Education leaders from Asia and Pacific immerse in sustainable living in Japanese village

A Japanese village that has become a living laboratory for sustainable development was the setting for the first UNESCO Leadership Symposium on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

The symposium took place from 13-15 March 2019 in Omori, situated in the Shimane Prefecture on the Honshu Island of Japan and surrounded by the Iwami-Ginzan silver mines, an area inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage site. Omori is home to 400 people and is a complex and concrete laboratory of experiences related to all dimensions of sustainable development - economic, cultural, educational, and generational (see ESD success story Japan: It takes a (small) village).

You are the transformation

Designed by UNESCO for education policy-makers, the symposium aimed to provide participants with a rare immersive experience in sustainability and inspired reflection upon their own country contexts. Participants were high-level government officials from nine countries in the Asia and Pacific region, including two Ministers of Education from Afghanistan and Bhutan. Other participants were from Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, and an education expert from the Netherlands.  

The two and a half-day event was structured based on the visits to encourage free thinking, dialogue and the sharing of stories and perspectives between inhabitants and the participants. “This meeting is not about your students or teachers, it is for your own transformation as people who have the authority to make an impact on present and future generations,” said Soo Hyang Choi, the Director of Division, Peace and Sustainable Education, UNESCO, when welcoming the participants. “Everyone will have a different entry point and look at their realities at home. We are here to give you the opportunity to pose questions, not simply to provide you with answers.”

Visit to 230-year-old house and more

The first day began in a 230-year-old house, which once belonged to a Samurai family and had been renovated as one of 11 traditional houses in Omori. “I want to pass on the way of life of my grandmother's and mother’s generation,” said Tomi Matsuba, the owner of the houses. “Those were times when we were poor financially but rich in terms of mental health. Now young people come to this community for its energy and happiness – I hope the community is some place that make other people happy”

The participants visited two major enterprises in Omori village, which have taken up the sustainable development challenge. The Iwami-ginzan Lifestyle Research Institute makes household articles and clothes using traditional fabrics and techniques, which are sold under the brand named Gungendo in more than 30 shops around Japan as well as online. Tomi, the founder, explained. “We cannot use domestic materials anymore, but we tried to keep our techniques domestic. Although it can be cheaper if we produce abroad but this allows the techniques to be preserved and can successfully develop.”

Participants also visited Nakamura Brace, a company manufacturing prosthetics and orthotics. The owner Mr. Toshiro Nakamura has helped a young couple open a German-style bakery, transformed a demolished local theatre into the smallest opera house in the world, Omori-za, and renovated 65 traditional houses. Such initiatives attract newcomers, but Mr. Nakamura believes they must also make a commitment to the future of the community. “We have young people who are growing their families here. But if you are just having fun, fun things don’t last. We have experienced tsunami and natural disaster and resilience and solidarity are the mindsets that are important,” he said.

Primary school of just 11 students

On the second day, the participants visited different educational establishments to observe ESD practices in Omori and elsewhere in Shimane Prefecture. At the 130- year-old Omori Elementary School, which has just 11 students, one boy admitted, “I want to see more children to play a football.” The school expects newcomers to the village will boost pupil numbers.

The participants then visited UNESCO Shimane Chuo High School for a presentation of their unique yearlong internship programme for 2nd grade students. The city is working with more than 20 establishments that welcome the interns. “Internship gives the students understanding of the expectations of the local community which makes them want to stay and contribute after graduation,” explained the school principal. 

Mr. Yu Iwamoto, a former human resource specialist at SONY, has worked with Shimane prefecture on sustainable development innovation in schools. He sees such work as 'project-based learning on the quest to live happily in local society' which leads to students formulating community action projects themselves.

The last visit was to the Sanson Ryugaku Centre, which gives children from big cities the chance to spend a year acquiring living skills in the natural environment. The children spend one third of their time with local farmers. One of the enrolled students, a 12-year old boy, said: “What I like most is to go into the mountains. I no longer need matches to make fire. I have re-trained my mind and body.”    

The final day included intensive discussions on how to focus on individual commitment and values, integrate the past, present and future, and the role of community and education from the viewpoint of sustainable development.

The Omori symposium is one of five generously funded by Japanese Funds-in-Trust and organized from 2019 to 2020 in different parts of the world.