Friday, August 22, 2008


New Stirrings in Japan's Heartland (October 2, 2003)

Takayama Festival
A float in the Takayama Autumn (Hachiman) Festival. (Gifu Prefecture Tokyo Tourist Information Center)
Local governments throughout Japan have been stepping up their efforts to revitalize their regions, and Gifu Prefecture, located in the middle of Japan's main island of Honshu, is no exception. It has undertaken a number of unique projects, including one designed to foster the information technology industry and another to turn the prefecture into a center of culture and fashion. While these initiatives cover a broad range of fields, they are tied by a common thread of building on traditional industries and seasonal events.

The Takayama Festival
Since ancient times, Gifu Prefecture has been a vital hub linking eastern and western Japan. During the country's Warring States period (1467-1568), when regional military leaders waged constant wars to defend or enlarge their domains, the conquest of Mino - the southern part of present-day Gifu - was regarded as the key to subduing the entire country. And in fact, the general who took control of the region - Oda Nobunaga - eventually went on to consolidate his position as Japan's shogun.

By contrast with southern Gifu and its lush Nobi plain, northern Gifu, or Hida, is mountainous, and life there has been more austere. Northern Gifu encompasses the Hida Mountains, with a number of peaks towering more than 3,000 meters high, and the Kiso Mountains.

The main city of this district is Takayama. The city is now busy preparing for the Takayama Autumn (Hachiman) Festival, which will unfold over a two-day period from October 9 to 10, to mark the end of the harvest. The Hachiman Festival and the Takayama Spring (Sanno) Festival are together called the Takayama Festivals, considered among the three most spectacular in Japan.

During the Hachiman Festival, hundreds of people wearing the ceremonial dress of palace guards - a stiff sleeveless jacket and long, pleated skirt - parade down the narrow streets of Takayama pulling 11 giant floats in a scene that replicates a historical picture scroll. The guards transport the floats, decorated with elaborate carvings and mechanical dolls, into the precincts of Hachiman Shrine. The movements of the dolls are extraordinarily complex, and it is hard to believe they are not wired with electronic circuitry. The production of these dolls is a Hida tradition that has been handed down since feudal times.

The highlight of the Hachiman Festival is the evening procession. The streetlights are turned off, and the floats are pulled through town bathed in the rays of 100 paper lanterns. The entire city is suddenly taken back centuries in time. The procession elicits constant exclamations of wonder and delight from onlookers.

making umbrellas
Making traditional umbrellas with Gifu paper. (Gifu Prefecture Tokyo Tourist Information Center)

Center for Information Technology
These traditional Hida handicrafts have found a new life in southern Gifu. In and around the city of Ogaki, which already hosts many information technology firms, plans for a Japanese Silicon Valley - named Sweet Valley - are moving forward. When completed in 2005, Sweet Valley is expected to become a large IT community with some 5,000 workers. The Japanese Government is backing the Gifu plan, which if successful will remake Ogaki into a technopolis featuring state-of-the-art information technologies.

Gifu Governor Kajiwara Taku, who was a leading force behind the drafting of this "Gifu Model," proudly comments, "Gifu may be conservative, but sentiments are growing that it will once again, like in the time of Nobunaga, be considered instrumental in winning control of the country."

Under Kajiwara's leadership, Gifu took the initiative in bringing IT firms to the area and providing solid backing for their operations. And in 1996 it became the first prefecture to implement IT-promoting policies by building Softopia Japan, centered on Ogaki, with the aim of attracting a large number of IT companies, supporting IT ventures, creating new IT technologies, and nurturing talented researchers.

In 2001, five years after its start, Softopia housed 128 IT venture firms and employed 1,700 workers. In addition, the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences opened in the spring of 2001 for the purpose of creating a new pool of skilled personnel.

Though the Sweet Valley plan builds on existing IT activities, its significance as an original Gifu initiative has been recognized by the central government, and its progress is being watched with much interest.

A craftsman making an ichii-itto bori woodcarving. (Gifu Prefecture Tokyo Tourist Information Center)

Unbroken Traditions
Although Gifu Prefecture is now coming to be known for its IT efforts, it also continues to enjoy a reputation for its local industries and traditional crafts. The artisans of Hida make not only mechanical dolls but also traditional lacquerware - called Hida shunkei - and woodcarvings - called ichii-itto bori. These are the unique products of a mountainous region geographically isolated from surrounding areas.

The city of Seki in southern Gifu is home to a world-class cutlery industry rivaling that of Solingen in Germany. Seki’s artisans are heirs to 800 years of tradition, and Seki knives and metal kitchen ware, as well as Japanese swords forged under the name Seki no Magoroku, are valued highly throughout the country.

Not far from Seki is the center of production for Mino ware. Here modern sensibilities have taken a place alongside traditional ceramic techniques, and the city of Mino today boosts the highest volume of production and shipments of tableware in Japan.

Mino is also renowned for its handmade Japanese paper. Dating back 1,300 years, Mino paper is characterized by a fine texture and is used widely as home decorations and in various visual arts.

The textile industry is also big in Gifu, the prefecture ranking alongside Tokyo and Osaka as a major apparel district. The prefectural government has designated 2003 as Year One of Cultural Industries, and it is now advancing "The World Oribe Design Concept," aimed at bringing together local ceramics, clothing, and industrial establishments to create new local brands. The movement borrows the name of Gifu-born tea master Furuta Oribe (1544-1615) who was known as an uninhibited and talented man of culture. Currently, eminent industrial designers from abroad have been invited to participate in seminars, and international design contests have been organized with the aim of injecting new life into Gifu's local industries and producing goods with high added value that can compete on the world market.

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