Ono in Fukui Prefecture is like many small and mid-sized towns in Japan whose young people are departing in droves for opportunities in big cities. It hopes to lure people back with a gift designed to make them homesick.
January 8 this year saw 314 coming-of-age ceremony participants in Ono receive copies of a 200-page photo album whose blank cover represents the snow that blankets the town in winter. Advertising giant Dentsu and the city's young residents collaborated to produce the album.
Ono's population of around 33,000 is declining, so the departure of many young people has become a major concern. Naoto Ameyama of the Hometown Promotion Office in the town's Planning and Administration Department says that, "High school graduates have little option but to leave because Ono has no universities or vocational colleges." Dentsu responded to this situation in March 2015 by launching Return to Ono, a local revitalization project, through which it works with local businesses.
You would expect that a town's first move to keep its young people would be to offer subsidies, childcare support, and discounted medical care. Dentsu's Keita Kusaka says that, "Ono's authorities indeed tried that tack but found that many with little interest in the place were unaware of these practical benefits." The Return to Ono project emerged to eliminate the information gap.
One realistic approach to partly stemming the depopulation tide would be to encourage young leavers to return down the track. The project thus targeted high school students through individuals in their mid-20s who were likely to leave Ono. Kusaka says that the goal was to highlight the town's attractions while people were still residing there. He notes that, "While you obviously can't stop people from leaving to further their educations or get work, you can plant the seeds of homesickness so that they become much more likely to return."
The need to retain a rural hometown idyll connection strikes a chord with Kusaka, who would love to have had such ties through his immediate family. He grew up in a condominium in a new suburb of Osaka; his parents were also raised in the city.
The project has rolled out in four stages. The first was to launch a poster competition in 2015, with 36 local high-school students each creating a local shop poster. Another contest was held in 2016, with 22 students competing. The second stage was a seminar in which eight adult residents delivered speeches about the joys of life in Ono. In the third stage, children wrote a song called, "I'm begging you to come back home." Parents sang the tune during a high school graduation ceremony in March 2016, much to their children's surprise. The photo album was the fourth stage in the project.
It took around 18 months to put the photo album together. The editorial team comprised Ono residents, young town hall officials, Dentsu creative staffers, and local visual artists. Ameyama recalls that the team's monthly gatherings were intense and long.
He says that the team devoted a lot of effort to discussing what images could persuade people to return to Ono. It concluded that casual landscape shots would be more effective than tourist brochure-like pictures. Local photographers took all of the pictures and residents wrote the captions. Kusaka says that this was because the team realized that only people who lived in Ono could capture the town's appeal.
Kusaka recalls that people initially found it hard to get into the swing of creating good copy. So, he advised them to write from the heart, and this gradually delivered results. He also learned from the experience of teaching copywriting techniques to members of the general public, and looks to apply these lessons to his work.
Kusaka says that the album was painstakingly bound as a lifelong keepsake, a valuable gift from Ono to its younger people.
Many recipients of the book have lauded it for capturing the Ono of their childhoods. Still, Ameyama is not looking for the publication to deliver instant results. He reckons that people would not miss the town much for the first two years or so after leaving. He says, "I'd be delighted if the book begins to work its magic at key life stages, such as after university graduates start work or get married."
At this juncture, the plan is to keep distributing the album for another two years while continuing with other efforts to foster homesickness for Ono among the young.
This article was published first on Campaign Japan: 新成人に贈る、「故郷の魅力」