October 4, 2022
Look to the land of the rising sun
Working on the principle of there being nothing new under the sun, an interesting piece of research by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) suggests that some answers to the longstanding concerns of population decline and community resilience amongst Scotland’s islands may be found in Japan. Japan has 700 islands and a long history of developing policies to tackle problems in their island communities that are very similar to our own. With ideas like ‘empty house banks’, ‘chance to try’ facilities and the Japanese experience of building inter-island bridges, it seems that there is indeed nothing new under the (rising) sun.
Recommendations based on the research by Scotland’s Rural College have been made to the Scottish Government and include the possibility of setting up an “empty house bank”.
Japan has 7000 islands and a long history of national policies and funding packages focused on tackling demographic decline on its island and remote rural areas while the history of islands-specific legislation and policies in Scotland is more recent, the report points out.
However, the researchers found that the focus of Japan’s policies has shifted over time from an emphasis on infrastructure investments, which have brought both positive and negative impacts for island communities, to a recognition of the need for “softer” development projects, including tourism-led and culture-based projects building on local resources.
As a result, the report states there are many national and local level policy and funding initiatives which are “useful learning for Scotland”.
These include programmes to provide support for people settling in island communities, initiatives to encourage visitors to contribute more to their sustainability and vibrancy, as well as making empty buildings available for re-use, developing teleworking opportunities and launching education-focused programmes to encourage more young people to remain for their education.
The researchers claim their findings demonstrate that islands are strategically and culturally important to both countries but also economically important “in a way which goes beyond their significance in terms of their proportion of the national population”.
As the debate continues on whether more bridges should be built in Scotland to replace ferry services, Japan’s experience may be of interest, according to the report.
While some islands in Japan have benefitted from greater connections to the mainland, the report states that the improvements have been costly and, in some instances, have had “negative impacts” related to community cohesion and displacement of island-based businesses.
Scotland can also potentially learn from Japan’s various migration settlement initiatives, including “experience” schemes and initiatives, the report advises.
These provide opportunities to “test” locations before people move permanently and services to support people to settle when they first arrive. A number of municipalities offer “welcome” or “introduction” services for those looking to migrate to rural areas. Often delivered by local non-governmental organisations, these services include information about employment, welfare, education and child-rearing.
Another specific initiative the researchers found of interest for Scotland is Japan’s Community Cooperative Support (CCS) scheme, in which people moving from urban to rural areas are given a stipend for a maximum of three years in return for their participation in activities aimed at promoting or preserving local culture, history or nature. Data indicates that, overall, 63% of participants in the CCS scheme ended up staying in their adopted areas long term.
The report also cites the example of the island of Goto, where a renewable energy scheme has not only brought de-carbonisation benefits but has contributed to jobs, skills, local income, energy security and marine conservation.
“What is important to note about Goto is that at first, the renewable energy scheme was not initially conceptualised as a ‘population project’ but appears to have had a broader positive demographic impact,” says the report.
“Second, the renewable energy project was established in the context of a broader suite of measures and initiatives aimed at tackling economic and population decline and the impact of that decline. This suggests a need for a multipronged approach that engages with a range of cross- cutting issues.”
An additional initiative of interest to Scotland, the report states, is the akiya bank (empty house bank) approach, where unused houses are listed for sale or rent with the goal of attracting incomers to use them. This scheme was enabled by a change in the law in 2014, allowing local authorities to collect information on abandoned properties.
The aim is to help attract potential incomers while also utilising buildings which can become an eyesore and hazardous if not maintained.
“As the schemes are often administered by local officials, potential ‘in-migrants’ are offered support in selecting appropriate locations, and are often introduced to members of the local community, alleviating some of the anxiety about moving into a new location,” the report says. “Secondly, the scheme provides reassurance that those taking over the property are aware of local surroundings and are able and willing to try to integrate into communities.”