Guest article - written by: Shinobu HAYAMA
We often talk about the impact of traveling on the planet. About its environment and wildlife. It is fairly visible. It is quite measurable.
Sometimes even more manageable, maybe because they don’t have a voice in the language that we know. And yes, it is extremely important.
But, so often, we forget about its people.
That is not a surprise because it sometimes feels more complex. Humans by nature, have a tendency to want to address issues like that another day.
But the truth is, ecology is just one leg of a three-legged stool, and sustainability is equally about our society and economy — it is “the balance” of this interconnected ecosystem.
So when we try to be sustainable by focusing on being green and doing the equation without the people, in fact, it becomes an unachievable goal. Just as much as we depend on our environment, our humanity is a necessity for us to share a healthy planet.
Beyond “Us” and “Them”
So what does that actually mean? It might seem like a big question to address, but to take it step by step, today, perhaps we can start off with simple questions such as “who’s making the food on our table?”
Sure, they may be organic and made with fewer chemicals, but sometimes, the people harvesting them — although we don’t like to imagine — may have had to work under inhumane labor conditions and unfair wages on the other side of the world.
Why? Because for so long, our society has asked to buy more “quantity” of the same for “cheaper” prices, and businesses try to create in mass — in the name of efficiency, cheapening people to do so. Even taking that one vegetable on your plate, there might be a story of unbalance behind the scenes.
And sustainability is also not just about issues more common in developing countries, but all across the world — even the more developed countries.
Let’s take the example of Japan. It’s interesting that the nation draws quite some positive attention for a unique culture, nature and some of the most advanced technology. But what we don’t hear about is, at the same time, 896 towns and villages are estimated to disappear by 2040 — that’s about half the number of today.
Why? Depopulation and aging population play a large part, but the “overconcentration” in cities, where jobs and schools are flocked also create such a phenomenon. Often the rural villages have a heavy weight on the older population continuing on with their farming, fishing or other primary industry, and the younger population in search of more diversified jobs flowing outside — sometimes never to return. This is not a case singular to Japan, and similar situations exist in other countries.
For instance, let’s visit a remote chain of islands in the southern Kyushu Region of Japan, the Amami Archipelago. The five islands are gifted with a bounty of the ocean and mountains — colorful coral of 220 species, endemic species and wildlife, and small village communities called “shuraku” exist there — home to some of the longest living people in the world as recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. These people carry some of the oldest cultures of Japan, passed down over generations and still live today, including the “island dialect” language recognized as almost extinct in the UNESCO. As much as it is such a beautiful place, the population is decreasing yearly, and some shurakus consist of only one household (one of the islands have only one traffic light in the entire island!). In terms of travel, the area is often undiscovered as a destination, even domestically.
These communities are gradually vanishing. With unpredictable changes happening all over the globe now, it could happen to yours as well, for reasons beyond our imagination.
The Power of “Exchange”
So how might we bring back the liveliness, people and industries? How might we preserve cultural heritage? And all of this in a way that respects the destination’s carrying capacity and innate assets (i.e. not constructing more or newer shopping malls by destroying its nature) — vitalization in a sustainable way. And we believe that people from the outside can also play a unique positive role — if we do it the healthy way.Here, warm islanders welcome guests to join their life as it is. Through appreciating the vast nature together, or joining their weekly practices for their traditional dances and songs with their almost extinct language and cultural heritage, towards their annual summer festival where they heat up and dance away until dawn (“Hachigatsu-odori”, praying for a bountiful harvest). For the islanders, these traditional arts are largely their “Ikigai”, or reason for being in Japanese (of course, together with enjoying the brown sugar distilled liquor “Kokuto-jochu” made from local sugar canes!) — many say that this is what creates their strong sense of community, which is one of the secrets to their extraordinary longevity and wellness.
"It is hard to imagine our long-living traditions and language are bound to disappear sometime. But through receiving guests, we realized that this is the time we get to share them — and seeing their joyful faces makes us happy. It brings us a sense of pride, realizing that our culture, something ordinary for us, could be something special for others. It helps us preserve our cultural heritage. We can not host a group of 100 tourists for a luxurious tour, but we can share our simple life with nature, creating true connections with each traveler — hoping they might come back 100 times.”
When you travel somewhere, instead of flocking to photograph some crowded monuments, why not visit these destinations where you can touch real lives? Meet these local communities. Sing their songs. Share the sunset over their local liquor (if you drink!) together. They have stories to share and welcome the beauty of exchange.
Our Common Heritage
And if this kind of slow travel gently brings back a sustainable livelihood and local industry, then, their young people might, in fact, decide to stay there, weaving creative jobs, lives and a new circular economy — sustaining a precious destination, its knowledge, and ideas which are all indeed a common asset and heritage for our earth.
Share and learn something from each other, new perspectives or ways of coexisting with nature, or ways to recover from a crisis or disaster. These may certainly contribute to your home-ground when you return.
Yes, you might think twice if you think about the pollution flying may cause — but it is worth thinking thrice about the communities and humanity that may be enhanced — friendships and knowledge created towards global solidarity.
How can we live caring not only for the environment but the people that we depend on? How can we create a resilient world where we can help each other in times of adversity, beyond borders?
You can make your traveling footprints worthwhile. The three legs of the stool hold together one ecosystem — let’s try to strengthen each one before we lose balance forever.
Who we owe is not the bank, but our common future.
About Shinobu HAYAMA, Founder & CEO of Journey for Change and co-Founder of Herost
Sustainable development through intercultural exchange has been a part of Shinobu’s heart and professional life for almost a decade. She has extensive experience consulting and designing travel and learning for sustainability, bridging Japan and overseas. With a significant focus on resilience and revitalization of regions in Japan after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, projects extend cross-sector, across companies, academic institutions, government entities, industries including tourism, fishery, agriculture and communities.