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For Bhutan to Remain as Bhutan
Mutual Cultural Exchange with the Ama, Shimane Prefecture

Takehiro Hirayama
Assistant Professor, Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center, Waseda University

Connection with Bhutan

Gate situated along the Bhutan–India border (Phuentsholing, 2004)

 I first visited Bhutan in March 2004 when I was still an undergraduate student at Waseda University. As a backpacker at the time, I learned that Bhutan refused budget travelers by setting a system of minimum spending for tourists (200 US dollars a day as part of a package that includes lodging, food, and transportation), which I thought was very strange and fascinating. Naturally, I was overwhelmed with a desire to go. On that visit, I crossed the border from India to a town in Bhutan called Phuentsholing. This mysterious town had a tranquil and calm ambience that seemed to be the antithesis of the hustle and bustle of India. I ended that trip determined to return some day.

Field activity of the "Cross Cultural Understanding through Global Experience: Learning from Field Study in Kingdom of Bhutan" (Bumthang, 2006)

In 2006, as I was waiting restlessly for a chance to return, I heard an astounding rumor that Waseda University started a field course that took students to Bhutan as part of the program. This was a subject category offered by Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC) from 2006 to 2008 called "Cross Cultural Understanding through Global Experience: Learning from Field Study in Kingdom of Bhutan. "As a graduate student at that time, I was not allowed to sign up for the class because it was designed for undergraduate students. Determined to seize this opportunity, I approached Visiting Lecturer Tatsu Sakamoto and pleaded, offering to do anything if I could be a part of the program. I was able to join the program as a teaching assistant (TA), to assist him with lectures and field activities. The three years that I spent as the TA ended up being my direct path for advancing my goal of dedicating myself to studying Bhutan.

I was of course intrigued by the seemingly worry-free lifestyle of the Bhutanese and the multitude of cultures that coexisted, but I was especially fascinated by how faithfully they protected their culture based on Tibetan Buddhism while the school curriculum is taught in English. This method of nation-building that attempts to promote harmony between the traditional and the modern is what fascinated me the most. Even after the course was finished, I kept making repeated visits to continue collecting documents for research. The various serendipitous encounters I had there tied me ever closer to the country, and before I knew it, I was completely entrenched. My current research focuses on the clarification of the history of Bhutan's modern educational.

From a Secluded Nation to a Nation of Happiness—the Conversation Surrounding GNH

Bhutan is a small kingdom established in 1907, and is approaching 110 years since its founding. It borders the colossal nations of India to the south (West Bengal, Assam, etc.), and China to the north (Tibet Autonomous Region). About 20 languages are spoken, including Dzongkha, the national language. The population is about 700,000 people. In 2006, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king of Bhutan, ascended to the throne. In 2008, the kingdom transitioned from a monarchical system to a constitutional monarchy.

Due in part to the field research records titled Hikyo Bhutan :Nakao Jokyoju no Tanken Ki (Secluded Kingdom of Bhutan: Assosiate Professor Nakao's Travelogue), written by Sasuke Nakao and serialized in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in 50 installments starting in January 1959, as well as the book Hikyo Bhutan published by Mainichi Shimbun in November that same year, Bhutan became suddenly well known in Japan. Adorned with decorative titles such as "secluded kingdom" and "shangri-la" Bhutan began allowing tourists in 1974, but its image remained relatively unchanged throughout the years that followed. However, in the past decade or so, it began being portrayed by the world media as a "nation of happiness" and "the happiest country in the world."

