There are good reasons for choosing local communities (市町村) as unit of analysis within a research program that is interested in risks and opportunities. First, the local level in particular is being directly affected by many of Japan’s most pressing challenges - such as an ageing and shrinking population, rising costs for energy and resources as well as sustainability in agriculture and forestry. Meanwhile local communities come up with solutions, from increasing civic participation, over political reforms and new business models in agriculture and forestry, to an increased use of local resources and renewable energies.
Second, the configuration of problems, the solutions sought and the outcomes achieved differ widely across communities even within the same prefecture. This variety is easily neglected when analysing Japan’s challenges at an aggregate national level. It offers opportunities for comparative and multivariate analyses, which are essential if we want to understand the influence of local conditions and/or to generalize results.
Third, the local unit allows for a better delineation of the stakeholders involved, and for a micro analysis of their strategies and interactions. For the same reason, the complexity caused by the simultaneity and interdependence of different challenges can be better taken into account.
Fourth, the topic of “regions” is high on the political agenda (地方創生) and there is an unprecedentedly strong sense of crisis. This underlines the relevance and timeliness of the research topic. It also makes access to the field and the tie-up with collaborating partners easier.
Our research aims at better understanding the different challenges that local communities in Japan face and how they cope with the inherent risks and opportunities. Particular research questions are:
- How are risks and opportunities perceived by different local stakeholders?
- What actions are taken? Who takes initiative and leadership?
- What outcomes are achieved? How are they to be evaluated?
- What factors contribute to the success or failure of local initiatives?
The complexity of the research subject requires an interdisciplinary approach, i.e. specific research questions will have to be answered by bringing in legal, political, sociological, psychological and economic perspectives. A wide variety of methods can and should be applied with an emphasis on explorative case studies based on interviews and participatory observation.