Community in Japan

My very first post on More Things Japanese back in 2010 was on Social Organization in Japan.  In that post, I talk a little big about how important groups are to the social framework of Japan.  Yesterday, I got another peek into how social groups maintain cohesion and identity in rural Japan.

The Aza

If you look at a Japanese address, it usually starts general and then gets more specific.  Each place usually ends with a word that represents the size… so you would get prefecture (ken), district (gun), town or village (cho / son), and finally the neighborhood (aza).

An Aza (字) is a community within a town or village.  When I lived on an island with 550 people, there were 3 aza.  Now I live on an island with nearly 8,000 and we have 32 aza all in one town.

Each aza usually has its own community hall (kominkan) that is the center of the neighborhood.  From the kominkan, announcements are made via loud-speaker, and there are annual meetings and events.  The kominkan is also often used for other activities whenever someone in the neighborhood needs a place to meet.

Unlike towns and villages that change with populations, aza are so small and localized that they often have long histories and may stay intact even as they are encompassed by larger social units.

Community and Neighborhood

The fact many aza have been around so long has led to an interesting feature.  Many of the people in a neighborhood are related, so when people meet at aza events, it’s not just friends, but family too.

Just because the aza have been around for a while, doesn’t mean they are stagnant.  Every year, as new people move in, or transitory people change (remember teachers, medical staff, and some government workers all rotate posts every few years), they are welcomed and introduced at the aza.

Each aza has its own traditions and events, many of which tie in with nearby azas.  Some traditional aza events include:

  • Neighborhood cleaning activities
  • End of Year Parties (often Christmassy)
  • Local Festivals
  • Local team planning for undokai (sports day) and ekiden (relay marathon) activities
  • New Years’ gatherings
  • and a lot more

Community Maintenance

One of the major responsibilities of any community is the maintenance of areas within its purview.  Families take care of their houses, aza keep weeds and grasses down in their areas, and larger towns employ people to keep things tidy in between.  If you go to Japan, you’ll likely find government workers, or company staff outside their buildings sweeping up garbage and leaves in the morning.  Rather than rely on janitors or grounds keepers, most communities in Japan take charge of the maintenance of their own grounds.

Aza usually have at least two events a year to ensure their community is kept clean.  Everyone from children to adults pitch in to pick up trash and trim back growth.  Other days, more arduous work like cleaning out drain gutters is done to ensure there is no flooding.  Of course it’s not all work.  Together, the necessary work is done quickly, and everyone can return to the kominkan for food and refreshments.

At the Kominkan

This past weekend, the entire Island planned to have a cleaning day, organized by aza.  Unfortunately, there was too much rain so the cleaning was cancelled.  My aza, still went ahead with its planned lunch and meeting.  This meeting was important since it was the first one since April, when the new school year started.  It was the first opportunity for the people of the aza to meet with new teachers living in the area.  The cleaning day would have acted as a kind of binding, when people work together it creates a common experience, but still there were important aspects of the day.

Many of the local women joined together to make soki nabe, a rib meat based soup that could feed everyone.  While kids played together around the aza, people talked, ate and got to know new people.  A little later, the elected leaders of the aza went through the schedule for the next year, the budget, and brought up news and discussion points.

Most simply, it was the not so simple, but ingrained act of community building that is such a large aspect of Japanese culture.