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Regional Feature 7/Saitama, Chichibu-city

A place rooted on "mutual help" between people,
embracing the welfare of the land of ritual culture

"Art Brut CREATION Nippon in SAITAMA" will be held from October to December 2021 in Chichibu City and Yokoze Town in Saitama with satellite venues in Kofu City and Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture. The exhibition "Art Brut: Humanity and Nature in Japan" will include works by artists from the Kanto and Koshin blocks in addition to those from the national tour. Furthermore, performing arts performances by people with disabilities, barrier-free theater, and barrier-free film festivals will be held and screened at venues in Saitama and Yamanashi, respectively, with simultaneous live-streaming.

Prior to the event, we will visit one of the venues, Chichibu City in Saitama Prefecture, and report on the event's objectives from the perspective of the involvement of welfare for disabled people in the community. We will also report on our visit to the Handles workshop, taking place in Chichibu on Saturday, October 30.

Chichibu, surrounded by mountains, is known as a spot for sea clouds
Chichibu is also a town of faith, marked with temples and shrines, including the sacred site of Kannon.

A town in the middle of the mountains, isolated from the rest of the world, comes alive under a winter night festival.

A town in the middle of the mountains, isolated from the rest of the world, comes alive under a winter night festival.

Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, is about an hour and twenty minutes from Ikebukuro by express train on the Seibu Line. Located in the northwest of Saitama Prefecture, the city lies along the Arakawa River, flowing from west to east. The city extends out in a basin with terraces and hills along the Arakawa River. Surrounded by mountains such as the Chichibu Mountains, the city seems to have an isolated mountain village atmosphere.

When strolling around the city from the nearest Seibu Chichibu Station, one can see that it is a town of worship, with temples and shrines such as the Chichibu 34 Kannon Sacred Grounds scattered along the way. Once prospered with sericulture and the local textile "Chichibu Meisen," along the main road connecting Musashi and Koshu is centered with sericulture farmers with multi-layered architecture and brewery merchants of textile wholesalers. There was a concentration of weaving factories with sawtooth roofs in the past, and many of the town's people were engaged in such industries.

At the end of Banba-dori, a street lined with retro Western-style cafes, inns, and hospitals that was once a bustling shopping district, lies the Chichibu Shrine, one of the city's most popular attractions. Two thousand years old, the shrine was rebuilt by Ieyasu Tokugawa and decorated with glittering carvings of dragons and tigers by Jingoro Hidari. The “Chichibu Night Festival,” one of the most famous festivals in the Kanto region, is a winter festival held in early December, culminates in a spectacular fireworks display that lights up the cold night sky. The festival is an irreplaceable event for the people born and raised in Chichibu, who call Chichibu home and gather to celebrate the festival.

Chichibu Night Festival

The Main Chichibu Shrine

Chichibu is a land of festivals and culture, with more than 330 festivals held throughout the year, including this night festival. The whole town participates and collaborates in each of these festivals, which symbolizes the local community. Chichibu has always been a place where people are closely connected to each other, and the mutual aid organization Tonari Gumi is still active today. The local culture is reflected in the festival.

The social welfare corporation Seishinkai, which manages the Saitama venue of the Kanto/Koshin block, has been based in Chichibu for nearly 40 years since its establishment. The Seishinkai has long been responsible for the welfare of disabled people in the Chichibu area. Its main characteristic is "placing value placed in the local character of Chichibu from long ago and conducting business while maintaining deep ties with the community," says Hiroyuki Okabe, vice president of the Seishinkai.

In addition to residential support such as assistance facilities and group homes for disabled people, Seishinkai also actively offers support activities to help users become independent in the community. Located near the foot of Yotsuyama Park, famous for its mossy cherry blossoms, the facility uses a former supermarket to manufacture and sell bread and process and sell local products such as miso.

