Small cities in Ja­pan reach out to the world

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY GOH SUI NOI

Joy Pakham Changvi­som­mid, 24, a stu­dent from Laos, loves it at her in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­sity on the edge of the quiet town of Beppu on Ja­pan’s south- west­ern Kyushu is­land.

“It is cool that I get to meet stu­dents from all over the world and learn from them,” said Pakham who is do­ing a course in Asia- Pa­cific stud­ies.

As for Sin­ga­porean Cle­ment Tan, 29, who is study­ing in­ter­na­tional man­age­ment, while he misses the buzz of big cities, the lack of dis­trac­tion in the sleepy town of just over 120,000 peo­ple means he gets to fo­cus more on his stud­ies.

They are both stu­dents at the Rit­sumeikan Asia- Pa­cific Uni­ver­sity that was set up 15 years ago to help re­vi­tal­ize a de­clin­ing town.

Many smaller Ja­panese cities and towns are los­ing their most tal­ented and youth­ful res­i­dents to the big cities with their bet­ter job prospects and bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture.

But some cities are fight­ing back by lever­ag­ing on their strengths to fo­cus on eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity that they hope will re­tain their best and bright­est and even at­tract oth­ers to come and live there.

In Kyushu, the hot spring re­sort town Beppu and industrial city of Ki­takyushu are do­ing just that, which also means in­ter­na­tion­al­iza­tion — Beppu by open­ing it­self up to for­eign­ers and Ki­takyushu by go­ing out to the world.

Beppu in the 1990s was fad­ing as a tourist des­ti­na­tion, los­ing vis­i­tors to more ex­otic des­ti­na­tions like In­done­sia’s Bali, Thai­land’s Chi­ang Mai and Hawaii, and los­ing its young peo­ple too as jobs got scarcer.

That was when the gover­nor of Oita pre­fec­ture to which Beppu be­longs, Mori­hiko Hi­ra­matsu, mooted the idea of es­tab­lish­ing an in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­sity there.

In­ter­na­tional Out­look, Vi­tal­ity

The city got as part­ner in this project the Rit­sumeikan Trust, the third largest pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion group with a long his­tory in Ky­oto city, an old cap­i­tal of Ja­pan. A piece of land to the north of Beppu, on a windswept hill with a view of the sea, was cho­sen, the land pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment al­most for free.

Hav­ing an in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­sity was a good idea — it would lever­age on the town’s strengths in hos­pi­tal­ity and it would bring in young peo­ple who would add vi­tal­ity to the aging town. But not all lo­cals wel­comed it at first.

“When the idea of a uni­ver­sity was first mooted, the Beppu com­mu­nity didn’t like it at all,” noted pro­fes­sor Yuichi Kondo, dean of ad­mis­sions, adding that the res­i­dents wor­ried about los­ing the peace and quiet of their town.

But the Rit­sumeikan Asi­aPa­cific Uni­ver­sity opened its doors in 2000, with a first batch of more than 200 stu­dents.

It was not easy ini­tially, both for the stu­dents and the lo­cal com­mu­nity. The lo­cals were wary of the for­eign­ers — who make up about 50 per­cent of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion — and the young peo­ple found them­selves in a sleepy town of mainly old peo­ple, said pro­fes­sor Kondo.

“But t he young stu­dents helped to re­vi­tal­ize the com­mu­nity,” he said. They went out to the lo­cal com­mu­nity, tak­ing part in its ac­tiv­i­ties and even help­ing to re­vive old ones.

The lo­cal com­mu­nity also quickly adapted to hav­ing the stu­dents living in their midst, stock­ing food in their shops that are familiar to the stu­dents.

Thus, for Pakham, there is no dif­fi­culty find­ing in­gre­di­ents to cook Lao­tian food. “There are sev­eral shops sell­ing Southeast Asian food like co­conut milk, it is more ex­pen­sive than back home, but af­ford­able,” she said. She lives on cam­pus and goes to town once a week or a fort­night to buy food.

As for Tan, who lives off cam­pus — most stu­dents af­ter the first year live off- cam­pus, giv­ing the lo­cal real es­tate mar­ket a boost — he is tak­ing away from Ja­pan more than just a de­gree.

More than Just a De­gree

He is tak­ing back with him new habits of sep­a­rat­ing rub­bish for re­cy­cling and clear­ing his tray af­ter a meal in a restau­rant for the diner us­ing the ta­ble af­ter him.

“I take pride in our Sin­ga­pore cul­ture ... but we can de­velop more as a so­ci­ety, to be more con­scious of the en­vi­ron­ment and the so­ci­ety and not just look­ing af­ter your­self and your own in­ter­ests,” he said, of what his coun­try can learn from so­ci­eties like Ja­pan’s.

As a stu­dent on a tight bud­get, he also ap­pre­ci­ates the low rental, 60,000 yen ( US$ 499) for an apart­ment he shares with two other stu­dents, work­ing out to about SG$ 230 per per­son.

