Can Anarchy Save Japanese Communities?

Ko Hayakawa is an associate professor of cultural anthropology and a researcher at Osaka International University. He currently mainly studies community development, an important topic for Japan, which must face new challenges as its population slowly disappears. This year, Professor Hayakawa published a book introducing his idea of “anarchic community development.” As I was very intrigued by this surprising concept, I have decided to interview him about his job, the Japanese people, and his ideas regarding Japanese community development.

What Is Cultural Anthropology About?

To me, cultural anthropology is meaningful because we can re-understand what human beings are, as well as what we are personally.

When hearing “cultural anthropology,” I think the first image that comes to mind is a researcher that goes to some exotic country, lives among the local people, studies them, and comes back later to present the result of their studies. What does cultural anthropology really consist of?

This image is not wrong. Most of the cultural anthropologists go to other countries to study the local people: what they eat, their familial values, how they view gender, etc.

Anthropology is divided into two main fields: biological anthropology and cultural anthropology. The first one studies congenital traits, by researching bones and DNA for example. The second one is often called sociocultural anthropology in English-speaking countries. It studies people’s acquired traits, their ways of thinking, for example, their humor.

Cultural anthropology is studying how people think. Why? To understand human beings.

American anthropologist Clifford Geertz said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance [a system] he himself has spun.” I love this quote. Our culture is something we have created, but we end up being entangled in it. So, by studying people with completely different habits from ours, we can notice our own cultural behaviors. To me, cultural anthropology is meaningful because we can re-understand what human beings are, as well as what we are personally.

I also often quote lines from the book “Mariko/Mariquita,” in which the researcher explains to a little girl that by studying everybody’s different habits, he hopes that people will get along better. Maybe the results of cultural anthropology are not immediately visible, but it has the potential of making a more benevolent world.

It is especially meaningful now: in the confusion of COVID-19, what we thought was an obvious way of living does not work anymore, and we must think about an alternative world. By observing people who live in an environment different from what we think is “obvious,” maybe we can get clues on how to build our new future.

Recently, I have interviewed a young woman who said something similar. She runs an Instagram account to promote a better understanding of people with disabilities in Japanese society. She also hopes that by learning about people who seem different, we can create a better society.

What a coincidence! I, too, have been working on something that is related to people with disabilities recently. Actually, an article I have written will be published today on the ePARA website. ePARA is an e-sports competition which objective is to connect people with disabilities together as well as with other people.

Professor Hayakawa and his students in Miyazaki
Professor Hayakawa (right) with two students from his seminar while in Miyazaki for conducting a survey

Why did you decide to become a cultural anthropologist?

It was accidental. When I was a third-year student at university, I had to choose a seminar to attend. I was not so interested in the field, I just followed my friend [laughs]. It happened to be a cultural anthropology seminar by a professor who studied developing countries, and I got hooked. Also, to study, I bought a book by the famous French thinker Claude Lévi-Strauss, which had a great impact on me: my vision of the world changed completely!

As a student, I was always interested in human beings. Or rather, to tell the truth… I wanted to have success with girls [laughs]! I kept being rejected [laughs]. I wondered why we could not understand each other, why our feelings were not the same. There, I discovered Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism and started viewing love relationships from this point of view. At that time, I even wrote a paper using structuralism to analyze the relationships in the famous manga “The Rose of Versailles” [laughs]. I wanted to understand others, and to know how to be understood.

The Specificities of the Japanese People

The Japanese have never perceived their culture as being universal.

What are the specificities of Japanese people, from a cultural anthropologist’s point of view?

To answer your question, I’d like to ask you one. When do you think “Japanese people” and “Japan” actually appeared?

Hmm… I’m not quite sure.

The first time the term “Nihonjin” [Japanese] appeared was during the 7th century.  Laws were being organized and that was when the term “Nihon” [Japan] appeared. At the time, there were Japanese missions departing to Tang China to learn new things. In 702, the missions presented a letter in which they introduced themselves as coming from “Japan.” So, the “Japanese” as such only started existing about 1,300 years ago.

However, the Japanese love to look at their own culture, such as with “discussions about the Japanese” [Nihonjinron] or “theories about Japanese culture” [Nihonbunkaron]. Even today, the Japanese love to look at studies about what makes their culture so peculiar, and to watch TV shows such as “YOU wa Nani Shi ni Nippon he?” [“Why Did You Come to Japan?”, a TV show that randomly asks foreigners why they came to Japan, and then follows them]. They’re very self-conscious about how their country is perceived from the outside.

The Japanese have never perceived their culture as being universal. They tend to compare what they do with what is done in other countries, and then judge what is correct or strange. That is why a long time ago, they learnt a lot from China. Nowadays, they are influenced by the ways of doing in the United States, and more recently, by Northern European countries, which are perceived to be more advanced.

You cannot put all Japanese people under the same umbrella.

