RFI Connects “Fierce” Rural Innovators From Japan and Nebraska


Article By: Katelyn Ideus, Director of Communications & Public Relations, Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska
Video By: Avery Sass, former RFI Communications Intern


Rural communities in the Great Plains face similar challenges to rural communities around the world. But, more importantly, we share a mindset of determination and impact with innovative counterparts also attacking these challenges head on.

We knew this.

But we confirmed it again with resounding certainty when we hosted entrepreneurs and community leaders from rural Japan on Oct. 27 and 28.

“The challenges in Japan are grand,” said Connie Reimers-Hild, associate executive director of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska.


Japan faces:

It has a -.24% growth rate.
The total population is currently just over 127 million with 32% living in rural areas.

For comparison:
The U.S. has a .72% growth rate. Nebraska has a .69% growth rate.
Rural areas cover 97 percent of the land mass in the U.S. but only 19.3% of our population lives there.

The median age in Japan is 47, and 25% of its population is age 65 or older. Of note: A majority of the country’s population age 65 and older lives in rural areas—63%.

For comparison:
The median age in the U.S. is 38, and only 15% of our population is age 65 or older.

Rural Community Extinction
An influx of abandoned land and the possible extinction of rural communities 1,000 years old weighs heavily on the minds of the millennial generation charged with these areas’ survival.

“As an expert in this space, RFI has once again connected those fierce enough to acknowledge the grand challenges they face and do something about it,” Reimers-Hild said.

Japan Society, based in New York City, and Japan NPO Center, based in Tokyo, contacted RFI to participate in their two-year funded project, “Resilient and Vibrant Rural Communities in Japan and the U.S.” The project aims to inspire, connect and develop passionate and innovative leaders in both countries to find solutions for rural areas. The first phase was to immerse rural Japanese leaders in the rural U.S. and introduce them to American rural leaders.

Connecting is what we do, so we happily assisted. Following is who we were honored to meet.

Atsuhisa Emori, general manager of the Nippon Taberu Journal League, is taking on the producer-consumer “divide.” His network of Journals connects rural and urban residents over food and the stories behind the food, creating a joined community that works to solve challenges in the region and in society.

Kenji Hayashi left university to move to the rural community of Tsuwano, Shimane Prefecture, where he co-founded FoundingBase, a network designed to give young people meaning and purpose by connecting them to each other, ideas and rural opportunities. #IseeyouCYNers

Ryoko Sato is an assistant professor of law at the Ehime University Research Center for Regional Community Innovation and author of four books around community vitality. Universities in Japan aim to work regionally, so Sato connects university research and students to rural communities in the region to find solutions and motivate. She and RFI speak the same language, even though we technically don’t.

Tsuyoshi Sekihara is the founder of the Kamiechigo Yamazato Fan Club, a regional management organization (RMO) working around Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, where 25 hamlets have existed for more than 1,000 years. Due to rapid depopulation and aging many of these hamlets are on the verge of extinction. The population of the area is currently 2,000, but it is estimated to drop to 400 by 2050.

Junichi Tamura is chief director of Next Commons Lab (NCL). He started NCL in Tono, Iwate Prefecture, in 2016 to identify and visualize local resources, create multi-sector partnerships, invite and nurture entrepreneurs and create local hubs. Today there are eight hubs. By 2020, Tamura wants 100 hubs in and beyond Japan. #GreatPlainsCommunitiesWelcome

Each of our visitors presented formally at our public forum entitled, “A Thriving Rural Future In Japan and the United States,” on Oct. 27. The forum was hosted in partnership with Japan Society and Japan NPO Center.


Watch The Forum


Sekihara opened with an important question: “What is the ideal community size?”

His analysis:

Tsuyoshi Sekihara, Kamiechigo Yamazato Fan Club

Hayashi then discussed the anxiety of young people who do not see as clear of a path to success in Japan as their parents and grandparents.

“We bring young people together, not with the intention to have them to choose to move to a rural area, but to create motivation and meaning,” he said while discussing his startup, FoundingBase, which you can check out on Facebook. “Any young person we work with who says they want a challenge, that’s when we suggest they start something in a rural area.”

Sato explained how her students work closely with communities to create businesses and organizations to help the communities survive. In one community with 350 residents her students participated in multiple components — festivals, a vision-making workshop, the renovation of child care home and delivery of food to the elderly. In another community they created a student-run farmers market, which connects them to farmers face-to-face. The market has started to include high school students as well.

Tamura presented about his entrepreneurial network of Next Commons Lab, which intends to break down barriers and create a niche for communities.

“Rather than living in silos, we can co-solve problems,” Tamura said.

He also presented his vision for the future:

Junichi Tamura, Next Commons Lab, The Future

Emori presented last, leading with the ratio “98:2.” In 1970 there were 10 million farmers in Japan. Today, there are less than 4 million farmers, creating a 98 percent consumer to 2 percent producer ratio.

