A Review of Thelen: Revitalization and Internal Colonialism in Rural Japan

Anthony Rausch, Hirosaki University [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 2 (Book Review 1 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2023.

Review of:

Revitalization and Internal Colonialism in Rural Japan
Timo Thelen 2022 Routledge: Japan Anthropology Workshop Series
190 pages; ISBN 978-1-032-19871-2

Keywords: Thelen, revitalisation, rural Japan.

The book opens with a framing of peripheries in distress, and save a hint of optimistic realism on the final pages, pessimism characterises the overall arc of the book. But therein is the importance of the research that is presented; it lays bare in a very detailed and systematic manner the false premise and false promises that contemporary rural revitalisation usually proceeds on. Equally important are the two very insightful theoretical viewpoints that are laid out for the reader regarding how to conceptualise a wide range of governmental and social processes in rural places.

The starting point

Satoyama satoumi is the twin-sided keyword that takes the reader through the research—where sato, meaning village, ties together yama, as mountain or forest, and umi as ocean (p.3). Thelen opens with an explanation of his interest, and optimism, in the potential for this combinative idea of forest and sea to spark a transition in the trajectory of rural revitalisation, taking the Noto Peninsula on Japan’s west coast as his case study. This is immediately followed by an admission of frustration with the realities that he found through his fieldwork. He notes that there was relevant and meaningful governmental promotional material regarding satoyama satoumi and that the involvement of the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability Operating Unit Ishikawa Prefecture (UNU-IAS-OUIK) in the academic study of the potential of satoyama satoumi was important; it offered a way of operationalising revitalisation on a scale that reflected both the demands of political and power centres that were involved as well as the natural and social realities of the peripheral areas themselves. This provided for an optimistic opening to this journey through rural revitalisation. On the other side, however, were obstacles and miscalculations, made apparent for Thelen in a local oyster farmer first presenting his traditional, but eco-friendly profession as a means of securing a future together with the natural environment of Noto, only later to complain about inconsistent governmental support, lack of financial security, and eventual over-production of oysters in the fishing areas of the peninsula (p. 5). Here then was the sad reality. Over time, Thelen comes to recognise and describe the ‘complex hierarchic system of power and knowledge’ that characterised this revitalisation effort as representing a form of internal colonialism where there is on one side, a top-down stream of intellectual and financial support, but packaged and passed on in such a way that it only minimally reaches those in the peripheries who could benefit most from it. And on the other, there is a bottom-up stream representing the local reality, but with that reality framed, re-interpreted, and then communicated to the various levels of administration in such a way that the information arrives not only in the form they want but also with the result they want, all in order to keep the broad circulation of the system continuing regardless of whether any positive outcomes are emerging or not.

The theory

One could certainly note that this story has been told elsewhere—for it is a common enough one. However, what Thelen brings to his telling is a detailed trajectory of satoyama and the invention of satoumi, along with deeper understanding and clearer articulation of the process through use of ‘four gazes’ and Bruno Latour’s  ‘chain of translation.’ He lays out the historical evolution of satoyama beginning in the 1960s and following through to the present, while adding to it the invention of satoumi in the early 2000s. He deftly characterises an uneasy tension between ‘satoyama as a movement’ and ‘satoyama as capitalism’ and includes a very helpful figure to represent this long journey for these two terms and the twists and turns that characterise it. The four gazes of satoyama satoumi constitute a separate chapter. First treating each separately—a rural nostalgic gaze in the idea of furusato, a nationalist gaze in seductive power of Nihonjinron, an internationally academic gaze in the science of ecology, and a green gaze in various approaches toward environmentalism—Thelen assembles them as “the four gazes of satoyama satoumi,” representing in a clear figure how it is in their intersection that a complex dynamic of satoyama satoumi emerges.

The details

Obviously, research work of this scale demands specific details. Thelen provides these, explaining at length that the efforts made to revitalise the Noto region followed the three common strategies applied to most areas: local product branding, rural and green tourism, and development of both the ecological reality and the attractiveness—in the form of a human interface—of its satoyama and satoumi. He also describes the operationalisation of this as being undertaken through a three-way network that includes the United Nations Univeristy’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, through their Operating Unit Ishikawa Kanazawa, and Ishikawa Prefecture as well as Kanazawa University. It is in the details of interaction between the actors in this network that Thelen borrows Latour’s notion of ‘chain of translation’ to interpret the linking of actors on levels that are global, national, intermediary, and local. These are the streams that flow simultaneously both downwards and upwards, and through which money, ideas, information, and on-the-ground-local-reality undergo a continual morphing depending on the system need for such elements in ‘necessity and justification,’ ‘truth and representation,’ and ‘intention and outcome.’ At the global level lies the legitimisation and justification for such concepts as revitalisation, articulated on a transnational level by the centre, but undertaken for the sake of the periphery. These noble notions are structured to fit with national ideologies: in the case of Japan, the most powerful being the inward gaze of Nihonjinron, together with furusato, satoyama, and the more recently coined satoumi. Intermediates are necessary to bring this international vision from the national level to the local level: this is the work of the prefecture and the municipality, in promotion and support. Finally, there is the specific reality of the local, usually in the form of labour in the primary sector working in their so-called traditional activities while living their so-called traditional lives. This brief summary does not do justice to Thelen’s extensively well-presented summary of the hierarchical complexity at play, which he defines as a (post)colonial hegemony of power and knowledge.

To conclude

I opened by noting that Thelen begins his book with the idea of ‘peripheries in distress;’ after he summarises his detailed research of the case for the Noto Pennisula, it is almost heart-breaking to find that he is forced to return to this rather pessimistic view with a section of his conclusion titled Limits of Rural Revitalization and Tendencies of Internal Colonialism (p. 159). After considering the implications of his choice of terminology—instead of peripheralisation, he uses internal colonialism—he admits to seriously doubting that the top-down revitalisation of the sort he examined will bring meaningful benefits to those who actually live and work in the peripheral places of Japan. However, Thelen then does turn to an optimistic finish, noting that the factors we see as driving peripheralisation, whether successful or not, are in fact perfectly natural processes of a society, if not civilisation at large, continuing its slow and gradual journey forward. If it is true that admitting that there is a problem is the first step to solving it, then it is also true that admitting that the problem may reflect a perfectly natural process of time and may ultimately not have a perfect solution is the first step to living with it. This seems to be the truth for many attempts at rural revitalisation: there may simply be no feasible path to revitalisation. Indeed, Thelen offers that recognition of such a view may, in fact, align more appropriately with the true essence of satoyama satoumi, the very concepts that were applied, perhaps erroneously, to revitalisation in Noto in the first place. Thelen’s work offers a view of rural revitalisation in Japan that is accurate in its depiction and meaningful in its implications. That alone makes it a valuable work. Add to that the theorisation of ‘gazes’ and the descriptions of ‘chains of translation’ through to the level of ‘local links,’ and the work contributes to more informed research approaches for any scholar of regional governance and rural places. Finally, Thelen’s work also pushes us to consider whether the question of rural revitalisation research shouldn’t be less about trying to solve unsolvable problems, but more about learning to adjust the way we approach the continually-changing realities of continually-changing places.

About the Author

Anthony S. Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He obtained his PhD from Monash University and has published on issues relevant to rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalization Journalism (Routledge), Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press), and co-editor of Japan’s Shrinking Regions: 21st Century Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline (Cambria Press)

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