You might never have heard of Sabae, a city of 69,000 people in Western Japan, but you may well have unknowingly worn one of their exports. Sabae is known for its production of eyeglasses, which have been manufactured in the city for over a century and account for 95% of Japanese frames sold in Japan and abroad. It is also home to a variety of traditional crafts, from pottery to lacquerware, paper, and knife making. But as young people move towards more urban areas and loose interest in pursuing careers as traditional craftspeople, Sabae is looking at its future challenges and thinking about how to face them. Luckily for us, one if their plans of attack is to bring international designers (like us!) to Sabae and with them co-create a gameplan for the city’s future.
We arrived in Sabae after a three hour bullet-train journey from Tokyo, and immediately felt very distant from our current urban home. Mountains in multiple shades of green rise to the clouds and are reflected by sea-level pools of water. Pools of water? I looked again at the perfectly rectangular ponds. Oh, rice paddies! These man-made paddies fit perfectly into the landscape’s wilderness, reminding us of a less-modern time and echoing a balance between people and the surrounding nature.
During our time there we were ferried by our gracious hosts from the mayor’s office, who facilitated our deep dive into the city’s fantastic crafts. On the first day we made pottery with clay from the banks of local rivers, on the second day we tried our hand at traditional paper-making with the bark of Japanese Mulberry trees, and on the third we discovered just how tricky it is to keep a straight line when making lacquerware. We also had the opportunity to visit traditional knife artisans at the Takefu Knife Village and watch them work. I purchased a hand crafted knife which I am certain will be cutting my vegetables for years to come.
In Sabae, the mayor’s office is looking at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a roadmap for a better future. They are not unique in this. Indeed, one of the things that has surprised me about our time in Japan is how important and central the SDGs are to much of the development work I have seen here. The mayor’s office is focusing mainly on goals 5 (Gender Equality) and 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and shared their plan with us with a real-time-translated presentation from the mayor himself, Hyakuo Makino. He spoke of the importance of a balance between work and private lives in dual-income households. Women in Sabae are encouraged to work, with many of them employed at local small businesses. At the end of the talk he gladly listened to our questions and feedback, as he would be giving a similar talk a few weeks later to an even bigger international audience: the United Nations in New York City.
After the mayor’s presentation, we returned to our hotel, a traditional Japanese inn with an onsen, and had a co-creation session with members from the local government and citizens. With the help of Kaoru Otosaka, who is on the Mayor’s team, we communicated with the locals, learning about each other and the challenges that were facing Sabae. The younger members of our group complained about the lack of spaces for hanging out in the city, which has few bars or community centres. Others mentioned how there were relatively few children and young people, since there is no local university and the nearest high school is still a long commute for students. We used design thinking tools to map out these challenges and come up with potential service design solutions for how they might face these challenges by 2030. The session culminated in a live-translated presentation of our conclusions and ideas, which was a new experience for most of us. It is more challenging than it seems to speak in clear, short sentences and remember to pause so that they can be easily translated!
Sabae was an incredible opportunity for us, a true chance to practice global design, and hopefully they learned from us as much as we did from them. Hopefully we will return one day!