Chapter Two: Contemporary Sakaki

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener

Initial preconceptions

I first visited Sakaki in December 1989 at the urging of a professor in Tokyo who had been one of a group of Japanese scholars studying the unique industrialization in the town in the mid-80s. I was told that among small Japanese towns, Sakaki was one of the most highly industrialized and that most of the companies had been started independently by local entrepreneurs rather than being subsidiaries of larger urban corporations.

What came to mind, when I envisioned Sakaki was something out of a Dickens novel describing late nineteenth century London suburbs: tall smoke stacks bellowing plumes of black smoke casting a sooty film over everything in the town, and rivers oozing a green or brown slime emitted from the waste pipes of noisy, cluttered plants. On coming to the town, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent of nature remaining and the lack of the kinds of pollution I had anticipated.

Outsiders who are attracted to Sakaki by tales about the industrial "miracle" are treated to a standard course of reception at the Chamber of Commerce. My visit was no exception. I was led to a private room, the office of the chairman of the Chamber (who was not present), and soon joined by the secretariat of the Chamber, the individual who runs day-to-day affairs. Over the course of the interview, he explained to me how independent Sakaki-born individuals had built up the industry in the town and how strong and resilient they remained to this day, despite the harsh conditions of the domestic and international economies.

In a letter before my visit, I had indicated my intention to do a long-term study of the town, perhaps living in the town for as long as a year. The secretariat told that there were few apartments or places that might receive a scholar or foreigner like myself. He politely discouraged my plan, suggesting that I might be able to conduct my study equally well from Tokyo with materials and data written about the town. I had hoped I could see one or two factories, but was told that since I had neglected to ask them to set up such an opportunity, that it would be difficult on such short notice.

I left Sakaki, stayed in the neighboring city of Ueda at the business hotel near the station that had been reserved for me, and left earlier than planned the next morning. I was disappointed that I would not be able to conduct the research at this site. What I did not know is that I had started a process in motion and that the polite refusals were only designed not to give me undue optimism should it not be possible to mobilize all the people who would be involved in my stay.

The secretariat wrote a letter in January inviting me to come do a trial month-long pilot study, on the basis of which we could decide whether it was feasible for me to stay for the entire year. I ended up being welcomed for the entire year and extended that for an additional five months.

A portrait of the town today

Sakaki is a three and a half hour train ride by express train from Ueno station in Tokyo. That station is the primary gateway from Tokyo to regions in the northern and eastern portions of the main island. Several of those areas now have bullet train routes traversing the distance of the old express trains in about half the time. It is said that Nagano Prefecture (where Sakaki is) is somewhat behind the times.

Sakaki is on the main train route, but express trains don't stop at the local station. One must change to a local train at the neighboring city of Ueda; from there it is a ten-minute train ride to Sakaki's station. The train remains the most convenient mode of passenger transportation to Tokyo because of congestion on the overburdened highways. It also provides regional transportation for high school students who pack the train on their commute to and from school.

The area around the station is clustered with stores and factories. The streets in front of the station are lined with old building which once housed the shops and inns of a major stop along the old road to Tokyo. They are now largely shops serving the local community. There are several banks, the post office, a stationery store, a book store, several groceries and liquor stores, several clothing stores, barbers, and one or two little restaurants and local bars.

Map 4. Sakaki today, major roads, names of neighborhoods, location of major landmarks. Note the planned expressway route appearing to far right (discussion in Chapter 5).

The old road to Tokyo, with its narrow lined streets and sharp turns has been supplanted as an access road by national route 18 which is a one-lane highway cutting through from the northern to the southern border of the town. Route 18 provides the primary vehicular access to Tokyo. A trip by car takes at least four and a half hours. There is another one-lane road that cuts through the town on the other side of the river. These two roads are the only traffic arteries which extend beyond the town limits. The primary mode of transportation within the town and surrounding region has become the automobile. With only a few exceptions, route 18 is also the major freight artery, both for areas to the north and for local companies receiving parts, materials and sub-assemblies from subcontractors and delivering finished products to customers. In the evenings the Tokyo-bound lane is jammed with trucks bound for Tokyo and the procession returns in the early morning hours.