During the 9th Five Year Plan formulated in 2002, the Bhutanese government declared that it would aim to maximize GNH (Gross National Happiness). Since then, the kingdom has planned its nation-building through trial and error to achieve this goal. Despite the common misunderstanding, Bhutan is certainly not the world's happiest nation. It would be more accurate to say that it is a country that is striving to make its country the happiest in the world. This means that through careful consideration of protecting its culture and saving the environment, it presents and puts into practice a type of nation-building that does not focus solely on increasing its GNP or GDP, and how this practice is transmitted to the world. This is used as an index to evaluate the nation's performance—it does not mean that everything is perfect the way it is. The speech below delivered by former prime minister Jigmi Y. Thinleyduring the High-level Meeting on Well-being and Happiness at the UN Headquarters in 2012 explains this perfectly. *

"I wish to submit that, contrary to what many mistakenly believe, Bhutan is not a country that has attained GNH and it is not from a pedestal that we serve as a humble facilitator today. Like most developing nations, we are struggling with the challenge of fulfilling the basic needs of our people. What separates us, however, from most others is that we have made happiness, the most fundamental of human needs as the goal of societal change. "

The Challenge of Solving Bhutan's Societal Problems

Landscape of the Bhutanese countryside (Thinleygang, 2016)

As mentioned above, Bhutan pursues its unique developmental goal of maximizing GNH amid its accelerating modernization, while carefully striving to maintain its independence and originality in its nation-building efforts. Although it has garnered attention from various national and local governments as a country that is rethinking what it means to develop as a nation, it also struggles with the many problems that goes hand-in-hand with modernization. As the population becomes more heavily concentrated in the cities, it is widely predicted that the systemic problems in the rural areas will become increasingly more serious. For Bhutan to continue being Bhutan, it is clear that reversing this trend is a pressing matter. Generally speaking, the countryside of Bhutan lacks vitality. Its reputation as a self-sufficient agrarian nation is lost in the past, those in the business of agriculture are in sharp decline, and the number of abandoned fields and rice paddies have steadily increased, while depopulation, the weakening of community ties, growing wealth inequality, regional disparities and numerous other problems that plague other nations around the world are becoming ever more common in Bhutan.

I feel that there are many lessons that Bhutan can learn from Japan's experience with regional revitalization. I am searching for ways of achieving this with the guidance from the residents of the Ama in Shimane Prefecture, which has made "self-reliance, taking on challenges, and cultural exchanges" a part of its administrative policy, and has made a name for itself with the slogan "nai mono wa nai" (nothing is unavailable). Luckily, Ama itself happen to have great interest in Bhutan. In the past year, mutual exchanges have strengthened through visits made by high school students to Bhutan, observation and training programs offered to visiting Bhutanese, acceptance of Bhutanese exchange students, and more. In April, the Ama–Bhutan Project (Amatan) was established as part of Waseda Volunteer Project. This project, which aims to proactively engage in the regional revitalization of Bhutan by offering knowledge surrounding problems and measures through work activities in Ama, will start sending its members to begin activities based on their understanding of the current situation.

Field activity of the "National Development and Cross Cultural Understanding Learning from Bhutan" (Phobjikha, 2017)

I took up my position in WAVOC in April 2016, and have started courses including the lecture course "Area Studies (Bhutan): Cultivate Viewpoint to See the Society" the overseas field course "National Development and Cross Cultural Understanding Learning from Bhutan," and the domestic field course "Regional Revitalization Learning from Challenge Case of Ama." I plan to continue my relationship with Bhutan while anticipating greater possibilities for mutual positive impact through my research as well as through Amatan.

"Address by the Hon'ble Prime Minister on WELL BEING AND HAPPINESS at the UN Head Quarters, New York" (Quoted on October 17, 2017)

Takehiro Hirayama
Assistant Professor, Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center, Waseda University

Takehiro Hirayama completed the coursework of Ph.D. Program of Graduate School of Education, Waseda University.Graduate School of Education. Before assuming his current post, he has worked as an administrative staff of the Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP) organized by Cabinet Office, a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), and a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Education at Waseda University. He is an expert in comparative and international education as well as area studies. He is board member of Japan Society for Bhutan Studies (JSBS), as well as Japan-Bhutan Friendship Association (JBFA). Through the various activities initiated by Japan Institute for Bhutan Studies (JIBS), which was established in April 2013, he is planning to establish a place for interdisciplinary mutual advancement and a network of researchers.