Hisashi Sonehara

Ashoka Fellow
hisashi_sonehara-japan.jpg
Japan
Fellow since 2014
Egao Tsunagete
This description of Hisashi Sonehara's work was prepared when Hisashi Sonehara was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .

Introduction

Hisashi rejuvenates deserted agricultural communities and the rural economy by spurring urban residents to visit the countryside, practice farming, and engage with the local people. His program offers an agricultural experience that meets the needs of city dwellers that yearn for rural living, and the corporations that look for human resource development for employees.

The New Idea

Japan underwent high economic growth from 1954 to 1973, capitalizing on low-cost labor and industrialization through public-private partnerships. The labor sourced from agricultural communities permitted this economic growth in the first place. However, it also caused individuals to migrate from rural areas to urban centers, with depopulation accelerating in these regions. As a result, more and more laborers deserted arable land in aging agricultural communities, leading to the decline of rural economies.

Hisashi is working to rejuvenate the declining regional economy using a method that utilizes abandoned areas and natural resources. Hisashi partners with corporations to provide a human resources development program that rejuvenates the economies of these rural communities, and the well-being of visitors from the cities. The corporate employees living in cities regularly visit the rural communities to cultivate once-abandoned land and grow crops. The program collaborates with local small-scale enterprises to produce processed goods using the harvested crops. Through this program, abandoned arable land is being reused, and such local businesses as inns, restaurants, food processors, and the forestry industry are regaining dynamism. In addition, corporate employees are enhancing communication, motivation, and team building skills through collaborative work in rural villages.

Hisashi started his efforts in Yamanashi Prefecture, and his efforts are now underway in prefectures such as Miyagi, Fukushima, and Mie, which are partnered with corporations. The NPO “Egao Wo Tsunagete,” founded by Hisashi, supports these activities by training former prefectural mayors that have significant influence over municipalities. This has developed the movement of “one company for one village,” which aims to rejuvenate rural communities all over Japan by connecting one village to the workers in one corporation to accelerate the expansion of the rural community revitalization model.

The Problem

Industrialization fueled by cheap domestic labor spurred rapid economic growth in Japan from 1954 until 1990, and also radically influenced the demographic composition and regional economies of the country. Because the countryside was the central provider of factory labor, the population of rural communities - mainly agricultural producers - has declined and is suffering from rapid aging. Abandoned arable land in Japan is on the rise, and has reached 400,000 hectares, or twice the size of Tokyo. Factories built during the time of industrialization have largely relocated abroad, and employment is hard to maintain. Regional economies are hollowing out, and are burdened with severe problems.

Real estate and stock market prices in Japan were greatly inflated during the Japanese economic bubble. After this bubble burst in the early 1990s, putting an end to the period of rapid economic growth, corporations started to increasingly seek short-term profits. They proceeded to cut costs to streamline operations. Many corporations abolished the systems of lifelong employment and seniority, and merit-based evaluation became mainstream. As a result, interpersonal relationship within corporations became tenuous. Employees felt isolated, leading to low motivation levels and high mental stress. It is said that 10% of employees in the Information Technology industry, most of them city-dwellers, suffer from clinical depression in Japan.

In the early 1970s, then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka accelerated the building of factories in the countryside under his “Plan for Remodeling the Japanese Archipelago.” On the other hand, agriculture was on the decline in rural communities. In the process of streamlining operations, companies relocated factories from the Japanese countryside to overseas in pursuit of cheap labor costs, making employment difficult to maintain. The big challenge for local municipalities today is to find ways of rejuvenating regional economies other than factory building and public works, which were the methods widely used during the period of rapid economic growth.

The Strategy

Hisashi’s concept of rejuvenating agricultural communities is original and creative. First, he recognized deserted arable land, forests, agricultural waterways, old houses, rural residents, and the traditional culture of declining rural villages as valuable resources. At the same time, he realized the longing of urban residents for rural life and the needs of corporations for human resources development, and started to involve corporate employees in rejuvenating abandoned arable land in rural areas.

Hisashi strategically chose Yamanashi Prefecture to implement a small model project based on this concept. Yamanashi is two hours away from Tokyo by car. It has the second highest ratio of deserted arable land to total agricultural land, is rich in forest and water resources, and has the most annual sunshine in hours in Japan.

Hisashi started by becoming a farmer himself, and cultivated deserted land. He took in youths who could not find employment in cities as trainees. As of now, he has taken in 9,700 youths, and trained 200 agricultural entrepreneurs who can initiate exchange between the rural communities and the cities.