Besides the major access roads, there are other important roadways which connect the expanse of the valley. There are five bridges which span the river, but only two are wide enough that one can pass without consideration of oncoming vehicles. One of the bridges is still floored with wooden planks and is only a single lane. The outgoing mayor made it his biggest project to construct the most modern bridge spanning the river, called Sakaki ohashi, notably "Sakaki's big bridge."

The majority of the residential population, industry and agriculture is located on the eastern side of the valley. Sakaki is actually a conglomeration of several distinct hamlets and villages which have come together as a single administrative unit during the postwar period. The villages on the eastern side of the river were the first to combine. There are four major centers on this side of the river (from north to south): Sakaki, Yotsuya, Nakanojo and Minamijo. On the other side of the river, Murakami, which was a separate village until the 1960s, is itself a combination of several originally distinct hamlets.

The area immediately east of Route 18 has the highest concentration of homes, shops, and factories. Continuing east, there is a ring of farmsteads, low-lying fields, and occasional rice paddies. Further east and rising in elevation are grape vineyards; and at higher elevations sloped apple orchards. The area of cultivation extends approximately a third of the way up the mountains, the tops of which are lined with forest.

The western side of the river receives less direct sunlight since it faces north and east and is shadowed by the mountains to its south and west earlier in the afternoon. The area immediately west of the river is the largest flat, open expanse within the town; it is a patchwork of vast rice paddies and green houses.

Local government

The government functions of the town are spread throughout it. The town hall and Chamber of Commerce are modern buildings on the back side of the station in an area that has housed some of Sakaki's earliest factories. There are three primary schools spread throughout the town, one junior high school and one high school both roughly in the middle of the town on the east side of the river. This central area also houses the town library, the cultural center and the senior citizens center.

The town is governed by a mayor and a council of 18 members. These officials are chosen in popular elections every few years. The mayor's position is full time and his offices are in the town hall. The council convenes only four or five times a year for sessions lasting about a week each time. Most of the council members are engaged in agricultural pursuits in addition to their elected duties. In addition to elected officials, there are over 200 bureaucrats and town employees who are employed full-time in the day-to-day operation of the town government. A point of town pride is that Sakaki's local government has been able to finance its operations without assistance from the national government. Local tax rates are comparable to those of other towns, but the tax base is broader in Sakaki because of the extent of industrial income. Most other towns throughout Japan are highly dependent on national aid to settle accounts each year.

The Chamber of Commerce serves as liaison between governments- national and local- and local industry. It receives its funding from all three sources. In 1988, for example, of its total operating expenses of thirty million Yen (about $200,000), 55% of its revenue came from the prefecture, 23% from the town, and 19% from fees charged local industry. Its primary functions are administering governmental policies and providing resources to local companies to allow them to take advantage of existing government programs and aid. The Chamber administers a health insurance program for local workers, helps to setup loans for local companies, and offers a number of technical seminars and short courses. In addition it orchestrates many regular meetings of local industrialists and bureaucrats and special events concerning pressing issues facing local commerce and industry.


Most of Sakaki's companies are small operations. The average size is about 20 workers, the smallest enterprises are one-man operations. Over three quarters of the firms have fewer than ten employees, but these companies employ less than 1,000 workers (or about 15 percent of the work force) and only contribute about 5 percent of the total gross product of Sakaki companies. The largest fourteen factories employ over 100 workers each, accounting for 4,000 workers altogether, or over 57 percent of the work force and 70 percent of the town gross product. Factories are dispersed over the entire inhabited area of the town.

 number of      number of firms    total employees         gross    
 employees                                          (thousands of Yen)        

1 to 3            152    41.6%       334     4.7%      179      1.1% 

4 to 9            130    35.6%       721    10.2%      649      4.0% 

10 to 19           34     9.3%       459     6.5%      541      3.3% 

20 to 49           24     6.6%       620    10.2%    1,024      6.3% 

50 to 99           11     3.0%       762    10.8%    2,430     14.9% 

100 to 299          9     2.5%     1,436    20.3%    2,951     18.1% 

300 up              5     1.4%     2,634    37.3%    8,520     52.3% 

Table 2. The distribution of Sakaki companies by number of employees. Source: Town of Sakaki 1985.