Inheriting and succession of the vanishing local food culture

Inside the Poppo store

Poppo products

One of the features of Poppo is that all processes from production to sales are carried out by the users. Upon visiting the store, one sees that the shelves are lined with a variety of confectionary bread and side dishes. The store is decorated with Halloween-themed products and decorations to give it a Chichibu aura and seasonal flair. Among the Chichibu products, the name of the "debt-free miso" caught my interest. It is said to be a brand of Chichibu's traditional soybeans, and the reason is that the more soybeans are harvested, the more miso is sold to pay off the debt.

Okabe says, "I want to contribute to the local community by passing on the region's traditional industry and food culture to the next generation." He is also considering the development of processed products using this miso and adding value to them. One of the festival's projects, "Agriculture (Noh) x Welfare (Fuku) x Food (Shoku)," is to develop products and recipes based on "Kojuhan," a traditional Chichibu food used during farming, under the supervision of cookery researcher Yukio Hattori. The users of Poppo will be involved in the production and sales of the products. It is a measure that will achieve the ideal tripartite cooperation between agriculture, welfare, and food culture and bring the users closer to the community.

Behind such efforts is that Chichibu has few established industries and only a limited number of companies, and Seishinkai plays an important role as a place of employment. The Seishinkai envisions that the succession of industries will lead to the development of commerce and local industries and the creation of employment opportunities.

Seishinkai's "Public Relations Manager" is the "ambassador" connecting the community

At Poppo, we met Shunichiro Horiguchi, a Seishinkai user who works here. He is a little bit plump and wears a white coat, with a smiling face as he happily talks about his daily life made us feel relaxed and excited to talk with him. He has been working at Poppo for more than 20 years. His family is well known in Chichibu, and he was familiar with the family working at the restaurant. Okabe admits, "In this restaurant, he is the most renowned with the customers.

Not only does he serve customers, but he also takes care of and follows up with young staff and newcomers at the store, and helps organize a friendship group of users. He also serves as a traffic safety instructor at the nearby Yokose Elementary School during school dismissal hours, acting as the center of Poppo and actively participating in external activities. Utilizing his public and communication skills, Shunichiro goes to various places as a representative of Seishinkai to communicate through his words and actions. According to Okabe, Shunichiro is the head of Seishinkai's public relations department and the "ambassador" for the organization.

Horiiguchi works at Poppo. He helps organize the users.

He is also actively involved as a traffic safety instructor.

Looking forward to the triumphant return of the Handles in Chichibu,

Shunichiro's external activities are divided into two main genres. One of them is as a performer. He has been a member of "Handles," a dance team for disabled people directed and choreographed by Ryohei Kondo, a dancer, choreographer, and leader of the dance company "Condors," since its inception 12 years ago.

Since 2009, Saitama Prefecture has been working to promote the allure of works and expressions created by disabled people and to realize a barrier-free society and an affluent symbiotic society that recognizes diversity. "Handles," over 12 years, is a symbol of Saitama Prefecture's efforts in the field of art for disabled people and actively working on new performances this year.

Shunichiro is one of the main members of the team, and with his natural ability to attract people, he is able to organize the members and even enhance performances by telling them to "show more of oneself, to show one's originality". The team includes members with various disabilities, including wheelchairs, and Shunichiro's words, "I want to take care of the members more than anything else on stage," is a testament to his love for his friends.

The "Performing Arts Performance," which will be held in the Kanto and Koshin regions, will be held at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Civic Hall on Saturday, October 30, and Shunichiro and four other members from Chichibu will take the stage. Since the event is held in their hometown, many of their acquaintances will be present, and Shunichiro happily says, "I'm looking forward to getting powerful energy from everyone."

Scenes from the Handles' performance

Handles' rehearsal scene

Later, we visited Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theatre in Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture, to observe the Handles workshop for their November performance. There are 17 members this year, and they are continuing their rehearsals for the Chichibu performance in the Kanto/Koshin block and the 10th performance at this theater on November 27 (Sat) and 28 (Sun). The members were divided into groups and expressed themselves through sound and movement or showed their individual moves according to the theme, and the atmosphere was friendly, and the expression of their thoughts was impressive.

Regarding the free movement of the members, Ryohei Kondo said, "A performance is a collection of personalities, which come together to form a whole. Kondo's approach to staging the Handles is to expand, connect, and open up the movements that arise from the thoughts and feelings of each member and then create a whole image to convey to the audience.

