2022Re-examining the ever-changing “present day”
Considering "Design to generate 'our' well-being"

How is a sense of "we" expanded?—Yamakoshi Public Meeting Haruka Takeuchi × Dominique Chen


Yamakoshi region (former Yamakoshi-mura, incorporated into Nagaoka City in April 2005) is located in the central part of Niigata.
Rich nature and culture have taken root in this area of only 40 square kilometers. It is renowned as a world-class production area of Nishikigoi (multicolored carp) and as a terraced rice paddy area that has been selected as an Important Cultural Landscape by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. The bullfighting custom called "Ushi no Tsunotsuki" is designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan.
On the other hand, the demographics are difficult. Yamakoshi’s population has decreased from over 2,000 in the early 2000s to about 800 in 2022. The proportion of those aged 65 or older reportedly exceeded 55% in 2021.
To improve the situation, Yamakoshi launched a new challenge in December 2021. Yamakoshi Public Meeting, a local community development organization, published the digital art "Nishikigoi NFT," which acts as an electronic certificate of residence. Holders of the NFT, which is a proof of sympathy and company, are called “digital villagers.” They comprise a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), which has no owners or managers. The number of its members has reached about 1,040 (as of January 2023), more than the actual number of local residents.
Informatics researcher Dominique Chen has taken great interest in this effort to preserve the region by creating a community of sympathizers beyond national and physical borders.
Dominique, a Focused Issues director who considers and recommends new possibilities for design through the GOOD DESIGN AWARD screening process, set “Designing Our Well-being” as an exploration theme. Instead of targeting individuals alone, he is trying to review the form of well-being as a "better way of life" based on the image of people linked to relationships with others and the surrounding environment. To explore this, he tried to take a cue from Yamakoshi, which extended "our" borders by involving digital villagers.
Haruka Takeuchi, representative of Yamakoshi Public Meeting, responded. Since the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, which led to the evacuation of the entire former Yamakoshi-mura, she has continued to support the reconstruction of Yamakoshi and has been involved in the issuance of the Nishikigoi NFT. What kind of clue does this initiative of Yamakoshi, which was selected as one of the 100 best designs in the GOOD DESIGN AWARD 2022, give him to realize “Designing Our Well-being”?
At the end of November, just before snow started covering the terrace paddy fields, Dominique visited Yamakoshi.

The current situation of digital villagers—What's happening in Yamakoshi?

DominiqueThe theme I explore as Focused Issues is "Designing Our Well-being." In the 21st century, research on well-being was stimulated by the question, "Are we happy now that we have obtained material wealth and an environment with good infrastructure?"
I think it's a good thing in itself, but the research so far has tended to focus on the pursuit of individual happiness, partly because it originated in the United States with its strong individualistic way of thinking. I felt that even if the American-style theory of well-being, which was realized under the strong will and responsibility of individuals, was imported with no change, it would not be accepted in Japan.
During that time, what grew inside me, what fermented inside me, was an idea that it would be important to change the subject of the sentence from “I” to “we.” Instead of each pursuing their own well-being, we think of well-being in relationships. It may be important to pursue common well-being with stakeholders involved in relationships such as communities, families, friends, and partners.
However, this does not mean that we should aim for the same thing. I believe that we can realize “our well-being” by finding a domain where people can get connected with each other, becoming part of it, and connecting with various people in a complex way. It appears that “we” is used as the subject of sentence in Yamakoshi, where real space and digital spaces are blended in a complex way. That’s why I really wanted to talk with you.

Dominique Chen, Informatics researcher

TakeuchiThank you. I'm not sure if I can meet your expectations, but I'll tell you whatever I can.

DominiqueNot at all. Thank you. First of all, let me ask about digital residents who have purchased Nishikigoi NFT. How many people have participated in DAO till now?

TakeuchiA little over 1,000. Since its launch late last year, the number of participants has been growing. And it exceeded the population of real local residents this summer.

DominiqueOh, it has already exceeded the number of local residents. How do you communicate with digital villagers?