Sakaki companies may be broken down into two types of firms: the independent and the subcontractor. The independent company manufacturers finished products which are sold directly in domestic and international markets. For example, Nissei Plastics (introduced in a later chapter), produces the machinery that is used in factories to manufacture complex plastic components. They have their own extensive domestic and overseas sales network; their world market share is roughly 25 percent. Another company called Nakajima All produces electronic typewriters and printers which are marketed under various brand names overseas. They have over 1,200 employees worldwide. A third independent company, Takeuchi Manufacturing specializes in back hoes which are used in construction and marketed under their own name domestically and internationally. Takeuchi employs over 300 employees. The independents, while few in number, are among the largest companies in the town.

The other type of company is the subcontractor. Some of these companies have become subsidiaries or important suppliers of large urban industrial networks (keiretsu). Tsuzuki Manufacturing finishes cast metal parts for Honda automobiles and Komatsu tractors. They have over 400 employees and are part owned by Honda. Nagano Osaki manufactures plastic connectors, knobs, and gears. They employ 110 people. Over 50 percent of their products are purchased by Fujitsu, but they are completely owned by the founding family. Most of these subcontractors manufacture metal and plastic parts and simple electrical components.

Subcontractors are not necessarily a part of keiretsu; a large number of Sakaki subcontractors primarily supply the independents. Many of these companies produce precision molds used in factory machinery to produce particular metal and plastic parts. Nishizawa Electric Measuring Instruments produces meters which are used as sub components of the local independent, Hioki. They employ 70 workers. There is also a large number of small factories, employing fewer than 10 employees, which produce the highly sophisticated metal jigs which fit into manufacturing machinery in the production of pressed-metal and plastic parts. Many of these companies were founded by former employees of the companies that they now supply.


Despite the high degree of industrialization there is a large amount of agricultural activity in the town. The primary crops are apples, grapes, and flowers which are shipped to markets in the cities. Apples became an important crop during the depression years as silk became less profitable. Apple orchards run up the base of Sakaki's mountains. Within the last ten years, grapes have become a popular crop. Grapes produce a better return than apples and fill a increasingly sophisticated palate for fruit in the cities. Sakaki grapes have achieved a recognized reputation in urban markets. Flowers are grown in green houses along the west bank of the river. The mild climate and access to urban markets have contributed to the popularity of this crop.

Farming is still a family activity. Families specialize in single crops and holdings are generally small. The transportation and sale of crops is organized by the town farmers' cooperative. Individuals farmers bring their crops to the cooperative to have them sold in distant markets. The cooperative also serves as a bank and grocery store and sells farm equipment and supplies.

Land usage

The natural features as well as the major transportation arteries have affected land usage. One could divide the area of the town from east to west as follows:

  1. The mountain tops are mostly national government preserves and raw forested land.

  2. The highest elevations that are cultivated are apple orchards which start at the lower third of the mountains.

  3. The oldest and most prolific farming areas are in the foothills of the mountains. They contain a mixture of old farm houses, fields, orchards and vineyards. Only an occasional factory is found in these areas. They employ fewer than ten people and are located in the lowest elevation of this area.

  4. Running parallel on the eastern side of Route 18 is an in-town industrial access road. This is a mixed-use region of agricultural, residential and industrial activity. The fields, orchards, and vineyards are smaller in size than in area 3. Factories are randomly dispersed among residences and fields.

  5. Route 18 follows much of the path of the old road to Edo which was lined with merchant establishments. Where Route 18 follows the same path, many of these old buildings remain. Some are domiciles and others have been converted into shops serving today's residents. In other areas, new commercial buildings line the road. There is very little open space. In addition to commercial establishments, several of Sakaki's larger companies have plants along the roadway.

