Japanese version from here. | 日本語はこちら
Impressions of Tosa-cho
by Aaron Woolfolk
[To see the photos that go with this article, please see the Japanese version here.]
I had a lot of warm emotions as I was shown around Tosa-cho on a warm Saturday in September, 2017, as it was the embodiment of my favorite type of locale: a rural community with a beautiful landscape and kind people, located about an hour from the nearest city. As I toured various parts of town – the commercial center, Amegaeri no Taki, the Sedo River area, Sameura Dam – it seemed to sum up many of the favorite things I have often highlighted about Japan in the 25 years the country has been a major part of my life. However, it also served as a reminder of an issue that I hope Tosa-cho – and Kochi-ken as a whole – can be at the forefront of solving.
I first came to Kochi in 1992 on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, an English-teaching/cross-cultural program sponsored by the Japanese government. When I applied for the program during my senior year of college, the only places in Japan I had any awareness of were Tokyo, Osaka, and (because of the tragedy of war) Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the application form, where it asked if I had any location preferences, I chose Tokyo and Osaka. But most of the thousands of other applicants had the same level of knowledge about places in Japan, which meant they also requested Tokyo and Osaka. That meant almost no one was awarded his or her preference and was sent elsewhere, with me being assigned to Kochi.
I was born, raised in, and attended college in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most populous regions of the United States with more than 8 million people. I had visited relatives in rural areas on a few occasions as a child, and I had gone camping two or three times, but most of my existence had been a big-city life. So maybe you can imagine the immediate culture shock I felt when I arrived at Kochi Airport for the first time and was immediately driven to Susaki-shi. It was such a sharp departure from the type of life I had always known, and it took me some time to get used to it.
But get used to it I did. In fact, I grew to love it. I loved the warmth of living in such a small town, particularly the kindness of the people. I also learned to appreciate the quiet, and the slowness of life as compared to the big city. And it was more than just Susaki: I was an assistant language teacher assigned to a county board of education office. That meant that I went to junior high schools all over Takaoka-gun, from isolated towns along the ocean to tiny villages far up in the mountains. I was living the rural life and I absolutely loved it.
Eventually I returned to the United States, attended graduate school, and became a filmmaker. But Kochi left such a strong impression on me that I not only went back to visit annually, but I also returned to make three films: the shorts Eki and Kuroi Hitsuji and the feature Harimaya-bashi. It was so exciting for me to show audiences around the world the beauty of life in rural Japan, particularly Kochi.
As I prepared to make my annual visit to Japan this past September, I contacted my friend Ishikawa Takuya and told him I was coming to Kochi. He invited me to visit Tosa-cho, where he had moved to from Tokyo after spending a few years traveling around the world taking photographs. I happily accepted, as I had never been to Tosa-cho before. With my friend Hisako of Kochi-shi, the three of us spent several hours touring various parts of the town.
I first met Takuya when he was hired as the still photographer for Harimaya-bashi, and afterwards I watched through social media as he traveled the world and practiced his photographic art. I felt proud that the experiences he had in Kochi on my film had apparently left a deep impression on him. Indeed, I have had much experience with this. It seems that every time I make a film in Kochi, I have crew members from Tokyo that come there for the first time and fall in love with it in a way that changes their lives. I’ve had crew members get married to people they met in Kochi. I’ve had crew members make Kochi their regular vacation spot. And now I’ve had a crew member actually move there.
As we went around Tosa-cho, I fully understood why Takuya decided to relocate there. My day in the town showed me many of the favorite things I love about Japan: the beauty of the land; the kindness of the people; the safe, pleasant, hospitable nature of the community; and the cultural traditions that demonstrate why I believe that Japanese culture is strongest in its rural mountain towns and villages. In Tosa-cho I found the same things that started my love affair with Kochi-ken 25 years ago.
I even found a perfect place that I hope to someday utilize: Sedo Shogakko. It is a wonderful facility that has been lovingly maintained by the local community since it closed as a school in 2001. I learned that the building is often used as a community center, but that it usually sits empty. I think it would be perfect as an artist’s retreat: a place where a writer or painter or music composer can go to spend time alone to create. The surrounding area around the building has beauty that can inspire artists. And the building itself has everything a person needs to live and work for a week or two.
There is so much to love about Tosa-cho. However, there is one troubling thing that struck me as I went around the town. I was dismayed to learn that many people have moved away in recent years years. As I visited Tosa-cho Shochugakko while it was having its Sports Day, I was disturbed to hear that the student population has been decreasing. As I walked through Sedo Shogakko, I was haunted by a perfectly viable facility that saw its last group of students 16 years ago.
For several years now I have been concerned about the population drain in rural Japan. It is a national problem that is very much felt in places like Kochi. I have watched as villages and towns have been absorbed by or combined with neighboring municipalities, as schools have been forced to close due to a lack of young people as a result of rural flight and Japan’s decreasing birthrate, and as local traditions struggle to be maintained in the face of declining numbers of residents.
Rural flight is an issue with a complexity of causes, and there are many academic and public policy experts who are more intellectually equipped to speak on it than me. I’m just a foreign outsider filmmaker and writer. But it is still something that I feel very strongly about. I want to see rural communities in Japan not only survive, but thrive and grow. I want to see corporations invest in and plan around rural communities so that people don’t have to move away to find work. I want to see more people appreciate the advantages of moving to and living in such places. I want to see the national government make a full-fledged commitment to the survival and maintenance of places like Tosa-cho.
What I found in Tosa-cho on that warm Saturday in September were a lot of the things that have kept me returning to Japan for 25 years, both personally and professionally. As a filmmaker and writer, I plan to continue creating work that highlights such places. Overall, I hope that people in Japan (and around the world) will discover or reacquaint themselves with the wonderful advantages of such communities, and will play a part in their revitalization.
A DVD of Aaron’s film Harimaya-bashi, which is set in Kochi Prefecture and stars Takaoka Saki and Shimizu Misa and Hollywood actors Ben Guillory and Danny Glover, can be ordered from Amazon Japan.