Just ten days before the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the northeast coast of Japan, children in a remote village in southwestern Japan published a book to open the eyes of the world: Art and Life In Rural Japan: Toho Village Through the Eyes of Its Youth. In stunning photographs and simple first-person narratives, they offered a vivid portrait of “depopulating” Japan.
Their village was disappearing, these youth worried.
A mountainous community of rice fields, stoneware potters, dense forests, and deep traditions, Toho (population 2,749) was becoming invisible in today’s hyper-urban Japan. Its elementary school was closing. A single yellow train chugged daily across three “eyeglass bridges” linking the village with the outside world. It was the last village in Japan reached by the Internet. And as Toho’s youth left to find work elsewhere, unrelated families increasingly formed close bonds to eat and play together.
Over 2,500 kilometers (900 miles) away, the coastal village of Onagawa prospered. Almost four times as big as Toho, its fishermen, cannery workers, and tour guides made a steady living, and the town took pride in the fact that it still had beaches with “squeaking sand.” A nearby nuclear power plant connected Onagawa to industrial Japan.
On March 11, 2011, nature turned Onagawa upside down. A tsunami thundered in across the harbor, rose to nearly 100 feet, and demolished the community. Over 5,700 people—half the village, double the population of Toho—disappeared that afternoon.
A year later, the effects of the earthquake and tsunami still hang heavy over Onagawa. More than 80 percent of its residences were destroyed by the tsunami. Ninety percent of the students at the local Daini (Second) Elementary School lost their homes and continue to live in temporary housing or with relatives. And the formal education system has crumbled.
Two villages, two stories. So much richness, so much loss. Yet hope arises in both these places, through the work and energies of youth.
At Next Generation Press and What Kids Can Do (WKCD)—a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports youth voices, vision, and learning across the globe—we have launched a one-of-a-kind campaign to renew education and spirit in these two Japanese villages joined by loss.
As sponsors and publishers of Art and Life in Rural Japan: Toho Through the Eyes of Its Youth we are donating $5 USD from every book purchase to Katariba—an NGO led by Japanese youth whose passion is to rebuild education in Onagawa and other places like it. Please consider buying a copy!
“In this beautifully photographed book, the children of a small village provide an unusually powerful introduction to the Japanese language and culture.” – Howard Gardner, Harvard University
“This gem of a book takes readers beyond typical images of Japan as a land of cityscapes and bullet trains, and into the heart of a small mountain community. Dwindling populations have forced villages to merge to sustain themselves economically, resulting in the loss of each community's distinctive character.
A foreword explains that the youth of Toho, Japan's smallest merged village, contributed photographs and text to create this book as part of a revitalization effort to document and share their hometown's unique qualities. Simple, often poignant sentences in English and Japanese tell Toho's story, rich in history and culture. Stunning, full-color pictures capture verdant rice fields, jubilant school scenes, a lively festival, and expressive portraits of residents . . .” – Online School Journal, May 2011