TakeuchiWe mainly communicate on the community app Discord. About 140 digital villagers have actually visited Yamakoshi. Especially people living in Niigata visit Yamakoshi quite often.
For example, on October 23, the day of the Chuetsu Earthquake, a memorial service is held every year by the residents of Yamakoshi. I posted on Discord, "This year, I hope digital Yamakoshi villagers will commemorate as well." As a result, we have created a metaverse where we can gather digitally. It’s a hybrid style, with a memorial service in real space. Some people visit Yamakoshi several times a month to actually scan the symbols of the earthquake disaster in Yamakoshi, such as a hanging temple bell and warabe jizo statues, and bring them into the metaverse.

DominiqueThat’s very nice. How do you create the metaverse?

TakeuchiWe create it on the metaverse platform Cluster and the social VR platform NeosVR. You can see Yamakoshi Reconstruction Exchange Center Orataru, where we are now!

Screen capture of Cluster

DominiqueOh, it's really real. Not only buildings but also ponds and rice paddies are well reproduced. The quality is very high. Oh, is this frozen koi fish?

TakeuchiYes, it is. Since winter is just around the corner, digital villagers are experimenting with snowmaking to prepare for winter.

DominiqueA metaverse with four seasons is interesting.

TakeuchiAnd the environmental sounds being played were actually recorded in Yamakoshi. A person came from Shizuoka and recorded the sounds of caves all day long.

Haruka Takeuchi, representative, Yamakoshi Public Meeting

Local and digital villagers have already mingled with each other

DominiqueEven environmental sounds! You or other members of the Yamakoshi Public Meeting didn't plan or ask for such an effort like creating a metaverse, did you?

TakeuchiIt's totally haphazard. In the scanning work, sometimes they came to Yamakoshi before we knew it. By the time we knew it, they had already left. I didn't even give them souvenirs (Laughter). Digital villagers voluntarily make avatars, scan, and make environmental sounds in their respective fields.

DominiqueThey work voluntarily. This is a typical DAO, a decentralized autonomous organization.

TakeuchiAt first, I didn't know what I would be able to give back to the digital villagers. But as it turns out, many people say that getting involved is the merit of buying the NFT. I still wonder if that’s really all they need. I sometimes feel guilty that I have not been able to do anything for people who pay transportation expenses to come to Yamakoshi and go back just after scanning. But I also believe that they still come here because they consider Yamakoshi as their own.

Nishikigoi, the motif of Nishikigoi NFT, is said to have originated in the Yamakoshi region. Nishikigoi, also referred to as "swimming jewels," is now an important industrial base in Niigata along with rice. Dominique saw many Nishikigoi farms when he visited for the interview.

DominiqueMaking others happy, being accomplished, and being energized through voluntary work may be the starting point for stepping into the unity of “we.”
Have you heard the word “kakawarishiro,” or the potential to be involved? Being able to be involved in something different from regular work, such as participating in NPOs or volunteer activities, is an incentive in itself. In Yamakoshi, it seems that connection through potential is starting to work naturally.

TakeuchiThank you. Speaking of “kakawarishiro,” Nishikigoi NFT owned by digital villagers also has the function of voting rights. Using a tool called Snapshot, a decentralized voting system, they can use the NFT as a governance token to vote according to the amount they have.
For example, we have decided on a project to keep Yamakoshi alive by asking the public to come up with plans and voting. The creation of a metaverse I talked about earlier is one of the plans.
Furthermore, there was an argument that it was strange for local residents not to be able to vote to decide on a survival plan for the Yamakoshi region. After voting to distribute NFT free of charge to Yamakoshi residents, unanimous approval was obtained. Fewer than 30 people have received it, but we’re giving Nishikigoi NFT to the residents. Working with each resident on their smartphones, we told them to keep it in a safe because it was as important as a passbook. We want to give it to more actual residents as soon as possible.

DominiqueThat's a very good move. Digital villagers and local residents are starting to mingle and make decisions.