To bring producers and consumers together more purposefully, Taberu Journal magazines feature local producers and the printed magazines are accompanied by samples of the producers’ food items. The league also hosts in-person events to get consumers and producers face-to-face, and there are private Facebook groups to keep these connections going.

Emori, Taberu Journal League

Atsuhisa Emori presents the model of the Nippon Taberu Journal League as well as one of the printed editions.

Prior to the public forum, the group was formally welcomed to the University of Nebraska by Susan Fritz, Ph.D, Executive Vice President and Provost.

From left: Betty Borden, Japan Society; Kazuho Tsuchiya, Japan NPO Center; Susan Fritz, University of Nebraska; Fumiko Miyamoto, Japan Society; Shinji Nagase, Japan NPO Center.

The Tour

There is a reason that the Rural Futures Institute is located in the state of Nebraska. It is so we can take visitors to where the American rural innovators live and work.

On Saturday, RFI’s Reimers-Hild, Theresa Klein and I hosted the group at the Kimmel Education and Research Center and Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard. Richard P. Kimmel & Laurine Kimmel Charitable Foundation, Inc., President Ernie Weyeneth welcomed the group, and Nebraska Extension Educators Deb Weitzenkamp and Rex Nelson shared their work with youth entrepreneurship, technology and community vitality.

An ensuing discussion focused on what was needed in addition to job creation to create attractive rural communities for young people. Hayashi explained how a neighboring rural community in Japan attracted a factory but then realized that factory jobs were not enough to recruit young people to their community.

Tamura shared his experience of the importance of recognizing your community’s niche asset and storytelling around it. His community of Tono, Iwate Prefecture, is well known for hop farming, but this has actually dropped by 75 percent since its peak decades ago. To resurrect Tono, Tamura and his fellow residents envisioned their community 50 years into the future and created assets to represent their vision. Then they designed projects to actualize it. They intend to become the brewing capital of Japan. See more on Facebook.

At 40 degrees and windy, we decided it was the perfect Nebraska day for a hayrack ride around the orchard. Blankets were shared. Bonding was accomplished.

Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard

The group before the ride around Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard begins! (Not too cold yet!)

With our group of 15 seated cozily side by side on hay bales, the tractor slowly wove through the Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard. Since 1925, the orchard has drawn visitors from across the country and the world. Orchard manager Vaughn Hammond, was peppered with questions from the group about revenue, size and production.

After the ride, and a bit of shopping, next up was Nemaha County Hospital in Auburn, Neb.

Nemaha County Hospital

Nemaha County Hospital CEO Marty Fattig takes the group on a tour.

This hospital is best known for being one of the first to incorporate an electronic medical record, and it is the only hospital in Nebraska to be ISO-certified. It has also won the national “Most-Wired Hospital” award 10 of the last 11 years. Our guide was hospital CEO Marty Fattig, who also serves as a RFI Community Innovation Fellow.

Sekihara shared that in Japan, rural people have a higher health status than urban people, but Fattig explained that the opposite is true in the U.S. and that his hospital is working diligently on well-being initiatives. Fattig also shared the rural hospital closure rate—82 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. since 2010.

The second stop in Auburn was BCom Solutions with CEO Brent Comstock who shared details about his company’s international success and his recent efforts through the Rural Impact Hub.

BCom Solutions

Brent Comstock presents about his company, BCom Solutions, and the Rural Impact Hub in Auburn, Neb.

The group was particularly interested in the goals of the hub, which currently hosts a monthly speaker series and a monthly workshop series. The audience is not just entrepreneurs, but families and residents of the area as well, which the group found unique.

Ideally, Comstock said, he would like to create a network of hubs doing this work throughout rural America and beyond. Currently, he is in conversations with 12 communities in the U.S. Tamura and the Emori were particularly energized by this given their experience in creating networked rural areas in Japan.

The immersion wrapped up with a homecoming football game at Peru State College (PSC) thanks to PSC Professor and RFI Faculty Fellow Kyle Ryan. #PeruState150


Taking in an American football game at Peru State College

With Gratitude

Thank you to Japan Society and Japan NPO Center for giving us this opportunity.

We are proud of everyone who led our group in discussion, and we sincerely appreciate how welcoming everyone was—literally, our guests said every single person they met in Nebraska was genuine and generous.

We can confidently say that the first goal of the project is already met. Everyone involved is inspired to move forward in partnership. On behalf of the Rural Futures Institute, we are motivated and incredibly energized by the passion and ideas brought forward by this impressive group of rural game changers from Japan.

It was an important introduction to our ongoing work together, and we look forward to many more opportunities to engage in action-oriented conversations for the sake of rural people and places worldwide.