  6. Rice paddies line the narrow band between the highway and the dikes which run along the east side of the river. The town government has recently organized the development of one tract of rice paddies into an industrial park.

  7. The river banks are subject to seasonal flooding and changes in the course of the channel. Unprotected by the dikes, much of the land is unused open space, but many Sakaki residents, particularly those who do not have land in other parts of the town, have small gardens where they grow vegetables for personal consumption.

  8. There is another system of dikes on the western banks of the river. The area west of these dikes is one of the largest flat areas in the town, but it is mostly occupied by large rice paddies and green houses. This area was reclaimed in the early twentieth century when the dikes were erected and has been used since then for rice agriculture, but paddies have increasingly become replaced by green houses. The farmers who own this land have houses within the area, but because holdings are large, there is no concentration of homes. Recently with the construction of Sakaki ohashi, the largest bridge across the river, this area has been opened up to industrial development.

  9. The area immediately around the other main out-of-town access road is somewhat like the area surrounding Route 18, although slightly less developed.

  10. To the west of the second access road are well-established farming areas, much like those found in area 3. Due to the north-east orientation of this area, the agriculture is on a much reduced scale compared to area 3.

  11. The mountains that form the western border of the town are forested preserves like those on the eastern side of town.

Map 5. Sakaki, showing land usage of different areas as bands.

Sakaki and the surrounding towns and cities

The borders of any town or city are arbitrary political boundaries that say little about relations of people living within and beyond. Sakaki's boundaries are no exception. To some extent geographical features affect relations with neighboring towns. The mountains which enclose the valley provide natural barriers with the towns and villages on the other side of them. Sakaki has closest relations with the towns and cities that lie along the Chikuma river, both upstream to the south east and downstream to the north west. Since the feudal era, the towns and cities along the river have been physically connected by the old road to Edo now replaced by Route 18.

If Sakaki was just a farming area, it might have little reason to have extensive relationships with neighboring towns. The farmers themselves have little contact with the outside. They sell their crops to the local farmers' cooperative which sets the price, acts as a bank, provides them with seeds and other materials and equipment, and transports their crops to markets in the city.

Recently the Sakaki farmers' cooperative decided to merge itself with those of the neighboring towns of Kamiyamada and Togura. This move was designed to try to increase bargaining power in urban markets by controlling higher levels of volume. Some local farmers have complained that this union may cause problems because their crops are of higher quality than those in neighboring towns and have attained a high reputation as a result. They worry that if lower quality crops are sold together with higher quality produce, reputation and market prices may fall.

Merging of local functions is a general trend. The town of Sakaki is an amalgamation of separate villages and hamlets as are neighboring towns and cities. Since the war, national government policies have encouraged larger units of local government administration. It is also to the advantage of local governments to merge together in providing basic services.

Map 6. The towns and cities along the Chikuma river from the city of Nagano to the city of Ueda.

The towns of Sakaki, Togura, Kamiyamada, and the city of Koshoku have banded together to provide several service functions. Garbage and waste products are processed collectively. Burnable garbage is incinerated at a processing plant in Sakaki. Non-combustible garbage is processed in Kamiyamada. There are no sewers in the entire area; human waste is trucked from private septic tanks to a processing facility in Koshoku which discharges into the Chikuma river (at the most downstream location within the jurisdictions). Electricity and gas are provided by private companies, but water is provided to most of Sakaki, Ueda, Togura and Kamiyamada from a water district run by the Prefecture which draws water upstream in Ueda.

It is in areas of industry and commerce that residents of the towns and cities of the area have the strongest and most concrete relationships with one another. Industry by far has the highest economic value of all of these. All of the towns in the area have some degree of industry the output of which ultimately ends up in the urban markets and warehouses of Tokyo where it is distributed domestically and internationally.

