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A Big Experiment for a Small Village

February 25, 2000

A Katsurao resident consults a distant doctor via videophone at her home. (Katsurao Village)

The remote farming village of Katsurao, Fukushima Prefecture, home to only 1,870 people, is the unlikely focus of a multimedia venture now making waves both in Japan and overseas. Since its launch in April 1999, the Katsuraomura Multi Media Village has attracted a constant stream of visitors from around the country, and has been featured in media as far away as the New York Times.

All 470 village households are connected to the KMMV, a system of videophones allowing families to stay in touch with the village office, hospitals, and schools. The cost of networking the village was 75 million yen (714,000 U.S. dollars at 105 yen to the dollar), with a third of the funds coming from Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and a third from Fukushima Prefecture.

Remote Medical Checkups
The KMMV was put in place by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corporation, and its terminals can be used like phones for keeping in touch with family and friends. But the video and networking features allow a range of other uses. One of the most useful applications of the system is remote medical examinations. Katsurao, like many small farming communities, lacks medical facilities--in fact, no doctor lives in the village. It is some 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the nearest hospital, causing extra trouble for the villagers--fully a quarter of whom are senior citizens--when they need medical care. Even minor checkups were once all-day affairs, especially bothersome for elderly people who do not drive and patients requiring regular hospital visits. But the videophones have made it possible to carry out many consultations over the network, making health care more convenient for all.

Initial physical examinations are carried out in person at the hospital, but subsequent checkups can be handled remotely. After making an appointment with the hospital, the patient connects with a doctor over the videophone network. The network can also be used to transmit data on the patient's daily health, making checkups more complete. Even prescriptions can be filled over the network and delivered right to the patient's door. More than 60 villagers are now using the remote health-check system and enjoying the freedom that comes with the decreased travel burden.

Distance Learning
The KMMV system lends itself not only to one-on-one communication, but to video conferencing as well. The Katsurao village office has been offering monthly lectures over the video network. Once a teacher is lined up to speak on a particular topic, the lecture is broadcast live over the wires. The interactive system even permits question-and-answer sessions after the lectures. So far 10 lectures have been held, attracting 70 listeners or so per lecture, and topics have ranged from village history to childcare methods and dioxin pollution.

The network also serves as a storehouse of information on the village itself. Residents can use the videophones to call up images of and information on life in the village, municipal administration, and local events. This has greatly boosted the availability of information that was once a chore to obtain.

Keep in Touch the Easy Way
The KMMV network is expandable, allowing people who were born in Katsurao but live elsewhere--Tokyo, for instance--to access the village by installing videophone terminals in their homes. The hamlet is not easy to get to: A trip from Tokyo involves a journey by bullet train, standard train, and bus. But now homesick residents have the network option. Some 80 former villagers--living not only in the capital, but as far away as Shikoku and Kyushu in the west--have spent about 150,000 yen (1,430 dollars) to install a terminal and keep in touch with the hometown.

According to village officials, there were worries at first that elderly villagers would find themselves at a loss when confronted with the new technology. But users of all ages have gotten completely used to the machines, and are using them in many ways in their daily lives. Many of Japan's farming communities are facing problems relating to dropping and aging populations, and representatives from local governments across the country have made the trip to Katsurao to see the network in action. Projects similar to the KMMV may one day breathe new life into villages throughout Japan.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.