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Ecology Is the Keyword

January 26, 2001
Recycling machines at an Ecostation.

The campus of Waseda University, one of Japan's leading private universities, spans two Tokyo neighborhoods that are currently drawing attention for a revitalization effort initiated by local merchants. The neighborhoods, Nishi-waseda and Totsuka-cho, are located in central Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward.

The neighborhoods around the university have a combined population of about 20,000, while the university itself has over 30,000 students. The student population keeps the area bustling for most of the year, but during summer vacation the streets grow very quiet. This situation is particularly rough on local bars and restaurants, which sometimes have to shut down during the vacation. Casting about for ways to beat the summer doldrums, seven merchants' associations in the vicinity of the university have launched a joint effort to revitalize the area and are achieving great success.

The enterprise started in the summer of 1996, with the Eco Summer Festival in Waseda. The festival came into being in a roundabout way. The merchants' associations around Waseda University had begun organizing a concert at the university's Okuma Auditorium to combat the summer slump. Just then, Shinjuku Ward was switching over to a fee-based system for collecting garbage from commercial establishments. With this in mind, the merchants decided to give their concert a second mission, that of issuing a call to reduce garbage output. So they named the event the Eco Summer Festival in Waseda and enlisted the participation of residents, local businesses, and student groups.

The festival was a great success. Encouraged, merchants began working with neighborhood associations, parent-teacher associations, and the university to reduce garbage output on an ongoing basis. Over time, the merchants began to think about an overall community revitalization that would extend beyond neighborhood environmental issues into the realms of social welfare, education, and the transition to an information-intensive society. At the end of 1996, the merchants' associations launched a wide-ranging program that encompassed seven themes: recycling, removal of barriers to accessibility by people with disabilities, earthquake preparedness, informatization, education at the local level, prosperous commercial establishments, and public participation in government administration.

The program has several objectives:

  • to achieve "zero trash output" for household garbage and paper and implement a recycling system in Waseda.
  • to prepare life-support infrastructure to supply water, food, and other essentials during major earthquakes and save lives through communitywide cooperation.
  • to restore life to neighborhoods by reinvigorating small businesses and encouraging local merchants' associations to become more active.

In July 1998 the merchants involved in the program converted an empty retail space into an "Ecostation," where visitors who put used cans and plastic bottles into recycling machines have a chance to win coupons redeemable for merchandise or food (for example, a plate of fried dumplings at a local Chinese diner). The Ecostation has been a big hit with children and adults alike, and the merchants have subsequently opened others. The third Waseda Ecostation opened in June 2000, and this success has inspired over 30 Ecostations nationwide.

In January 2000 the merchants' associations introduced a program that lets people rent a section of a soybean field and get tofu made from the beans grown there. Under the "Soybean Field Trust--My Tofu" program, a customer pays 4,000 yen (36 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) a year for a soybean patch covering an area of about 33 square meters (about 40 square yards), and when the soybeans are harvested, a tofu shop in the Waseda area makes them into tofu, which is handed over to the customer. The beans are grown organically, a major attraction in this day and age of growing concern about foods that are genetically modified or contain artificial substances. The tofu made from these all-natural beans is popular not only because people feel safe eating it but also because of its superior flavor.

Because people are having fewer children nowadays, the student population has declined. To remain vital, a university neighborhood can depend on student revenue only to a limited extent. By shifting their emphasis to a new theme, ecology, the Waseda merchants attracted attention to their community, and now their activities are drawing support not only from merchants' associations, student groups, and other local organizations but also from government agencies, businesses, and researchers all over Japan. Busloads of junior and senior high school students come from throughout the country to learn how to plan communities that generate profits in an enjoyable way, with ecology as the focus. As another bonus, more people are moving to the Waseda area, and the child population is growing.

Local revitalization efforts with an ecological focus have begun to spread throughout Japan. In August 2000 the Waseda Federation of Merchants' Associations established the Shoutengai Network Corp. jointly with merchants' associations throughout the country. The corporation's objective is to devise a system for creating vibrant, livable neighborhoods of small and medium-size shopping districts. To achieve its objective, the Shoutengai Network will make use of information technology. The corporation has attracted a lot of attention, possibly in part because its chief operating officer was a high school senior at the time of its founding. The business and industrial community is waiting eagerly to see what kinds of strategies the Shoutengai Network will come up with to create sustainable shopping districts.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited 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.