossy brochures put out by local governments that are to blame.

Take the Takamatsu city brochure advertising the virtues of Ogishima. The brochure highlights a hiking course on the island, an unusually shaped rock, an opening to a hole in the ground (really!), and some lazy flowers trying to grow anonymously — all things trying desperately to be tourist attractions but fooling no one. If you told your friends that after a hectic week at the office, you were going to hike up a steep mountain in the blazing heat and see a rock and a hole in the ground, people would think you were crazy. As intriguing as it may sound, people just don't do it.

Most people would prefer to sit in a cafe with a view of the sea or experience the charmed life and quiet solitude of the Inland Sea. They'd rather have a romantic dinner while watching the sunset or walk along a deserted beach even in the height of the tourist season. Did you know that you can do that on almost any island in the Inland Sea? But the brochures won't tell you this.

The city of Kasaoka has a glossy brochure about Shiraishi Island that tells people to "Enjoy Island!" and highlights the hiking course, the observation platform at the top of the mountain, the temple and a "famous" rock that no one has heard of. To its credit, sea kayaking is mentioned as well as the beach. But more than anything, the brochure screams out, "Hey, we're like every other island in the Inland Sea. Nothing interesting here. Go away!"

Island brochures put out by the local governments are identical throughout the Inland Sea. Call me ignorant, but I feel that printed information highlighting holes in the ground and rocks drive people away. It's no wonder no one moves to the islands. It would be like being stuck between a rock and a hiking course.

To the Japanese, living on an island is equal to being kidnapped. There is this idea that once you're on an island, it's difficult to get off. There is some truth to this. It's not that you can't get off though, it's that many people find they prefer island life and no longer need the mainland. As your needs change, the island provides. But according to the brochures, all you'll get is a hiking course and rocks. Good grief Charlie Brown.

Indeed, the value of the islands can only be found by interacting with the island people, observing their balanced lifestyles and respecting their relationships with the elements, the sea and their gods. It is a lifestyle perfected.

On our island, in an attempt to increase the population, the government is trying to create jobs in the hopes people will move here. So our island has started a mulberry business (run by retired people who volunteer out of a sense of duty to their island) hoping that in another 10 years, if there is money in mulberries, young couples will move here. It's a pie in the sky idea: copulate and populate.

But should we really worry about the 10-year-olds in Japan and whether there will be a mulberry business for them when they grow up? Have you ever tasted mulberries? They're not very good.

Wouldn't it be better to sell a lifestyle to people who already have jobs? Interestingly, while everyone admits there are no jobs here, no one has considered that people could commute between here and the mainland, which is only 20 minutes away on the ferry. Furthermore, there is a midsize city 10 km to the south and 43 km to the north. Why doesn't the local government invest in a hydrofoil boat to whisk people back and forth to their jobs on the mainland rather than investing in, um, berries?

Each year the ferries to the islands are fewer, reflecting the drop in demand. Perhaps we should turn the ferry systems over to the JR. I'm sure they'd know how to put children in schools furthest away from their house in order to make a buck.

If the local government invested in public transportation, then perhaps they could come up with an easier way to get back and forth between the islands and the mainland, rather than having to rely on just a few ferries each day. I'm thinking a conveyor belt system would be good, one that would circle the islands and go past the mainland so the islanders, like kaiten zushi, could just ride the conveyor belt and get on and off when they wanted. We'd have all kinds of people riding the sushi train to work.

Some people who were born on the islands move back after working in the cities on the mainland. They come home to find a place where people are friendly and there is no crime. They have traveled back to a time when things were cheaper, safer and less commercial. The islands, in short, are your childhood, your warm and fuzzy past.

And that's exactly what the brochures should be telling you.

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