There is also a large amount of inter-relationship between companies in neighboring towns. The stages of manufacturing are often distributed between firms in the same general area. One company in a neighboring town might provide an unfinished cast metal part for an automobile and another firm in Sakaki might finish the surfaces of that part and provide it to another local plant that assembles that fixture. Ultimately the part might end up in the factory of a large industrial group, an automobile plant in Shizuoka prefecture, for example, south west of Tokyo on the Pacific coast. The subcontractors of large industrial groups are not the only ones with significant out-of-town ties for supply and delivery. The subcontracting networks of Sakaki's independent companies include not only companies within Sakaki but also companies in other towns in the Prefecture.

In addition to the linkages between suppliers and clients in vast industrial networks permeating the region, there is a good deal of commuting by employees of local companies. In 1985, of the approximately 7,000 jobs in industrial and commercial organizations in Sakaki, about 2,500 were held by people who lived out of town. 2,000 Sakaki residents had jobs out of town in that same year. Most workers commute to work by car. Much of the space used by local companies is devoted to huge parking lots, the most primitive of which are simply converted fields rented from neighboring farmers or owned by the companies. Even individuals who live in the town now commute by car to work. The average household owns two or more vehicles.

Up until 20 or 30 years ago the vast majority of workers commuted to work by foot, bicycle, bus, or train. The center of town has changed since then. Until the 1970s, the center of industry and commerce was largely around the train station. A thriving commercial district serviced the employees of local firms to and from their way to work. Many of these shops still exist, but the factories have since moved to less cramped surroundings along Route 18 or on other side of the river. Another generation of shops and restaurants has grown up along Route 18 and other high traffic roads. Companies and shops along Route 18 have ample parking, in contrast to congestion that exists in the old commercial district around the station. Lack of parking and the shift in commuting patterns have contributed to the demise of shops in this area.

Aside from two large chain supermarkets, a chain pachinko parlor and several inexpensive chain restaurants, most of the stores along the roads are locally run. They all serve local in-town clientele. Almost without exception, they are not the kinds of establishments that would draw out-of-town customers. Perhaps the only exception is a bus rest stop area on the border of town which houses a dining hall specifically catering to passengers on busses from Tokyo on their way back and forth to distant ski areas to the north.

The widespread use of the automobile has radically changed the nature of commercial establishments in the town. Whereas local residents and workers might have done all their shopping in town several decades ago, they are increasingly drawn to large outlets out of town. Local clothing stores have been the first to feel this trend. Fashion and budget conscious consumers go south to the neighboring city of Ueda or as far north as the city of Nagano to shop in department stores and chain outlets. The cities also boast large bookstores, hardware outlets, and other large stores. Increasingly, local stores are seen as expensive, poorly-stocked, and unfashionable alternatives. One notable commodity still sold and serviced by in-town establishments is the automobile.[1] Local liquor stores still do a thriving business. Foodstuffs are largely bought in town, although a "farmers' market" in neighboring Ueda draws a large Sakaki clientele for its low prices, and the cities boast more sophisticated supermarkets catering to discriminating palates and fatter pocketbooks.

The other aspect of commerce that ties the region together is dining and entertainment. Sakaki has its share of small bars and inexpensive restaurants, but high-brow entertainment requires a trip out of town. Certainly there is considerably more home entertainment than one might find in Japanese cities where people live in cramped apartments hours away from their work places. Farming families entertain relatives and others for tea and dinner at their homes, but those engaged in industrial work are more likely to entertain outside of the home.

The most common destination for drinking and dining among workers and managers of Sakaki companies is the neighboring hot spring resort in the towns of Kamiyamada and Togura. There are many occasions for formal entertainment. The Chamber and town government act as official sponsors of many formal parties bringing together local bureaucrats, industrialists, shopkeepers, and other groups. The most formal of these are conducted entirely at the hot spring. The main party is usually held at an inn; it consists of dinner in a large private tatami room.[2] There is an unofficial hierarchy of top-class, middle-class, and lower-class establishments. The importance of the event determines the establishment it is held at. If the event is very important, several geisha[3] will be hired to accompany the highest ranking guests of the evening, to make small talk, and to pour drinks. Seating in these parties in highly structured. There is usually a bank of seats reserved for the most honored guests and official hosts. Seats furthest away from the doors are assigned to guests and those closest to the door are assigned to lower status individuals.[4]

