Project for the Reconstruction of Vernacular Architecture and Its Significance for Contemporary Society
Vernacular Architecture in Modern Society
Even in remote villages, the spread of the market economy and accompanying shifts in values have already become part of daily life, and the local culture and customs unique to a region are gradually dying out. In particular, vernacular architecture—the highly indigenous traditional housing cultivated by the natural features of a region— is quickly being replaced with buildings incorporating large amounts of new materials such as concrete blocks, galvanized iron sheets, and cement slates. Field surveys that have been conducted so far across Asia, the South Pacific, and West Africa also reveal that in many cases residents have not been constructing their own traditional buildings since the 1970s and 1980s. For such architectural techniques to be passed down through the generations, there needs to be collaborative efforts among the local community to construct housing without outside help. There is, therefore, a risk that such techniques of vernacular architecture will be lost as highly skilled community residents grow older without the opportunity to transfer their knowledge with the next generation. Moreover, given that architectural spaces reflect not only architectural techniques, but also the daily lifestyles of the village community and its cohabitation with nature, the loss of vernacular architecture will also have an impact on the potential of many traditional customs and rites to be kept alive into the following generations. The diverse abundance of vernacular architecture is gradually slipping away and will be diffi cult to revive once it is lost completely.
Conducting surveys in the villages and listening to what individuals have to say, we find that many are conscious of the necessity and importance of traditional housing. However, a number of factors hinder the construction of such housing, such as restrictions on the use of resources due to forest conservation policies, the decline in useful resources around villages, reluctance to provide construction labor resources in financially struggling village communities, or strong preferences for modern housing using new building materials. At the same time, when my survey research brings me to a central figure in the village community who is concerned about this situation—and when we engage in repeated discussions—this concern comes together as a consensus among the local people, and it is possible to establish a project for reconstructing vernacular architecture. So far, we have cooperated with and supported initiatives in Vietnam (2008 and 2018), Fiji (2011), Thailand (2013), and Vanuatu (2017), tackling various hurdles along the way.
Sustainability of Vernacular Architecture
Based on my experience with reconstruction projects, it is possible to summarize the factors that contribute to the construction and maintenance of vernacular architecture into three elements: local materials, traditional techniques, and collaborative labor. These elements are mutually linked in the sense that knowledge and techniques are passed down through interaction between the generations in the village communities, and such skills are adopted to use forest resources effectively and rationally, allowing the village community to enjoy the substantial gifts of the forest. Moreover, looking at each element as a regional resource, local materials are part of the local natural environment (physical resources), traditional techniques are part of the local culture (intellectual resources), and community cooperation is part of the local society (human resources), such that as a whole such architecture is a product of the local environment itself. This demonstrates how the creation and sustainability of vernacular architecture relies on the preservation of the regional environment. Investigating vernacular architecture means investigating not only buildings, but also communities, natural environments, and even the culture of the area. The distinctive character of such vernacular architecture can be seen as not so much the antiquated product of a bygone era, but as an essential element for creating balanced regional environments in the future from the point of view of regional identity and coexistence with nature in our extremely globalized modern society. In that sense, projects to reconstruct vernacular architecture provide significant insights into not only the community residents in and around the project, but also our daily lives and housing in the modern day.Professor Izuru SAIZEN | Regional Planning
Striving for Sustainable Development Utilizing Regional Resources
Farming villages weakened in the process of economic development
I engage in research on the development of regional areas and farming villages inside and outside of Japan with a central focus on field surveys and analysis using geographic information systems. In Japan, the depopulation and aging population of farming villages has been a clear issue for several decades. Given the extremely severe and complex background, it is still difficult to find an effective solution. No doubt very few people during Japan’s period of high economic growth predicted that rural communities would lose their vitality. Efforts should probably have been made at the time to devise measures in preparation for the future. Meanwhile, in many of the agricultural villages in the developing countries of Southeast Asia, the benefits of the economic development of the country as a whole have seen improvements in living standards and levels of happiness, as reflected by the contented smiles on many children’s faces. However, such rapid development is also in some ways vividly reminiscent of Japan’s high economic growth, and we therefore need to carefully consider initiatives toward the future. As the economy develops, the concept of a monetary economy begins to encroach on agricultural communities as well. While livehood in the farming villages in such countries was typically based on a system of self-sufficiency, farmers begin to use the fields, in which they previously used for cultivating food for themselves, for growing cash crops and eventually begin to intensively farm a certain crop in order to increase their profits. While this raises the potential for making monetary profit, it also increases their vulnerability to changes in the market value of the crop and to natural disasters. Some may wreak catastrophic and irreparable damages in just a short period of time. And as the populations in farming villages increase, demand arises for new industry. However, as in many developing countries, urban industry is driving the economy so that the rising population lies increasing deindustrialization of the farming villages.
Revisiting what is always there
One method of ensuring sustainable economic development in such regions is to effectively utilize the local resources available in an area. “Regional resources” refers to those resources that have been cultivated throughout the long history of the region, which are highly compatible with the natural environment and climate of that area, and which have supported the lifestyles of the local residents over the years. However, there are many regional resources that are gradually being lost in the shadow of economic development. These include, for example, festivals unique to a certain community, traditional crop cultivation, and slash-and-burn agriculture. These traditions and practices each have the potential to contribute to the community in the form of ecological tourism, securing crops for self-sufficiency, or the sustainable use of forests. By reconsidering regional resources, it is possible to boost the underlying vitality of an area. Developing countries are also entitled to enjoy economic progress and prosperity. At the same time, it is essential to ensure that they pursue suitable and sustainable development in line with the stages of development. I aim to develop achievable measures through discussions with local people.Associate Professor Kayo UEDA | Environmental Health Sciences
Clarifying the connections among human health, environment, and society
We have been experiencing a transition of environmental health risks over the past half-century. In the past time, the main concerns were whether the high level of industrial pollutants from the local source may had caused diseases or exacerbated pre-existing ill conditions in a short time period, which made people infer the association between its association. Currently, we are aware that these environmental health risks should be addressed in a global scale, as represented by heatrelated mortality under climate change and respiratory/cardiovascular diseases morbidity attributable to transboundary air pollutants. The emerging environmental health problems also include the health effects of low levels of chemicals on allergic diseases, concerns of health effects of maternal exposure to environmental pollutants on fetal and neonatal development. Further, various individual- or community-level factors, such as socioeconomic status and medical progress, modify the health effects of environmental pollutants.