By creating a system for urban residents to visit rural villages, participating in agricultural processes, and exchanging with the local community, Hisashi created a method of regional economic rejuvenation. He created five models of rejuvenation utilizing agricultural resources that match the specific features of a locality and the needs of the collaborating company. These include: 1) cultivating deserted arable land, producing crops, and processing them for sale, 2) a tourism-style model of experiencing agriculture in rural communities, 3) architecture built utilizing forest resources, 4) small hydroelectric generation using local rivers and agricultural waterways, 5) natural energy production such as biomass power generation, and 6) connections between agriculture and public welfare for horticultural therapy.

Taking into account the needs of major corporations, Hisashi created a human resources development program using agricultural experience. Through agricultural experience, employees across generations and positions work together, grow, and harvest crops. This leads to the improvement of communication, motivation, and team building within the company, solving the weak sense of community that arose as a result of operation streamlining.

In this program, corporations cultivate land which has been rented out to Hisashi’s NPO by local agricultural producers. The NPO is in charge of daily administration of the farm, and corporate employees engage in planting, cultivation and harvesting work. Approximately twenty employees per corporation participate in the program, visiting their respective farm four times per year. The Staff of Hisashi’s NPO take care of the farm year-round at a minimum cost to ensure the system’s sustainability.

Harvested crops are bought by the corporation, and can be made into processed goods in collaboration with local small-scale enterprises. For example, the largest real estate company in Japan has used rice produced through this program to make Japanese sake with a local brewing company. The sake has been branded and is on sale. In addition, a subsidiary of the same company is working in collaboration with local forestry businesses, processors, and municipalities, to develop building material using timber from forest thinning aimed at forest preservation. The company uses these materials to build houses, and 400 such houses are being supplied annually.

The amount of materials used increases every year. For example, in 2011 the company used 1,300 m3 of timber from forest thinning. In 2012, the amount increased to 2,000 m3, and in 2013, to about 4,000 m3. As a result, the forests are healthier and local businesses have revitalized.

Currently, thirteen major companies are collaborating with Hisashi’s NPO His organization is utilizing six hectares of once deserted land. To expand this method, Hisashi is acting as an advisor to promote the use of deserted arable land in Miyagi, Fukushima, Mie, and other prefectures. Through this effort, Hisashi is raising project managers that have a deep understanding of his methods.

Hisashi is expanding collaboration not only with corporations, but also with local municipalities. He provides them with models of economic revitalization that differs from that of the age of industrialization, and trains their employees. In the last ten years, 100 to 200 municipality employees annually attended this training from all over Japan. Some of the collaborating municipalities have established departments that specialize in community revitalization through the exchange of cities and countryside.

The program is currently being implemented in 9 prefectures among 47, and is scheduled to be executed in 1000 villages by 2018. In addition, there is strong interest from Korea to replicate his program. Soeul’s mayor, Mr. Park, visited one of Hisashi’s farms in 2013 to explore the viability of implementing the program in his own country. The Korean team made several additional trips after that. As a result Cheongsong County in Korea decided to replicate the program, and is facilitated by Hisashi. He has since learned of demand from other Korean counties also interested in implementing it.

The Person

Hisashi grew up in an agricultural village in Japan. His mother grew vegetables for the family’s own consumption, and also made processed foods such as miso and dried persimmons.

In the 1970s, the Japanese government pushed for industrialization policies, causing many factories to be built in rural areas. Around the time when Hisashi started middle school, his mother started working at a newly built factory close to home. Agricultural land turned into factories, and his mother’s role in the family also changed. They started to purchase goods with income gained from factory labor.

Although he was young at that time, he intuitively felt that this change was not sustainable. However, when he spoke about his misgivings to his parents and school teachers, he was deeply shocked to find that these were denied by the adults.

He decided to keep his doubts to himself, and upon entering college, he immersed himself in music. After graduation, he initially worked in the music industry doing composition and event planning, and then utilizing planning skills gained from this experience, switched to management consulting. As a consultant, his clients were financial institutions. Many financial institutions were expanding land-collateral loans to back up inflated real estate prices from the late 1980s to early 1990s, and after the burst of the economic bubble, faced management crisis and bankruptcy.

Seeing the situation banks faced with the collapse of the bubble economy, Hisashi was reminded of the doubts he fostered during middle school regarding economic development based on industrialization and the sustainability of society based in mass-consumption. In response, he decided to work on revitalizing sustainable regional economies using a new method. In 1995, he relocated from Tokyo to an agricultural village in Yamanashi Prefecture, and transformed himself from a business consultant to a farmer, cultivating two hectares of abandoned arable land. There he gained agriculture skills and the trusts of local communities and municipalities, and over the course of twenty years, built his rejuvenation model.