An abandoned old elementary school building in Takahata, Yamagata Prefecture, reopened in 2015 as Necchu Elementary School, one-of-a-kind school for adults with a theme of “Let’s look at the world like 7-year-olds again.” Necchu in Japanese means enthusiasm. Today, there are 11 such schools operating as far north as Tokachi, Hokkaido and as far south as Kobayashi City in Miyazaki Prefecture. Kazufu Hotta, one of the school’s founding members and caretaker of the project that helps recruit teachers, will offer a special lecture in one of the Japan Fair seminar rooms. We caught up with him to talk about Necchu Elementary and plans to bring a school to the greater Seattle area.
By Misa Murohashi, translated by Bruce Rutledge
A school for adults from 20’s to 80’s
The daily schedule includes those old favorites: Japanese literature, math, science, social studies. Teachers include a venture capitalist, an executive at a large corporation, a film director, even a mountain climber and others working at the forefront of their fields. At Necchu Elementary, the program is enough to get adult students excited about learning. “All sorts of adults gather and exchange ideas,” explains Hotta. “That’s where new possibilities are born.”
Hotta himself becomes a student at the various schools throughout Japan on a half-year cycle. He said he was especially enthusiastic about a class taught by Ken Tamagawa, president of the fast-expanding SORACOM, a player in the IoT (Internet of Things) wireless transmission sector. “When he first started offering classes at our school, Tamagawa-san had just started his business. He would regularly return to Necchu as a teacher, and his venture kept getting bigger and bigger each time he returned.”
Tamagawa would share his vision and philosophy with the students. The students would offer their view of each part of his business, and a fascinating bond between students and teacher developed. “From the teacher’s perspective, having some distance from the specialists’ field of networks and explaining things to complete amateurs led to new discoveries,” Hotta explains. Teachers at Necchu’s adult classes volunteer to gather just these sorts of discoveries.
Invigorating regions, investing in people
Half of the operating budget for Necchu Elementary comes from Cabinet Office’s funds for revitalizing the outlying regions of Japan, and the other half is from funds of local governments where the schools are located. “A big problem in Japan today is the over-concentration of people in Tokyo. We must return people and jobs to the outlying regions,” Hotta said. According to information from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, every year, about 100,000 people move to the Tokyo area, and most of them are in their 30s or younger. “Young people leave their regions for Tokyo to go to school or work, but when they get to family-raising age, the cost of living is expensive and they can’t lean on their parents back home, so they are reluctant to have babies,” Hotta explained. “That is one reason that the birthrate in Japan continues to fall. We must create conditions so that young people can choose to stay in their regions, or return to start their family.” The mission of the Necchu Elementary School project is to get adult exchanges going in the outlying regions and to bring people and jobs back to villages and towns, creating a vibrant environment.
“Efforts to revitalize regional economy used to be just inviting big firms and building infrastructure,” Hotta said. “But what we’re working on is an investment in people.” By invigorating exchanges between Tokyo and the outlying regions and from region to region, we can bring cutting-edge technology and entrepreneurship networks accumulating in greater Tokyo to the regions. That’s how the investment in people works. In Takahata, students are leading a project to turn an abandoned field in the town into a wine grape vineyard. Kazuhiro Nishioka, a researcher in the University of Tokyo’s faculty of agriculture, was invited to teach cutting-edge agriculture technology using sensors and drones. The project arose from after-school socializing between teachers and students at local izakaya. “Necchu has created a system where if someone wants to try something new, we can send people with experience in that field to help. The school has been open only three years, and it is too early to expect actual business startups, but a lot of buds are starting to sprout!”
Necchu school coming to Seattle !!
Now there is activity toward opening a Seattle branch of Necchu Elementary. A friend of Hotta and a former Microsoft manager Ryuta Hosaka approached Hotta about bringing a school to this area. “Opening a school in Seattle, with its rapidly expanding high-tech sector would spark motivation in both Japanese teachers and students,” Hotta said. Necchu Elementary has a system in place where people who attend one of the schools are eligible to attend the other schools. Some students get together and take a field trip to the other schools. “If we leapfrog Tokyo and connect Seattle with other regions in Japan and spread that individual network, we may be able to create something new and interesting.”
Hotta is 71 this year. He is an active businessman, serving as an advisor to or director at several high-tech firms. “Necchu Elementary is my lifework,” he offered. “The more I age, the more important it is for me to connect with younger people.” He lives in Yokohama, nearby Yamashita Park, home to the Hikawa Maru, which used to ply the waters between Japan and Seattle. Hotta’s boundless energy and Necchu Elementary may bring some new excitement to the Nikkei community in Seattle.
About Hotta Kazufu
Hotta Kazufu graduated from Keio University’s economics department and entered IBM Japan in 1969, where he served multiple leadership roles including director of the PC sales division, software operations, general system operations and managing director. In 1976, he received an MBA from Indiana University. After retiring from IBM in 2007, he became advisor and director of several high-tech firms including Uchida Yoko Co.. After the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, he formed Office Korobocl and began projects, including Necchu Elementary School, to revitalize outlying regions in Japan.