Community and Furniture Building in Rural Japan
Up in the hills between Osaka and Tokyo is a small village that is pretty typical of much of rural Japan. Beautiful old houses, forested hillsides, a river running through it and silence. The woods are quiet because it is cheaper to import wood from Indonesia than to cut and process here. The town is quiet because many of the houses are empty, the young are moving to the cities for employment and a more exciting life. Like many developed countries, Japan is seeing a strong decline in small town population; yet, there is much that is attractive here. Studio-L was a design firm like many others when its founder, Ryo Yamazaki, felt that there was something missing in the projects he was involved with and that was the voice of the community. Now, its projects focus first on connecting with the community before beginning any design process. In Shimagahara, at the Hozumi Lumber Mill, the young staff of Studio-L, led by Shinichi Utsumi, is working with the community to utilize the resources that are there: timber, a lumber mill and an older generation with knowledge of woodworking to create a new type of industry that has as its goals building community and linking the residents of Shimagahara with people in the big cities of Japan.
We joined them for their opening celebration, where they unveiled the workspace created out of old lumber shed and got us all involved in a small project, making chopsticks for gifts. We worked in groups of 6 or so around workbenches, sharing techniques, critiquing each others’ shape and smoothness and sharing special knots. In a small way, this is the model that Studio-L hopes to turn into viable business. I met two young people from Tokyo (Shimagahara is on the rail line from Osaka to Tokyo and has half-hourly service!) who were signed up to return in the summer for 2 or 3 successive weekends where they will sleep in simple, designer-built dorm rooms and build furniture themselves for their apartment in the city. In a country where Ikea offers free buses every twenty minutes from two train stations to their Osaka store, this search for authenticity and DIY-ness appealed strongly to this young couple.
I thought of the disappearing towns of Oregon–the Oakridges, the Willaminas–and how they are situated in the midst of plenty yet fading away. The giant timber corporations emptied out the mills of machinery but left behind skilled people. Could something like this small-scale project bring work into these towns by taking advantage of the skills and resources that are there and connect rural and urban people?