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Lessons from Abroad

This summer, Matt Martin, Director of Community Research at The Columbus Foundation, was part of a multi-sector cohort of Columbus leaders that traveled to Japan to learn about the many ways Japanese communities are responding to aging population trends. The trip was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and facilitated by the U.S. office of the Japan Center for International Exchange. As Martin shared in a recent Q&A, the experience offered inspiring examples of the way cities are building community, as well as insights into how central Ohio can ready itself for a growing population.

What are some of the similarities you observed between Columbus and Tokyo, Japan’s most populous city?

Columbus and Tokyo are more alike than one would think. Both are centers of government, industry, education, and healthcare. Both cities and nearby regions are growing despite being surrounded by rural areas experiencing population decline. There are also strong business ties between the two regions, due largely to the significant local presence of Honda and other Japanese companies, which employ nearly 20,000 people in central Ohio.

Matt Martin with a member of the Miura Citizen Exchange Center. Photo provided by Matt Martin.

Based on your observations, how do leaders in Japan approach community-building and civic engagement?

In comparison to the United States, Japan’s national government is more supportive of social service delivery, which leads to proportionately less philanthropic engagement in the corporate sector and among individuals. But Japan also boasts greater coordination between national, state (prefecture), and local government agencies in community planning and service delivery. The nonprofits that do exist in Japan tend to be led and operated more by volunteers.

Despite the differences in government and philanthropy, I think our community can learn from the immense impact of volunteerism in the Japanese context. And although we often pride ourselves on a unique willingness to forge partnerships to get things done, the level of coordination we saw challenged our notions of what more could be possible through further alignment of our public, corporate, and nonprofit sectors.

Tokyo is the largest city in the world and is home to more than 37 million people. As our region grows, what are some lessons that Columbus can learn from Tokyo?

I went into the trip expecting Tokyo to feel overwhelmingly dense, chaotic, and difficult to navigate, but I was shocked by the city’s tranquility and how harmoniously the various modes of transportation interacted with one another. Greater Columbus finds itself in a sustained era of growth in which density, mixed-use development, and multi-modal transportation are going to be essential to addressing our emerging housing and transportation challenges in a sustainable way.

It was also inspiring to see how livable a densely populated city like Tokyo can be through thoughtful and integrated planning that balances the needs for convenient mobility, public health and safety, social equity, and environmental conservation.

Were there any experiences from your trip that you found particularly inspiring?

On the last day of our trip we visited the Kamakura Living Lab, where older residents live amid a multi-generational co-operative independent living community. It was beautiful to see older adults working together to operate a fresh produce market and maintain the community’s parks, as well as to witness the way the dignity of every person was honored and preserved in the daily life of Kamakura. This experience left our entire team marveling at the way these places have come to view older adults as assets and community stewards. So many of these programs and initiatives—which are intended to support healthy aging—also make life richer and more enjoyable for people of all ages and stages.



Matt Martin with a member of the Miura Citizen Exchange Center. Photo provided by Matt Martin.