People in Japan like to think of themselves as “the Japanese,” but to me, they are not that uniform. They are very diverse. They live in very different natural environments, and have different characters and concerns depending on the area where they live. I have lived in many different areas of the country, and I have come to the conclusion that you cannot put all Japanese people under the same umbrella.

Also, Lévi-Strauss remarked that the Japanese were good at adapting to double standards. For example, during the aftermath of the Second World War, they managed to mix their traditional culture with new things and became a modern country very rapidly. Japanese history is full of similar examples. Originally, the Japanese people are a mix of the Jomon people, who were mostly fishermen, with the Yayoi people, who came from the continent and introduced the culture of rice. Later, they found a way to mix Chinese cultural elements with their own culture, for example, by adopting kanji characters to write. Then, during the Meiji period, they took elements from the Western culture. Good examples of this way of mixing things are the anpan [soft bread filled with sweet red beans], or the curry rice. The Japanese creative way of taking something from the outside and adapting it to their own culture is a distinctive feature.

Professor Hayakawa's traditional wedding
Professor Hayakawa’s dedication goes as far as taking his own wedding in March 2013 as a chance for people in his local community to come together. The local commercial district and NPO members shared knowledge and traditional objects to create an event reviving the “lantern procession” from the old times.

Researching Solutions for Japanese Community Development

Community development should be about what local people want to do to improve their daily life and their environment.

You are the author of several books and papers about community development. How did you get interested in this topic?

At first, since I was interested in love, I first analyzed the language and vocabulary related to love. For example, I researched when the concept of romantic love appeared in Japan, and when people started choosing love marriages over arranged marriages. Then, in 2004, when I was a graduate student, I started to research about community currency and local currency. At the time, it was a method that started to be used for community development in Japan. The difference between local currency and usual currency is that the local currency is designed to create good relationships between people. It was often described as a currency with love. I wanted to study love, but I also wanted to study economics, and both got connected through this theme. The use of local currency is linked to how people can rebuild a better environment for themselves, and in Japan, this takes the form of community development.

That is how I started studying this field. Community development is often seen as something superficial, like creating roads, organizing food-related events, or creating a local mascot. But I thought it was more than that and should be about what local people want to do to improve their daily life and their environment. What they can do by themselves, for themselves.

People sitting around a table. The half of them is elderly
Conducting a survey to know the thoughts of local people

The big problem is that people don’t know, don’t talk about what kind of town they want to live in.

What are the problems Japanese communities currently face?

One problem is that community development concentrates on making more money by increasing the population. Regional revitalization is mostly about creating a better business environment in order to attract newcomers to live there, and increase the number of children. But is a successful community development only about increasing economical revenues?

The main problem is that people don’t know what kind of town they want to live in, what kind of town they want to build, or how they want to live. There is no dialogue about it. If a town hears the neighboring town has created a mascot and that it got success, they will decide to make one, too. Towns tend to imitate success stories from other areas. However, as I said earlier, Japan is diverse and a town in Fukui will not have the same environment as a town in Miyazaki. However, the usual way to proceed is to apply the best practices that worked somewhere else, and ask for subsidy to put them in place.

When Prime Minister Abe decided to do regional revitalization in 2014, it started with a comprehensive strategy: all municipalities of Japan proposed their plan to apply for the next five years. However, 77% of the municipalities have outsourced the direction to take to external consultants! They did not choose by themselves what kind of town they wanted to become. That shows how much they do not know what they should do. That is why they concentrate on growth through numbers and percentages. They do not have a clear goal.

Of course, I think it is good to ask for exterior help for the things you cannot do alone. Still, external actors should not be left in charge of everything. It is necessary to think about how we can make people imagine their ideal community by themselves.

I think it is also a matter of education. Japanese children are encouraged to study well, enter the best high school as much as possible, and somewhat choose a field of interest once in university. But we never make them think about what kind of life they would like to lead, or what they really want to do. We must improve this in the future.

建物, 屋外, 電車, 跡 が含まれている画像

The picture above depicts the future opening of the Shinkansen line going to Fukui Prefecture. For Professor Hayakawa, the fact that the region’s miscellaneous resources are presented without a clear vision is representative of the current community development in Japan.

Earlier in 2020, you published “Community, System, and Me – Towards the creation of an idea of ‘anarchic community development’”. In the same sentence, you use the words “anarchic” and “community development,” which look very opposite. Could you explain this concept?

If you think of community development as creating buildings, then anarchy will not fit. As I said earlier, to me, it is very important that people get to choose by themselves what kind of town they want to live in. But most of the time, it is chosen by the administration or some politicians, or a few eccentric people who have some extra time.

In Japanese, the word “anarchism” is translated as “museifu shugi,” which means “doctrine without a government,” so the Japanese tend to imagine a movement gathering awful people. Well, I do not deny that anarchism is home to many dangerous people [laughs]. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was very surprised that many Japanese people complained they did not know what to do because the government did not tell them how they should behave.

The core principle of anarchism is to not be reigned on. Anarchism means without “arche,” which is a Greek word meaning “beginning” or “authorities.” Originally, anarchism is about living without control from an authority. The famous political scientist and cultural anthropologist James Scott described anarchism as “The Art of Not Being Governed.”