In addition there are many formal parties that coincide with particular seasons. Companies, as well as local government, throw parties bonenkai ("year-forgetting parties" at the end of December) and shinnenkai ("new years parties" in the first few weeks of January). These parties, as well as the events mentioned above, are often sleep-over affairs with dinner served at the inn where the guests stay.[5] The inns also have common bath facilities separated only by sex. Some of the higher class establishments boast outside baths, fancy stone interiors and other equipment. Guests sometimes take baths before dinner, time permitting. Many of them will change out of their street clothes and into a Japanese-style yukata provided by the inn.[6]

Formal parties are almost inevitably followed by second and third parties at local bars. The back streets of Kamiyamada are packed with little drinking establishments, each one with an owner, usually a middle-aged woman, who has developed a clientele among Sakaki industrialists and other influential figures.[7] At night one can hear the almost incessant sound of wooden clogs against the pavement as groups of wandering guests, wrapped in the yukata of the different inns, make their rounds of the bars on the back streets.

The hot spring is the preferred entertainment center for older, middle-aged, and elite managers and bureaucrats, but it is less popular among younger people. Younger workers, managers and bureaucrats are often part of these parties that end up at the hot spring every night. When they socialize among themselves, they tend to frequent night life attractions in other towns. Most popular among young people are restaurants and other establishments in the cities of Ueda to the southeast and Nagano to the northwest, among these restaurants offering Western and foreign cuisine (a Mediterranean restaurant in Ueda is one expensive example). There are a number of moderately priced "family" restaurants in the cities which draw a youthful crowd. Young people tend to prefer the cocktail bars of the cities to local Japanese-style bars.

Private socialization of younger generations follows a different pattern than business entertainment of older generations. Rather than frequenting nearby establishments where they might become regular customers, known by the owners and employees as well as other clientele, the emphasis on young people's outings is anonymity. This is especially true on dates. It is common for young couples to be secretive about their liaisons, traveling long distances away from home and workplace in order not to be seen by people who might know them.

Characterization of towns in a regional economy

The towns and cities of the region each have a particular character different from the others. Sakaki has the reputation as a town for serious work. It has one of the highest number of companies per-capita in the area, but it lacks a large service sector. The strengths and weaknesses of Sakaki are complemented by those of the surrounding towns.

Kamiyamada, with only about one-third the population of Sakaki, is regarded as a hot-springs resort town. There is a good amount of agriculture and industry in the town, but by far the town economy centers around the hot spring resort. The clientele of the hot spring used to consist largely of urbanites on weekend and short excursions, but bullet train routes to areas north of Tokyo have improved accessibility of hot springs and other attractions in other regions and foreign travel is now preferred over domestic travel in many cases.[8] Though the resort still caters to outsiders, notably guests of local companies and families, bus trips touring the prefecture, and the occasional urbanite on an excursion from the city, the economy of the hot spring has shifted its focus to providing a playground for Sakaki and other local industrial and governmental elite.

Since many of the hot springs attractions of Kamiyamada flow over into Togura, it too has an image as a resort town, but in reality has a very complex and varied economy. Togura is somewhat larger than Sakaki in population and area. The borders between it and Kamiyamada are not easily distinguished. One can walk down a street in the resort district and buildings on one side might be in Togura, buildings on the other in Kamiyamada; a block later, the towns may have switched sides. In national advertisements, the hot spring resort is known as "Togura Kamiyamada Hot Springs." But Togura encompasses a much wider area than Kamiyamada and much of it is not related to the hot spring at all. There is a good deal of agriculture in the town and, like Sakaki, it has a a considerable amount of industry.

The city of Koshoku to the north of Togura has a modern image which has caused it to become popular among young people in the area. The city is the home of one of the more prominent high schools in the area. Perhaps the status accorded by this has also contributed to the degree to which it has recently received innovative enterprise. The city government has been very active in courting out-of-town organizations and the town now hosts many companies popular among young people. The city contains a large amount of open space originally used for agriculture which has not only been converted to factory plants, but to living space. Unlike Sakaki, Togura and Kamiyamada, there are a large number of modern apartments available.

