Tuesday, 5 December 2017

In Japan

Now where the hell is the lift?! We’re struggling with our suitcases to get down to the platform at Kanayama Station in Nagoya, Japan. There’s usually a lift but we don’t know the station. Out of nowhere, a woman points us in the right direction. No request from us: she just reads the situation and throws us a little help in the middle of her daily commute.

I’m in Japan for the First International Landcare Conference. The formal courtesy of the Japanese makes an immediate impression. Endless hellos and goodbyes, thank yous. Surprising at first, then charming, then a little tiring, until I give up and go with it and bow. Behind this formality lies a sensitivity to social space: a stranger reads a traveller’s predicament and helps. She’s not a stranger of course - this is her home, and her social duty is to help.

Travelling with seven Australians and one Kiwi on the preconference tour, I am struck by the way we address the space between. We don’t temper our noisy outgoing natures. We’re friendly and well-meaning, but blunt, lumbering about in a culture where the first move is to bow out of respect not just for the other, but for the business of negotiating a shared social life.

We’re visiting Shinshiro, a rural area 100 kms out of Nagoya, to meet with Akira Takahashi, a forester supporting the local community make more of its timber resources. Planted post-war, the cypress pine in these steep valleys made good money until international supply in the 1980s brought the price right down. People took jobs in neighbouring manufacturing areas, and gave up looking after their lots. Families have forgotten what they own, and children don’t think much of owning a bit of rural land. The few who still work the forests are in heading into their 80s.

A well-tended Cypress Pine lot

Akira introduces himself as a forest detective, tracking down who owns what in the forests, and showing the locals how they might go back to using local timber for heating houses and greenhouses. We head into the forest to see the pines, well-managed lots climbing up the slopes and those that have been left to grow untended. The afternoon light catches the shift to autumn in the deciduous trees.

Akira Takahashi, Shinshiro
Next morning at the community centre, we find that Akira has a couple more strings to his bow. Timber harvested locally buys a sum in a local currency that can be used to buy services from local businesses, or cashed in (if people choose) for hard cash. The 30 or so timber harvesters gather monthly to hear what has been harvested and what has been spent locally. Keeping track of the local currency brings them together and strengthens their commitment to harvesting. It builds the motivation to bring other families and their forgotten forest lots into the scheme.

He’s an outsider, Akira says. It has taken time for people to trust him. I’m struck by his vision and his patience. He’s using a local currency to make the value of logging visible in the community. The scheme is leverage too to bring local government in with a subsidy added to what the market will pay for local timber. He senses the space between himself and others, and what it will allow. As we put forward our questions and suggestions, I watch him attending to the space we make together. That’s the learning I take with me as we pile onto the bus, rowdy Antipodeans, for the next leg of our tour.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com

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