Anarchism is about people thinking by themselves what kind of life they would like to lead, instead of it being imposed by some upper control. However, it does not mean anarchism is individualistic and saying that each person must care only about themselves. At the origin, it is about helping each other, and thinking together on the best way to live.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was very surprised that many Japanese people complained they did not know what to do because the government did not tell them how they should behave. Of course, I want the government to make the correct decisions and deal with the problem. But I was stunned to see how much some people wanted to be controlled. That they thought they could not do anything if not told how to behave, or on the opposite, that they were ready to do whatever they were told without any second thought. This made me realize again that regarding community development, we should encourage people to think and decide by themselves, and to learn the correct way to do things by learning from people who have experience and knowledge.

To me, community development should be sustainable development.

According to Karl Polanyi, a society’s economics is based on three exchanges: the market exchange, redistribution, and reciprocity. The secret to a good society is that the three are well balanced. However, since modernization, the market exchange takes the majority of the space. Nevertheless, for a successful society, we should not limit ourselves to merely exchanging goods, but also make sure to build good relations with each other.

Let us imagine that something terrible happens and the Japanese government collapses. Even so, the land and the towns where people live will not disappear. That is why people in communities should learn to cherish their local environment, learn to communicate with each other, and create the world they want to live in together. That is what my idea of “anarchic community development” is all about.

I like to call it “anarchic sustainable development” [laughs]. To me, community development should be sustainable development. I wish communes could use the Sustainable Development Goals as a base to reflect on what they would like to create, and what they would like to stop doing. It is important to think for the long term. I’m worried that our society only sees things in the short term, and this makes life harder for everyone.

How Foreigners Can Support Japanese Communities

人, 屋内, 男, 衣類 が含まれている画像


Now is the right time to make things more universal.

I think many foreigners living in Japan would like to support their local community, but often, they do not know how to, or they may be afraid to be unwelcome because they are outsiders. Do you have any advice to give them?

I think they should not worry too much. If you want to be part of community development, please plunge into it. The reason is, today, there are generally no strong communities anymore. Most Japanese people’s lives are concentrated on their families, and do not have bonds with their local community.

Another reason is that the origin of the people invested in community development matters less and less. On the opposite, outsiders are often the catalyst for positive change. Communities are currently scattered, and this may be the best timing for foreign residents who would like to get involved.

Thanks to their different points of view, foreign residents have the potential to notice more easily the good aspects of their area, and to generate enthusiasm among the locals. Even if they do not speak Japanese fluently, automatic translation devices are getting better every day. Now is the right time to make things more universal. It is important for community development to be inclusive, and that there is a dialogue between all members to create a new reality.

Please come build relationships with Japan!

These last few years, more and more tourists are interested in responsible travel and changing their consuming habits. In what way should people visiting Japan spend their money to support local communities?

I am borrowing Lévi-Strauss’ words again, but the culture that travelers see is like a constellation. You need to connect the dots to get the bigger picture. To me, it is not the traveler’s responsibility to be able to discern what is authentic and what is not, because it would require too much knowledge. It is the local people’s responsibility to have confidence in their resources and provide access to authentic experiences that visitors will enjoy.

By the way, I think the experience we are going through because of COVID-19 will change our perceptions regarding travel. Mass tourism and sightseeing based only on consumption will probably decrease a lot. People will look for something more meaningful.

So, if the readers of Kokoro Media are planning a trip to Japan, I would like them to not only think about how they will spend their money. Please also think of the relationship you want to build with Japan, or with people from a specific area. As I mentioned earlier, the market exchange is not the only exchange meaningful for a society. So, please come build relationships!

Building a New Reality Together



During this interview, it was hard for me not to agree with Professor Hayakawa. Most of you know me as a Kokoro Media writer and chief editor, but the other main part of my job consists of helping community development through tourism. Thanks to this, I was able to visit many areas of Japan, and one thing I noticed is that the most successful places are the ones where local people are directly involved in decision making. Places where they do not wait or even expect to be told what to do.

For example, I found that in places like the village of Kamiyama (which has become a role model in Japan), the villagers gather in many associations, think together about what they would like to do for the village, share information, and are not afraid to speak their mind. Still, success did not happen in one day: it took about 10 years before the results of everyone’s efforts started to show.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given many of us the chance to reflect on our relationships with others, and to cherish them more than we used to. Many of us feel the need for more meaningful bonds. Maybe this is the right time to use this new perception of our world to come together and build a better reality for all of us.

However, to do so, people in local communities must be provided a space and occasions to meet regularly, and most of all, feel that what they do and say has an impact. On top of this, to make the correct decisions, I think people need to have access to correct knowledge and trustworthy information. I would love to talk again with Professor Hayakawa to hear how he thinks such concrete means could be put in place.

I would like to thank Yuki Watanabe, whose work at SEKAI HOTEL involves the local community, for introducing me to Professor Hayakawa.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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