When I asked Kondo about the unique, expressive energy of a dance team for the disabled, he said, "It's all about being sincere, pure, and without any lies. When expressing oneself, there are times when the consciousness to perform well or communicate easily comes first, but the innocent and straightforward transmissions of these dancers, without any embellishment, are directly transmitted to the audience.

That is precisely how I felt with the work titled "Walking in the rain in order, with an umbrella in hand." Walking quietly, flying and frolicking, dancing and swaying, and being tossed about by the wind and rain. One is covered under an umbrella. From their movements, we could see various backgrounds, the strength, and direction of the rain, scenes such as "walking," "going to the hospital," and "going home," and even the people they were with, such as "one person," "family," and "friends. A single umbrella brings out their expressions, and as Kondo guides, expands, and creates a landscape around them. How the rain is reflected towards each, and the type of scene, will broaden the audience's imagination.

The power of communication backed by deeply penetrating words

Another of Shunichiro's activities is to give lectures. At the University of Tokyo, he gave a lecture titled "Making Welfare and Disabilities More Customary," directed towards citizen guardians. He spoke in his own words about his daily life, including activities at Poppo, and his thoughts on how to live. His natural ability to speak well, convey messages easily, and the message itself were highly evaluated, and this led to an increase in the number of offers to give lectures in Tokyo, Hokkaido, and other places.

According to Okabe, there are times when Shunichiro's words sting deeply. These words come from the fact that Shunichiro is blessed with people around him, such as the staff of Seishinkai, his friends and customers at Poppo, the members of Handles, and his family, and he values them very much. His words, which are spoken from time to time in his lectures, become a message that resonates in our hearts, and we are drawn in, convinced, and impressed by what he says.

Horiguchi gives a lecture at a training course for citizen guardians.

The challenge is how to make the most of the users' ability to communicate

Okabe said that Shunichiro's two activities "changed his life." Shunichiro's ability to communicate, attract and connect with people has blessed Okabe, who has worked with him, with various opportunities to meet people. As you can see, Seishinkai would like to find elements of performance and art in the daily lives of its users and transmit them to the public. Still, as a facility, it is difficult to lead them while maintaining a balance between "cooperation" and "freedom". There is a need to follow discipline in work and group life, but in a place where they can be free, I want to let them fully open up their abilities. It can be said that Shunichiro's ability to communicate was also revealed as he had the opportunity to perform in Handles, on top of his life at Poppo and the facility.
However, such abilities of users can be found only at social welfare corporations. Okabe believes that the ideal situation would be for the users to become aware of art and performance in their daily lives, and by guiding and disseminating this information, they would be able to give back to the three parties involved: the users themselves, the corporation and its staff, and the community of Chichibu.

External Appearance of Poppo

Chichibu Headwaters

From passive welfare to active welfare, giving back to the community

In the small town of Chichibu, living in the community leads to helping each other and contributing to the community. Seishinkai, in keeping with the local character of Chichibu, would like to collaborate with various fields such as commerce, industry, and education in Chichibu, not limited to the category of social welfare corporations. Okabe says, "Part of revitalizing the community is to rely on other businesses to help us with things we cannot do ourselves." His ideal is to actively engage in this kind of exchange to develop active and proactive welfare in Chichibu and continue giving back to the community.

As a public relations officer for Seishinkai and Chichibu, Shunichiro has been transmitting various messages, including his activities in Handles. Incidentally, Shunichiro's dream was to become a "certified helper." Now that he has achieved his dream, he helps out at Seishinkai's group home for about an hour in the evening. In addition to his public relations activities, Shunichiro himself, as the "public relations" person, is achieving the ideal that Seishinkai strives for, which is for users to help each other and give back to the community.

Coverage Author: Jitsugyo No Nihonsha, Blue Guide Editorial Department
Supported by: Seishinkai Social Welfare Corporation, Ryohei Kondo (Handles production and choreography), Saitama Prefecture Welfare Department, Disabled Persons Welfare Promotion Division