By Yuka Sugiura
Many of the social issues often become visible first in small towns in the countryside rather than urban areas. Nishiawakura is a small village in Japan with approximately 1,500 people, and 94% of its area is covered by forest. Even small, this village is famous for its efforts on innovative forest management and has been attracting many young people and entrepreneurs.
Naoaki Shinjo is one of those who are inspired by the endeavour of this village and have jumped into the community there. He spent his college life actively engaging in various youth organizations that work on climate change, community development and education. After he completed his master’s degree in Tokyo, he started to live and work in Nishiawakura as one of the coordinators of Satonova University. Satonova University is a community-based program that provides a new type of learning experience with young people. Students in this program are sent out to various towns and villages of Japan that uniquely combat social problems and get involved in the local work with local people.
The reason Naoaki joined Satonova University as a coordinator is that he empathized with its concept to provide a place where young people can learn progressively without worrying about failures and ultimately can find what they want to do from the bottom of their heart. At university, he did not feel right about the idea to prioritize results rather than pure interest. He has considered it very problematic that students often fail to find and seek what they truly want to do and who they want to be in the conventional education system, and thought Satonova University is one solution to this issue.
In Nishiawakura, Naoaki has been trying hard to improve the education program. One of his programs is “Awakura Future Academy”. Junior High School students taking part in this program decide what to do and how to do it by themselves and he and his team support it. Also, all the projects are made to involve the local community. By this, both students and people in the community can learn from each other. That is the very learning environment Naoaki strives to achieve. For example, one student group is planning to perform and teach dance in a community centre so that more people will become interested in dancing. Another group is going to hold an outdoor movie festival and show a movie in which students will play as casts. In addition, Naoaki paves a path for future students of Satonova University who will come to and live in this village so that they can easily adapt to its life and get most out of the time there.
However, he has faced challenges as well. Since there is no prior example to the program to live and work in a remote place as a new style of learning, no one can assure its value. Also, explaining the concept and value of the program to others is sometimes hard and not everybody understands it instantly. This makes Naoaki a little anxious from time to time. Nevertheless, he knows he has to believe his choice and himself and tries to make the most of his unique experience.
Naoaki aspires to create an environment where students can grow the skills to find a way to live happily in this rapidly changing society. For that, he thinks both the education programs in Nishiawakura and Satonova University provide an answer in that they create opportunities where students can act based on what they think rather than what they are told to do. At the same time, he hopes to increase the number of people who can support and lead sustainable community development. In the future, he wants to systemize those programs for education and community development as a model and expand it across the country.
Naoaki recommends more young people go visit a small town, where social issues are much more explicit than in big cities. That makes difficult issues more approachable and the results more visible. He says, “If you want to tackle a global issue, visit a remote village, see real problems there, and work on them by yourself. ‘Think globally, act locally’ is a cliché but working in the countryside truly gives whole new perspectives you will never get to learn anywhere else. Do not wait, take a chance and go for it!”
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