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Man harnesses IT to save vanishing hometown

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kigen Honda, second from left, discusses projects with Inaka No Mado staff members in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture.

By Shinichi Nakano / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSASAYAMA, Hyogo — Kigen Honda’s busy life in Tokyo came to an end after he learned one thing: His hometown of Sasayama was listed among the 896 municipalities across the nation that may disappear due to the declining population.

The fact, which was announced by the private think tank Japan Policy Council in 2014, prompted the 28-year-old to return to the city in Hyogo Prefecture. “I made up my mind to revitalize Sasayama to prevent it from disappearing,” he recalled.

His decision and actions bore fruit in July last year when he launched a website featuring all kinds of information about the city, from tourism and food to daily life.

As a fifth-grade elementary school student, Honda was already able to create a website on his own. He demonstrated his IT talents in high school, including programming, and as a university student, he made a living from banner advertising on his website.

After working as a trainee at an IT company in Tokyo, he began developing a cell phone app using artificial intelligence, while aiming to start a business by developing an internet service.

This lifestyle completely changed the moment Honda came across the word “disappear.”

He already felt uncomfortable living in Tokyo, where consuming vast amounts of information, rapidly changing trends and overcrowding are the norm.

Honda made up his mind to return to his hometown, thinking, “There must be something I can do for Sasayama.”

Together with two friends from the same high school, Honda launched Inaka No Mado, a venture firm specializing in the creation of websites and designs for sales promotions, hoping to support blue-chip local companies that lose business opportunities due to a lack of publicity skills.

Wanting to “make Sasayama an interesting place with ideas from young people,” the company participated in events in the city, including the Tanbasasayama Dekansho festival.

Inaka No Mado also organized a number of unique events, such as a “B-grade” art exhibition and ideathon for high school students — a series of lectures for students to discuss issues. Even so, some people still said there was nothing in Sasayama — making Honda keenly aware that publicity activities were not nearly enough.

Disguised as a mascot

With 38-year-old Kenji Hayashi, who heads Tsumugi, a general incorporated association that helps people who want to move to the city, Honda launched #Sasayama (https://sasayamashi.com), a website full of all sorts of local information, including facts about daily life and entertainment.

They used crowdfunding to raise the funds to launch the site and eventually collected ¥400,000 from 34 people.

Acquaintances and friends of theirs have conducted interviews and written articles for the website. “I believe we can share the city’s attractions [with more people] if fun parts are added to our stories,” Honda said.

The site has so far posted 474 articles as of mid-May, including retellings of unconventional, sometimes physical experiences, in addition to information about dining and tourism in the city. The number of page views of the site has increased to about 10,000 a month.

In addition to providing support for people’s daily lives, the website also gives business operators opportunities to attract customers to events and promote products at low cost. “We want to solve regional problems with the power of information and ideas,” Honda said.

Honda is a serious entrepreneur, but he sometimes attends events in the guise of Hosoino, a mascot he created as a rival to the city’s official mascot character, Maruino.

The 1.87-meter-tall Honda used to scare people sometimes when he wore the Hosoino costume, but now he’s even asked to stop for photos by people who find the mascot “weird but cute.”

Honda plans to renovate Inaka No Mado’s office to create a space and open it as a working place for young creators. He also hopes to hold events and study meetings.

“I want to create a place where interesting people can get together. If we can improve skills without moving to city areas, and young generations can shine in various fields here, I’m sure we can create more from Sasayama,” Honda said. Speech

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