How a mayor and his tech-savvy town made city government an unlikely source of connection.
Government looks pretty much the same the world over: Waiting rooms half-filled with people clutching paperwork, slightly ruffled officials directing them into lines, aggressive fluorescent lighting bathing them all in a green-white glow.
The city hall in Takeo, Japan, might suffer from the same aesthetics, but the government it houses is a lot more colorful. Walk to the top of the third floor, take a left at the stuffed piglet, and you’ll find yourself at the desks of the Wild Boar team, a group dedicated to curtailing Takeo’s pesky population of aggressive pigs by turning them into food. They’ve become a delicacy, and farmers can worry less about encountering enraged swine. Unorthodox? A bit. But it's effective.
The boars might clue you in to Takeo's position within Japan: By the country's hyper-urban standards, Takeo is rural and a bit in the middle of nowhere. Located in Saga Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, its population of more than 50,000 people is dwarfed by the closest cities, Fukuoka and Nagasaki. "When I gave a lecture (in Tokyo), no one in the audience knew anything about Takeo," says Keisuke Hiwatashi, Takeo's mayor for the past six years. "When it seemed as if there were a person who was familiar, it turned out that person was confusing Takeo with a similarly-named place in Cambodia."
To Hiwatashi, obscurity and relative isolation grant the city an opportunity to experiment, and he's used his tenure to test the outer bounds. The wild boar team is one such project, privatizing the city's hospital was another, albeit one that forced Hiwatashi into a recall election, which he narrowly survived. The city even briefly had a "Saga no Gabai Baachan Department," which plied a location scouting crew of the popular Fuji TV soap opera with sandwiches, luring them to shoot in Takeo.
But Hiwatashi's most well known experiment—the one that draws other mayors south to Takeo for summits and an annual conference—began as a rebranding effort and has grown into something approximating a citywide start-up. In August 2011, Takeo declared itself the "Facebook City" after Hiwatashi nixed the city's official website in favor of a Facebook Page. He then required everyone in his administration to create a Facebook account in order to be more available for interaction with Takeo residents and to share updates on their various municipal initiatives.
"Some were vehemently opposed! They asked 'What on earth is this?'," Hiwatashi says, laughing. "However, the more opposition there is to something, the greater its possibilities for success, right?"
Being able to make moves like this—and make them quickly—is part of the fun of being mayor, Hiwatashi said. He'd aspired to his office since attending a mayoral speech in high school, calling himself "zealous in his determination" to get the job. But that first meant a tour of duty in the national government in Tokyo and regional government in Okinawa, where Hiwatashi said he felt stifled by bureaucracy. There, something like the Facebook project wouldn't be possible (at least not yet).
"It would be too great in scale, and decision-making would take too much time," Hiwatashi says. "In our world, taking too much time to make decisions can be fatal."
So far, the Facebook Page seems successful. More than 20,000 people have liked the page to receive updates. The posts come from Takeo's Facebook City Team, a crew equipped with writers and photographers to document everything from the fall foliage to the pause in garbage collection for the holidays. And Hiwatashi stays closely involved—nearly every post on the Page has a like from the mayor.
The same tendency toward experimentation extends to members of his administration, many/all of whom latched on to the Facebook idea quickly. One of the first programs launched was a local commerce program called Fun Buy Takeo, an offshoot of Takeo City Facebook Page. Japan has a particular focus on the local provenance of goods; certain regions are better known for particular items than others, and the Fun Buy Page often emphasizes Takeo's strengths: pottery and lemongrass, for example, are solid sellers.
The effort is spearheaded by Takahiro Koga, who Hiwatashi hired away from a sales department at a nearby steel company. Koga says he had no mandate from the mayor other than to "choose things you think are interesting." In order to find the products he wished to highlight, he hosted a summit, inviting local merchants to show their goods. Of the 50 who came, Koga selected 30 for the FB Goods Page.
The effort's been so popular that Koga essentially franchised the operation, enabling other cities to adopt and run their own local good marketplaces. Of the 1700 municipalities in Japan, Koga says as many as 60 will have their own local Fun Buy Page by the end of the year. And for each new city that sets up the program, the Takeo city government earns a fee. It's an unlikely source of revenue, a small contribution to relieving the "debt hell" that Hiwatashi says Takeo faced when he took office.
At the entrance of city hall, there's now a small corner decorated with large vertical banners, spelling out the names of cities that have sent delegations to Takeo. The interest the Facebook project garnered around Japan clearly heartens the mayor: "Now everybody knows of Takeo.”
Photos by Skip Bronkie.