The city of Nagano, just north of Koshoku, carries with it the respectful image of having been the largest castle town in the region. Today it is the prefectural seat and home to the engineering campus of the prefectural university. The downtown area around the station is significantly built up with large multistory buildings housing department stores, movie theaters, hotels, and office buildings. The offices of the prefectural government are housed in the city as are the regional offices of many large urban corporations. There are many white collar jobs available in the city.

The city of Ueda, just south and east of Sakaki, also carries with it the respect accorded to an old castle town, though smaller in scale and importance than Nagano. It also has developed a fairly cosmopolitan image among local youth. Ueda boasts a lively business section with many of the same kinds of stores and offices as Nagano. Like Koshoku it has been the site of much recent industrial development attractive young people. Again, the symbolic importance of a prominent high school may have had some effect on the positive image that has developed. As Koshoku has profited by its proximity to the city of Nagano, areas across the river from Ueda (which have been annexed by the city in recent years) have profited by their proximity and undeveloped state.

My arrival and the circumstances of my study

My arrival in Sakaki

I arrived in Sakaki late one Tuesday afternoon in February 1990 during the coldest period of winter. I proceeded to the Chamber of Commerce from the train station and was there received again by Mr. Yanagisawa, the secretariat. He told me that I would be staying on a trial basis at his house and that I would come into the Chamber with him during the day. The local Lion's Club had kindly offered to allow me to use their room in the Chamber as an office during my stay.

My living arrangements

I returned with Mr. Yanagisawa to his home that evening and was introduced to his wife. We traveled to a public bath at the hot spring in Togura and returned for a light supper. I was impressed with the beauty of their home which is a large farm house built in the pre-war period. Few houses from this era remain in the Tokyo area and the scale is unimaginable in an urban setting. I was also taken by the simplicity of their living situation. Although it was quite cold inside, there was only a small gas space heater and an electric heater under the low table at the center of the room at which we all sat to eat meals, watch television, and converse. The electricity, plumbing and appliances were primitive by Western standards. While their lifestyle was modest and frugal, they seemed to be quite content.

I was given two rooms on the second floor of the house to use as my bedroom and study area. In decades past these rooms were used for spinning and weaving silk. More recently they have been converted into Western-style bedrooms for the Yanagisawa's two daughters who now both live and work in Tokyo. The rooms were carpeted, had Western-style hinged doors (as opposed to Japanese tatami mats and sliding doors) and were furnished with beds, dressers, desks and bookshelves. There was a small gas heater in one of the rooms. The Yanagisawas slept in their own simple Japanese-style bedroom on the second floor on the other side of the stairs.

The Yanagisawas are the stem family of a prominent family in the hamlet. They live in the foothills about a mile east of the train station. Branch families lived in somewhat smaller houses surrounding their Yanagisawa's house. There are also several storage sheds and other outbuildings on the property. Around the cluster of houses are the fields formerly owned by the Yanagisawa family and now among their branch families. The Yanagisawas still retain ownership of a field directly behind their house, one further down the road and several rice paddies a short walk down the hill. On this land, they grow rice, fruit, and vegetables for their own consumption. Mr. Yanagisawa spends his days and many evenings engaged in the responsibilities of his post at the Chamber; he spends mornings, weekends, and an occasional evening in the fields with his wife. They grow all their own rice, sending the surplus to their children in Tokyo and occasionally selling small amounts to the farmers' cooperative. In addition, they grow most of the vegetables that they consume and make their own pickles and preserved fruit.

Mrs. Yanagisawa does not hold any employment. On many days she would visit or entertain neighbors and relatives and participate in activities of various women's groups, exercise and social work. On days that I remained home, I was always surprised to see the number of people who would call unexpectedly. They would often end up staying for several hours for tea, cakes and conversation about local events. She would make outings on her motor scooter to the farmers' cooperative or a grocery store to buy foodstuffs she did not grow and to run various errands around town.[9]

The hamlet in which they live is one of the more traditional farming areas in the town. Old mud-wall houses are interspersed among apple orchards, grape vineyards and the occasional rice paddy. Some of the residents have rebuilt modern homes or re-sided existing structures. Most of the homes are occupied by older middle-aged couples (like the Yanagisawas) whose children are away in the cities.

