Lynn Su /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byScott Williams
Taiwan’s development has long favored north over south and urban areas over rural, leading to severe disparities. At the same time, our fertility rate of 1.218 births per woman is among the lowest in the world. A crisis is imminent. Can we adapt the Japanese concept of regional revitalization to Taiwan’s situation and turn this crisis around?
Takeshi C.Y. Lin is the CEO of Hayashi Office, where his work focuses on service-design and social-design consulting. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The Taipei Songshan Airport is a crowded, busy place that reverberates with conversations and frequent PA announcements. Takeshi C.Y. Lin is passing through once again, a single suitcase in hand. His many business trips to Japan over the last several years have made the airport as familiar to him as his own home. How many times did he visit Japan last year? “Six.” There’s a smile on his face, but his exhaustion shows.
Lin is the CEO of Hayashi Office, where his work focuses on service-design and social-design consulting. His rapidly growing business last year took him to rural parts of Japan’s Miyazaki, Ehime, and Yamagata Prefectures. Taiwanese tourists rarely visit these areas, so he provided them with a Taiwanese perspective on their travel and product offerings. “Right now, every part of Japan is battling for tourism from Taiwan,” he explains. The seemingly never-ending call for his services points to the Japanese public and private sectors’ commitment to implementing the country’s “regional revitalization” program.
The concept of regional revitalization, an approach to rescuing rural areas from decline, is spreading like wildfire.
Rescuing rural areas
In August 2014 Hiroya Masuda, a former minister for internal affairs and communications and visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, published Local Extinctions. The book caused an uproar in Japan by enumerating a number of factors that have led many smaller municipalities to the brink of extinction. These include the country’s declining birthrate and aging population, as well as Tokyo’s ongoing growth. (The city, already the world’s largest with a population of roughly 30 million, has continued to grow at a rate of about 100,000 people per year.) The Abe government is aware of the problem, and has made regional revitalization a national policy priority. As a case in point, the government plans to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to encourage foreign tourists to also visit Japan’s rural regions, as a means of revitalizing their local economies.
With Taiwan also facing the problems of an aging population and urban‡rural disparities in development, the Tsai Ing-wen government has turned its attention to rural development, and declared 2019 “year one” for regional revitalization.
In Japan, unused school buildings are being converted into hip new mixed-use spaces. Taiwan could learn from this example. (courtesy of Takeshi C. Y. Lin)
Revitalization vs. redevelopment
Japanese standard-bearers for rural revitalization, such as Ryo Yamazaki and Hitoshi Kinoshita, have developed differing approaches, with the community development school of thought focusing on local identities and community connections, and the commercial school of thought focusing on business development. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses.
In Taiwan, the National Development Council is responsible for implementing rural revitalization policy, and has proposed strategies based on a “human-centered approach,” “industries with local DNA,” and “introducing technologies.” “Simply put, if you want people to move back into these areas, you need job opportunities for them,” explains NDC minister Chen Mei-ling. “And if you want jobs, you have to have businesses.”
National Development Council minister Chen Mei-ling says that it’s important to put people at the center of regional revitalization policies.
To that end, the NDC is taking stock of local strengths, encouraging business development, and introducing technological infrastructure to meet the needs of the digital age. But is regional revitalization any different than previous community development initiatives? Setting private-sector development efforts to one side, regional revitalization is clearly different because the government is now explicitly focusing on the use of business creation and economic benefits to energize communities.
Older community development programs focused on unifying communities, forging consensus, and solidarity, not on fostering local businesses or creating jobs. Simply put, the efforts didn’t emphasize business development or profit and were typically led by community development associations. The new revitalization efforts are instead built on a business model and aim to support the scaling-up of local enterprises. “The two paths are different, and do different things,” says Lin.
Even so, both Lin and Chen cite community development as a first step. As Lin puts it, “Community development is the foundation that holds people together. But you build on it by starting businesses to create the jobs that enable people to remain in the community.”
Ambition, creativity, cohesion
In 2018, Taiwan’s total fertility rate was among the lowest in the world at just 1.218. Our demographic problem is pressing, but it’s somewhat less visible than Japan’s because our island is more densely populated. “Our promotion of revitalization lags five years behind Japan’s, yet our sense of the crisis is different,” says Lin, pointing to the key problem Taiwan is facing.
In 2014, Lin helped set up “Taiwan Juku,” an agricultural exchange program between Miyazaki Prefecture and Taiwan. This was a rare early example of regional revitalization efforts advanced by Japanese officials, sited in Taiwan and built around intensive exchange. Lin says, “Miyazaki is comparable to a small township in Hualien or Taitung, but its local tea farmers were nonetheless willing to come to Taiwan to promote their products.” That willingness shows just how committed the Japanese are to reviving their rural communities.
“People in Japan generally only speak Japanese. Plus, Miyazaki is difficult to get to—it has been called a ‘landlocked desert island.’ If you’re going to increase the number of foreign tourists visiting, you first have to get locals out into the world to broaden their perspective,” says Mao Ikeda, president of advertising agency Omijika, who helped plan Taiwan Juku.
Perhaps because Japan has now been promoting regional revitalization for some time, it has grown into something of a national movement. In stark contrast to Taiwan, where most of the people paying attention to revitalization are already working in community development or the cultural and creative industries, in Japan, everyone from manufacturers and insurers to landlords and wealthy local businesspeople is getting involved. And having all these different industries pulling together puts real muscle into turning rural areas around.
The Omijika group’s Taiwan culture festival in Miyazaki Prefecture highlighted Taiwan’s dynamic culture. (courtesy of Omijika)
Taiwan’s magnetic attraction
The revitalization movement has people at its core. It has not only stirred their pride in their regions, but also forged transnational friendships among the people working on the front lines of its intensive exchanges. The latter have helped build feedback between places, resulting in still greater benefits.
The strength of these connections has come as a complete surprise. Husband and wife Yasumasa Endo and Mao Ikeda came to Taiwan twice as part of the Taiwan Juku exchange program, and were so drawn to our island that they chose to move here. They have continued to pursue their careers in brand marketing, event planning and writing from their new home, and remain active in Taiwan‡Miyazaki exchanges.
Husband and wife Yasumasa Endo and Mao Ikeda’s participation in the Taiwan Juku exchange program piqued their curiosity about Taiwan and led to them move here.
Taiwan Juku may have run its course, but the links it forged between people have proved durable. Built on a foundation of human feeling, they transcend language and ethnicity. Driven by a sense of mission to bring prosperity back to rural regions and a sense that no one was going to do it for them, program participants have achieved a mutual prosperity and wellbeing that exemplifies regional revitalization in its highest form and enables long-term residents to experience Taiwan’s passion and charm anew.
The Kaohsiung City Agriculture Bureau’s mascot Kao Tong Tong dances with Miyazaki Prefecture’s “Miyazaki Dogs.” (courtesy of Omijika)