Our laboratory tries to disentangle the health effects of environmental pollutants using epidemiological and experimental approaches. Of those, I have been involved with epidemiological studies which focus the distribution and determinant of health and diseases in “population” while experimental approaches use cells, animals, and sometimes human to elucidate health effects of environmental pollutants and underlying mechanisms.
One of my specific research goals is to identify who are more at risk from environmental pollutants. We can consider susceptible populations who are likely to have more serious responses to a certain level of exposure to pollutants, and vulnerable populations who are likely to be exposed to higher levels of environmental pollutants more often than others. Susceptibility is generally related to physiological variation. For example, it is considered that children are more susceptible than adult because they are still under the development and the defense system is immature. Vulnerability is related to people’s behavior and social factors. In the study examining the association of hot temperature and heat-related illnesses in Japan, we focused on age as a factor that could modify the effect of temperature on health. The age-stratified analysis revealed that the middle-aged males had higher risks of heat-related illnesses than other age groups. This was an unexpected finding because we hypothesized the elderly, with deteriorated physiological function due to aging process, was more susceptible to exposure to high temperature during summer. From this observation, it is speculated that the middle-aged people tend to work outdoor longer hours than the elderly while the elderly stay indoors where air conditioning is available and avoid going outside. Especially, Japanese people have been more aware of heat-related illnesses from preventing heatstroke campaigns focusing on the elderly after the hot summer in 2010. This result is just a piece of evidence that indirectly suggest how much individual behavior and social status modify environmental health risks. But this gives us an insight about the connections among individual, society, and environment.Associate Professor Akira YOSHINO | Agricultural Economics
Conveying the Significance and Safety of Using Recycled Water in Agriculture
Master's students at the School of Global Environmental Studies take part in a long-term internship lasting at least three months as a compulsory part of the curriculum. Over the three years since 2015, each year one student from the field of Environmental Marketing Management has pursued his or her internship by participating in an initiative in Itoman City in Okinawa to investigate the potential use of recycled water in farming.
The recycled water has been developed through efforts led by Professor Hiroaki Tanaka’s laboratory at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Engineering. By applying ultrafiltration and UV disinfection to treated waste water, they have created a low-cost supply of safe water suitable for direct use—even to irrigate crops of vegetables sold for raw consumption. In Itoman City in Okinawa, where use of the recycled water is being tested, there are high hopes for its use due to the chronic water shortage that farming in the area has suffered over the years. This approach is also environmentally-friendly as it reduces the amount of treated waste water released into rivers.
Yet, regardless of how safe the water may be, the local government heading up the project and farmers were concerned about the possibility that consumers could be reluctant to purchase vegetables grown with recycled water, given that such water comes from sewage. This is why they reached out to our laboratory. Risk communication for food products has been one of the focuses of our research since the scandal that arose surrounding BSE—or mad cow disease, as it is commonly known.
In order to be able to communicate risk to consumers and the general public it is necessary to start by listening openly to people’s interpretations and concerns regarding the message put out by those developing the products. Chiharu Miwa—the first student to pursue her internship at this project in Okinawa—drew on the knowledge of chemistry that she had acquired as an undergraduate to create a pamphlet and website explaining the significance and safety of recycled water, while also carrying out a survey to listen to what consumers had to say. The results revealed that the majority of consumers were not completely against the idea but had a vague feeling of concern. Such concern focused on the possibility of toxic chemicals that may have been overlooked and the risk of unanticipated accidents, rather than the risk of food poisoning. This result came as a shock to those involved in the development of the water, as they had taken great pains to ensure that E. coli bacteria and viruses had been eradicated.
Serika Yuto, the student who went to Okinawa the following academic year, took part in a test run selling vegetables grown using recycled water with the cooperation of farmers, and created and starred in a video explaining recycled water. Alongside these activities, she conducted a survey and skillfully applied advanced statistical analysis to the results in order to estimate to what extent the actual sale of vegetables cultivated in Okinawa Prefecture would be affected if recycled water was used in cultivation. This revealed that as long as explanations regarding recycled water are provided, the impact on vegetable sales is not significant enough to merit concern.
This, however, left the question of how to ensure that the message gets across. The third student to participate in the internship, Minori Oda, who specialized in education as an undergraduate, set out to tackle this question. In addition to publishing articles in the local newsletter, she also set up a recycled water tank and hydroponics kit in the lobby of the Itoman City Hall, testing out ways of encouraging people to want to find about more regarding recycled water. Displaying such items was highly effective, with just under 90% of local people becoming aware of the existence of recycled water, and just under 40% being drawn to the explanation on recycled water.
As a result of such survey and research activities, the recycled water project in Itoman City is being developed for commercial purposes. As our role draws to an end, it seems fair to suggest this internship and other such opportunities are distinctive of the School of Global Environmental Studies in the way that they allow students from various backgrounds across both the sciences and humanities to cooperate with and learn from researchers from other fields as well as government and industry representatives, and to draw on their own knowledge and ability in their respective specialist fields to contribute to a certain project and, in doing so, pursue their own research.