TakeuchiYes, it is. Especially since the memorial service on October 23, which I mentioned earlier, I feel that the phase has changed. Local residents said, "Let's spend the same time together with digital villagers and people who have been involved in Yamakoshi."
Originally, because I thought that digital villagers and local residents would move in parallel, I didn't expect that they would become so mingled. I was really happy. Digital villagers have also started to interact with local residents. They use accommodations, restaurants, and shops in Yamakoshi.
Of course, old and young residents have sometimes asked us, "What is a digital villager?" and "What is NFT?" They understand we’re taking on something new like a variety of trials and errors we have gone through over these 18 years since the Chuetsu Earthquake. And they usually tell us to do our best. I believe that’s why these challenges were realized, and led to more interaction between digital villagers and local residents.

We are “outsiders” but feel a sense of "we"

DominiqueThat's wonderful. So far, I’ve heard about digital residents in Yamakoshi. I would like to ask how you became involved in such activities. In the first place, when did you become involved in Yamakoshi?

TakeuchiIt was triggered by the Chuetsu Earthquake in 2004. I happened to be out of work at the time. At Hello Work (Public Employment Security Office in Japan) I found a job as an employee of Yamakoshi Disaster Volunteer Center, and applied. The mission was only to support everyone to return to Yamakoshi, and do anything for this mission. I was impressed by the slogan of the mission, “Return to Yamakoshi,” and decided to work here. Then I started doing what I could one step at a time.

DominiqueIt was a chance encounter.

TakeuchiYes, it was a matter of chance. I am not from Yamakoshi, but from Uonuma City, Niigata. I am, so to speak, an outsider. Even so, for 16 years since I got involved, I have been working with the residents of Yamakoshi and supporters and helped create a sense of "we" step by step, by repeating various trials and errors. Sometimes I follow them, move side by side with them, and propose new ideas.
Since then, I have been immersed in Yamakoshi. I feel that I have been nurtured by the cool people of Yamakoshi while being taught various things by them. I think 80% to 90% of what I am now consists of my experiences in Yamakoshi. I think the Nishikigoi NFT is an invitation to join us, in order to expand the soil that has nurtured me.

In Yamakoshi, where there is almost no flat land, many layers of terraced rice fields built up over many years are also famous. In winter, they are covered with snow and the landscape is even more beautiful.

DominiqueFor about 16 years since the Chuetsu Earthquake, a sense of “we” has been formed through interaction among people. I think this has led to the success of the Nishikigoi NFT and digital residents.
Also, the expression "cool" is interesting and feels like a very important word. How are people in Yamakoshi cool?

TakeuchiI don't know what to say... I'm still at a loss for words. Local people working in the fields around here say something like "I live to die here." It’s super cool, isn’t it? The first time I got involved with the people of Yamakoshi was when I worked for temporary housing as an employee of the volunteer center after the Chuetsu Earthquake. Most people left their temporary houses, saying, "I'm going home to die in Yamakoshi." Not only one person but young and old people say the same thing. I was shocked to know that there were such cool people.

DominiqueI'm impressed. At least I don't think I will die in Tokyo, where I live now.

TakeuchiOf course, some people chose not to come back to Yamakoshi, and others moved due to family circumstances after coming back. Still, some people live as close as possible and come to engage in farming every day. They’re trying to get involved in Yamakoshi in some way. I got the impression that Yamakoshi was a part of them, whether they lived here or went down the mountain.
I've always liked that stance. I hope that everyone who is involved in Yamakoshi in various ways, including outsiders like me, will be able to say, "I am also a member of Yamakoshi."

DominiqueYou feel that people who think the land of Yamakoshi as part of themselves are cool. In order to create a sense of "we," not only in Yamakoshi but also in various communities, I think the connection between people and their land, as well as the connection between people, are very important.

TakeuchiYes. Land and landscapes created by people are filled with unimaginable hardships, such as maintaining a rice paddy and living in the harsh winter, and people are nurtured by these terrain and landscapes. I think the visible space is the result of the connection with predecessors of Yamakoshi.