So it works both ways for the lo­cal com­mu­nity and the stu­dents, who now num­ber about 5,800. The town gets a new vi­tal­ity and its econ­omy gets a boost while the stu­dents save on ex­penses, study in a quiet town with few dis­trac­tions and learn some­thing about the Ja­panese cul­ture too.

Apart from Beppu, this re­porter, to­gether with 18 other ASEAN jour­nal­ists on a me­dia tour of Ja­pan re­cently or­ga­nized by the Ja­panese Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, also vis­ited Ki­takyushu, a city to the is­land’s north and linked to the largest is­land of Hon­shu by a bridge.

An industrial city dam­aged by pol­lu­tion, it be­gan clean­ing up from the late 1960s af­ter moth­ers in the city took to the streets to ag­i­tate for a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment.

Now, it is lever­ag­ing on its clean tech­nolo­gies in its ef­forts to re­vive its for­tunes. One of the ways it is do­ing this is bring­ing its tech­nolo­gies to cities in Ja­pan and in the Asian re­gion.

Thus, in Surabaya of In­done­sia, its sis­ter city, Ki­takyushu has used its ex­per­tise in waste dis­posal to help the city re­duce or­ganic waste and build up com­post sup­ply.

Wa­ter Fil­tra­tion Tech­nol­ogy

In Viet­nam, the Ja­panese city has helped the city of Haiphong to build a wa­ter fil­tra­tion plant us­ing tech­nol­ogy it has de­vel­oped that is cheap and sim­ple, yet ef­fec­tive in clean­ing pol­luted wa­ter so that it is fit to drink from the tap.

Ki­takyushu it­self has been us­ing this tech­nol­ogy from 2000. Named the Up- flow Bi­o­log­i­cal Con­tact Fil­tra­tion ( U- BCF) sys- tem, it uses micro­organ­isms in ac­ti­vated car­bon to de­com­pose pol­lu­tants, such as man­ganese, am­mo­nia ni­tro­gen and tri­halomethane pre­cur­sors, in the wa­ter leav­ing it clean.

Un­clean wa­ter flows up­wards through a thick layer of ac­ti­vated car­bon, with the up­ward move­ment leav­ing the wa­ter cleaner and higher in qual­ity than oth­er­wise, ex­plained Tet­suji Yoshida, the manager of Honjo Wa­ter Pu­rifi­ca­tion.

Plant which uses the tech­nol­ogy. The wa­ter that is cleaned through this process then goes through the con­ven­tional pu­rifi­ca­tion process.

The beauty of the U- BCF is that less chlo­rine — which can in­duce other con­tam­i­nants — is used than the con­ven­tional process. The waste gen­er­ated from U- BCF process is then de­hy­drated and turned into sludge cakes that are used for fer­til­izer mak­ing.

The cost of the sys­tem is “ex­tremely low”, said Kazuya Kub­ota, direc­tor of in­ter­na­tional projects at the Wa­ter and Sewer Bureau of Ki­takyushu.

It costs just 0.36 yen per cu­bic me­ter to pro­duce clean wa­ter us­ing the method, as op­posed to the more costly ozone pro­cess­ing used in Tokyo, so that Ki­takyushu charges the sec­ond low­est of wa­ter tar­iffs among Ja­pan’s cities.

In Haiphong, where co­conut is in abun­dance, co­conut husks are used to make the ac­ti­vated car­bon for the process, thus keep­ing costs low.

Apart from ex­port­ing its ex­ist­ing tech­nolo­gies, Ki­takyushu is also of­fer­ing it­self as a test­bed for re­new­able en­ergy such as so­lar power and hy­dro­gen fuel cell.

Our group trav­eled on a bus that looks just like any public bus you might find on Sin­ga­pore’s streets, ex­cept that the ride felt smoother and was qui­eter.

The bus runs on elec­tric­ity — in six lithium ion bat­ter­ies tucked into the roof — gen­er­ated by so­lar power. At 100 mil­lion yen per bus and high- speed charger — four times that of an or­di­nary bus at 25 mil­lion yen — the city can­not af­ford to use this tech­nol­ogy.

But it is happy to sup­port Mit­subishi and Toyo, the two com­pa­nies ex­per­i­ment­ing with the tech­nol­ogy, in the hope that it could lead to busi­ness later. The two buses in the ex­per­i­ment are de­signed in Ja­pan and as­sem­bled in South Korea.

Both Beppu and Ki­takyushu are by no means out of the woods in terms of ar­rest­ing decline, but they are not in dire straits ei­ther, tes­ti­mony to the hard work and vi­sion that their lead­ers have put in to pre­vent their demise.


(Top) Beppu’s hot spring re­sort, near Oita city, is seen on July 3, 2001. (Above) A cou­ple vis­its “Blood Pond Hell” lo­cated at the Beppu hot spring re­sort on July 3, 2001.

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