A one-on-one with Dennis Chia, the man behind Boundless Sosei-Partners who is working with locals in Japan to revitalize urban areas from an international and sustainable perspective.

Like any other international student whose first brush with Japan started with learning the language, Dennis Chia, born and raised in Singapore, learned Japanese in his middle school. It was still rare for schools to offer Japanese language classes, but then he also had the opportunity to go on a homestay in Hokkaido and spend a couple of weeks in the Kanto and Kansai region of Japan in 2004 for a school program. It was also the same year when Waseda University established the School of International Liberal Studies (SILS), which they also visited as part of the program. Much like a coincidence, in his 2nd year of high school, Waseda came to his school to promote the new department. Before he knew it, he was enrolled in the SILS program. Studying in Japan was not his initial plan after high school, but he made the most out of his first four years as a university student traveling to all 47 prefectures in Japan.

A Fresh Pair of Eyes

However, in his 4th year of studies, the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the Northeastern region of Japan, and he felt strongly to help through volunteering. In the last week of April, he headed to Tohoku and spent some time in Ishinomaki where he lent his time and skills in cooperative efforts. It was through this experience that his eyes were opened to a different way of seeing the places he has visited. Before, he traveled around simply as a touristーgoing to the typical ‘touristy’ places, overloaded by “billboard culture”, and simply seeing the facade of towns and cities. Now, he sees through that and has found himself in the midst of local communities and their honest way of living. It was a new-found experience with traveling that kickstarted his passion to ‘see’ Japan beyond the surface. As such, he partook in translation work for Japanese craftsmen; translating explanations about traditional Japanese crafts. It was through his immersion in this environment that he learned what he believes is the whole philosophy behind Japanese culture and the Japanese way of thinking which has always been connected to sustainability.

Another Turning Point

Most of the traditional Japanese crafts are a dying form of art, and his contact with the reality of rural Japan and its decline proves how these two almost go hand-in-hand, prompting him to look further into the growing social issues in Japan.

Upon graduating, Chia went on to work for companies but ultimately decided to return to further his studies. While preparing for graduate school, he spent his gap year working part-time and doing various volunteer work. He also spent his internship at Peace Boat, a Japan-based international NGO working to promote peace, human rights, and sustainability in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through activities centered on experiential learning and intercultural communication. He shared that through this internship and the people he has worked alongside this program, he learned that life is more than just working for a company. He recounts how he was surrounded by professionals from different fields who all have the capability to work for bigger companies and yet chose to dedicate their time and skills to a unified cause. This inspired him to step outside the corporate world and work towards something that will serve an even greater purpose.

Chia went back to continue his studies at the University of Tokyo, pursuing a Masters of Arts and Science in Interdisciplinary Media Studies. His research was focused on disaster prevention and recovery mainly in Ishinomaki, the Philippines, and Indonesia. He then started rethinking his options after graduating; he previously set his course towards a career working for the UN but redirected it to fieldwork that would allow him to be more in touch with local communities and work alongside locals.

The Beginning of Boundless

Chia’s desire to stay in Japan and address social issues in rural areas lead to the decision of starting his own organization here. He gathered information on Regional Revitalization (地方創生) , a project by the Japanese government that conducts research on the population change in all the towns, cities, and municipalities in Japan in the span of 20 years. Out of 1,741 municipalities, 896 are in the category of “disappearing municipality”. The idea behind this project is to redistribute the population of Tokyo and to stimulate economic and social growth in urban regions. He did further research on this project and found an obstacle that was creating the gap between local people and ‘global’ people: all the information provided was in Japanese. This limited the input of ideas and solutions to just locals, and Chia wanted to expand that scope in order to push forward with the aim of this project.

Thus, the birth of Boundless , a social enterprise serving to connect great minds from overseas to locals in the countryside of Japan. Under Boundless, the flagship project Sosei Partners creates an opportunity for the international community to also contribute to the regional revitalization efforts in Japan. International students and working professionals in Japan or from outside Japan who partake in this program are taken to rural areas and collaborate with locals in finding sustainable and effective solutions. For Chia, this project is not your typical sightseeing trip to Japan but rather a close-up into the local life and making meaningful contributions towards the community. For Chia, “Regional Revitalization (地方創生) is very global but the thing is it’s hard to make it global because everyone working is very local and the focus stays there.” He aims to open up and strengthen the platform for cooperation between Japanese and international members of communities across Japan through area-specific projects.

Coming Full Circle

The first part of the experience is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of a local area by engaging in discussions. The next step, which to Chia is the key part to making this project meaningful, is to contribute by brainstorming feasible solutions and attempting to solve problems through actual application. He emphasized how most similar programs simply go to these areas, learn, and leave. For him, he aims to keep his projects more practical, concrete, and on-the-ground. Boundless also offers short term and long term internships, connecting people to local areas such as Ishinomaki, Urahoro, Shimokawa, Minami Ashigara, and Seiyo.

Tokomuro Lab exterior

One of the successful solutions that came from the Sosei Partners program in Urahoro, Hokkaido is the TOKOMURO Lab, which used to be an old elementary school building shut down years ago; now repurposed as a collaboration space, cafe, woodworking shop and is still currently in development and expansion. This space is now being utilized by locals through various events and community get-togethers.

Tokomuro Cafe interior

For Dennis, he wants Boundless to also spark interest among local youth to partake in these projects to help their own community. He hopes to have everyone actively engage in preserving and at the same time developing urban areas in Japan.

Take-away for International Students

According to Chia, “Most international students grow up in big cities in their own countries, and so maybe even in their own country, they don’t know much about their own rural areas. This is important because when we talk about sustainability, in a sense it’s going back to our roots, going back to nature, which is one way to achieve that.”

In addition to this, he emphasizes three things he’s learned throughout his study abroad experience in Japan and now as a contributing member of society:

  1. To have fun and enjoy themselves in Japan. If you’re not happy, you shouldn’t be here.
  2. Be open. Don’t be stuck in your way of thinking. You will learn about good and bad things about Japan and that’s all part of the experience. Don’t be stuck with your own preconceptions.
  3. At least be aware of social issues around and if possible do good or do something good.