DominiqueThey create and live in the landscapes. In relation to this, I would like to ask you some in-depth questions. What kind of feeling do you have toward Yamakoshi after spending 16 years there?

TakeuchiI still don't feel like “dying here," but I don't think I want to go down the mountain until I feel satisfied that I have returned the favor to Yamakoshi for having nurtured me. I wonder if a means of returning the favor is to keep Yamakoshi alive. I may be complacent, but I don't want to leave Yamakoshi until I think at least "All right, it will survive.”

DominiqueIn the past 16 years, was there a time when you could say “we” naturally or a time when you have noticed yourself say it?

TakeuchiIt may be when I became the representative of Yamakoshi Public Meeting and when we issued the Nishikigoi NFT. Until then, I used “this project” as the subject of sentence because I considered what I did as a project by the Secretariat of Yamakoshi Public Meeting, or a project to be undertaken as an intermediary in the "reconstruction assistance worker" system. Since about a year ago, when I was appointed as a representative of Yamakoshi Public Meeting, a voluntary group of residents, and started working toward the issuance of NFT, I have used Yamakoshi as the subject, instead of “this project.”

Dominiqueなるほど。制度に支えられて関わるフェーズから、自力で関わるフェーズに変わり、「わたしたち」という感覚を持つようになったと。この文脈を知らずに、Nishikigoi NFTは語れないですね。

I see. When the phase changed from one where you got involved in the system to one where you got involved on your own, you had a sense of "we." You can't talk about Nishikigoi NFT without knowing this context.

Keep Yamakoshi alive through “Being” and “Doing”

DominiqueLastly, I would like to ask you about your outlook for the future. For example, in terms of governance, I’m afraid unwanted conflicts can arise because it's a community. What challenges do you have?

TakeuchiThere are many. Regarding the voting that I mentioned earlier, the influence of digital villagers tends to be stronger than that of local residents because of the number. At present, digital villagers have respect for local residents. They patrol as "vigilantes" so that the flow of time and nuance are not neglected. However, there is a good chance that a hostile takeover will happen in the future. Digital villagers and local residents alike have expressed the opinion that something like a Constitution of the Yamakoshi DAO must be enacted to prevent a takeover of the region.

DominiqueIt’s a very important perspective that DAO people keep up with the nuance and the flow of time in the real Yamakoshi. Once something goes viral on a platform, such as Discord, a movement tends to be accelerated. But in the real world, time doesn't flow like that. I don't think there have been many communities where a real community and a digital community are in a parallel yet mingled structure. There will be a certain amount of trial and error.

TakeuchiRecently, digital villagers and members of this project have been talking about keeping Yamakoshi alive through “Being” and “Doing,” respectively. In order to keep Yamakoshi alive, we live here, i.e. "Being," and take actions, i.e. "Doing.”
In essence, however, I feel that local residents do not have any special expectations of digital villagers. Instead, I think they hope Yamakoshi is involved in a digital villager’s life, even for a moment. Local residents seem to treat digital villagers and people who are involved in Yamakoshi in the same way.

DominiqueI see. Do you have any expectations for digital villagers?

TakeuchiI have a strong feeling that I want to keep alive the spirituality, skills, and know-how of the cool people in Yamakoshi. I want to keep Yamakoshi spirit alive forever. So, I would be happy if we can think and create ways to do that together.

DominiqueThat's nice. Digital tools are used to create archives. But there's still a lot of work to be done to hand down the spirituality and thoughts to the next generation. I use technology to research, but I've always thought that I shouldn't use technology as the subject.
Regarding the efforts in Yamakoshi, words like DAO and NFT tend to get a lot of attention, but I’ve learned that they are just methods, not purposes in themselves. It’s important to consider NFT and DAO based on the accumulated efforts over the past 18 years and the feelings accumulated through these efforts, so that they are not consumed in a discourse situation in which they quickly become buzzwords.
I’ve received many important suggestions to think about well-being and how to live better under the theme of “we.” Thank you very much for today.

[Writer/Editor] Masaki Koike [Photographer] Shunsuke Imai

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