Mysterious? Neighborhood Associations from Foreigners' ViewpointIs Sociability Annoying? What's My Neighborhood?
It is believed that Kyoto City's residents have high self-governing power. Their neighborhood associations and unique "common sense" sometimes appear mysterious to foreigners...
During the Edo Period, Kyoto was directly governed by the Shogunate and had no feudal lord, which nurtured its citizens' spirit of independence from political authority. Based on their deep-rooted consciousness of "citizens should make important decisions," even today, each neighborhood association usually takes care of activities such as circular notices, festivals, and collection of census forms.
■Am I being spied on?
Nina Hakkarainen, a Finnish woman, greeted a woman living in the house opposite with a gift of western confectionery six years ago when she moved to Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto. The woman told her, "Give the same thing around the neighborhood, too." Hakkarainen did not understand what she meant by saying this. She wondered, "Where does the neighborhood end? Why can't I give different things?"
When she came home late due to personal plans, she was told, "You came home late." She felt she was being spied upon. However, her bewilderment changed three years ago when she stayed in hospital at the end of the year.
After returning home from a week in the hospital, one neighbor after the other said to her, "I was worried because you weren't home for a long time," and "Are you OK?" She realized, "I wasn't being spied on, rather, they were watching over me."
Hakkarainen has also learned that treating each neighbor equally leads to building harmonious human relationships. Now her neighbors share flowers and fruit with her and she looks forward to the Jizo-bon festival every summer, in which a present lottery is held.
Last spring, a civil organization headed by Hakkarainen published a booklet for foreigners. The booklet encourages non-Japanese residents to join neighborhood associations and recommends that they give confectionery to the houses on both sides and the three houses opposite, when they move to a new place.
■Solidarity enhances disaster prevention capability
Crowded with wooden houses, Kyoto City has suffered from large fires many times. Using lessons learned from those experiences, many neighborhood associations conduct disaster drills. This has drawn the attention of Malte Jaspersen, a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University who produces programs for Germany's public broadcasters as a radio director and reporter, and is a resident of Kamigyo Ward.
In Germany, there is sufficient assistance from the THW, or technical relief team that the German federal government dispatches in case of disaster. As disasters such as earthquakes are also rare in Germany, few disaster drills are organized with citizens' participation. Jaspersen investigated reasons for residents' mutual cooperation that he witnessed during the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995.
In an earthquake-themed documentary released in 2005, he covered a disaster drill at Ninna Elementary School, Kamigyo Ward. Watching the residents of the school district participating eagerly in a bucket brigade, he realized, "This is the reason I was looking for."
"Participating together in radio gymnastics and festivals nurtures close relationships and generates a sense of solidarity." Although seemingly citizens handle activities that normally should be done by the government, such as the census, that "creates a sense of safety in case of emergency." Kyoto's fire incidence rate is lower by far than other big cities.(Translated by Mie Hiuzon, Psyche et l’Amour, Inc.)