The Chamber of Commerce

I was well treated at the Chamber of Commerce. The physical structure is a modern two-story building built in the 1970s and renovated and expanded in the 1980s. The first floor houses a large common office used by Mr. Yanagisawa and the staff of seven. In addition to their work areas this room also contains areas for receiving guests. It is the only room in the Chamber consistently heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer. There is also a more formal private office for the Chairman of the Chamber. He only visits for several hours a week when he has official business to conduct. At other times it is used to receive high-ranking guests. In the rear across from the Chairman's office was a kitchen and a small room used by the women staff to eat lunch and relax during lunch hour.[10] Off of the main entry way, there was also a small office used by the Lion's Club that became my office at the Chamber.

I was introduced to the staff and given an orientation about the purpose and function of the Chamber. During my stay, I participated in most Chamber activities, including a large number of formal seminars and meetings on various topics concerning town industry and commerce, as well as the entertainment that would usually follow these events. Initially, Mr. Yanagisawa took on the responsibility of guiding my research of the town and local industry. He helped me to set up meetings to visit local entrepreneurs to interview them about their companies and personal experiences. In the first few months, he accompanied me to many of these meetings, but as time elapsed, I began to go on my own.

My visibility at the Chamber brought me into contact with many of the leaders of industry in the town. I had opportunities to converse at parties and other Chamber functions. These informal discussions often led to further invitations to visit families and companies. I also met a large number of residents through daily life and participation in local festivals and events.


[1] Even the local farmers' cooperative sells cars. They also have a bank and supermarket on their premises. While the farming community does a lot of their shopping at the cooperative, even they are increasingly doing shopping at other local supermarkets and convenience stores.

[2] Tatami are Japanese straw mats. Tatami rooms are Japanese style with guests sitting on the floor at low tables as opposed to Western style rooms where one sits on a chair.

[3] These are not the geisha about which Liza Dalby has written (1985), women trained in Japanese arts to entertain male guests. They are more like genteel bar maids, kimono-clad hostesses with no formal training.

[4] There are many variations depending on the function of the event. Many low-budget, but serious events start at the Chamber of Commerce with food and drink catered from a Sakaki restaurant. Subsequent drinking usually ensues at the hot spring resort.

[5] Guests usually stay four to five to a tatami room. The sleeping areas are separate from the larger rooms where the formal dinners are served.

[6] Women and low status males, as well as hosts, are less likely to change out of their street clothes.

[7] Most of these establishments provide karaoke, where the guests choose songs to sing by themselves or in duets. In addition to the mistress of the establishment, the larger bars hire younger Japanese and foreign women who sit with the almost predominantly male guests, pour drinks, make small talk, and fill in as partners for duets, etc.

[8] Some people even argue that it is cheaper when you consider the expense of food, transportation and lodging. In addition there is a psychological freedom provided by leaving Japan and the watchful eye of fellow Japanese. Whereas some of the activity in Kamiyamada borders on prostitution and there is probably still a small, expensive, behind-the-scenes trade; Taiwan, Thailand and other countries are the preferred destinations for groups of Japanese men seeking prostitution.

[9] She did not drive an automobile; Mr. Yanagisawa was the driver of the three family vehicles: a mini-van he used to commute the 3 minutes down the hill to the Chamber every day, a small pickup truck he used to transport equipment to their fields slightly removed from the house, and a small red car that his daughter used while she was working for a local company before she left for Tokyo.

[10] The men usually ate their box lunches at their desks and sometimes later joined the women to watch television or catch a short nap on the floor while others chatted, ate fruit, pickles and small cakes, and watched TV.

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener.

         CHAPTER 4
         CHAPTER 5