‘Smart island’ developing in Ehime

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People ride in an electric vehicle on Nakajima island in Matsuyama.

MATSUYAMA — A white electric cart slowly drove along a seaside road in December amid ripening citrus fruits, a specialty of Ehime Prefecture.

Although the seats had no doors or windows to block the breeze from the Seto Inland Sea, three women in their 90s who were riding and chatting seemed comfortable on the sunny winter day.

“It feels so good!” one of them said.

The Matsuyama city government is promoting a “Smart Island” project on Nakajima. Three such vehicles have been used in trial operation there since last year. The island is less than an hour by ferry from Matsuyama Sightseeing Port.

The electric vehicles, called “green slow mobility,” travel at less than 20 kph and are small enough to maneuver on narrow roads. They are also environmentally friendly; they use solar power to run about 60 kilometers on a single charge.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

One of the vehicles is driven by a staff member of a nursing home for the elderly. It is used to transport the elderly to and from the nursing home and take them out for strolls during the day. It is said to be highly appreciated, especially by people with leg disabilities, as they can enjoy going out.

“I was surprised by how unusual it looks, but it was a good ride,” said Eiko Kanda, 90.

Many residents in the facility want to ride the vehicle, which helps give them a sense of purpose in life, according to an official of the nursing home.

Promoting eco-friendliness

The city government is also pushing its plan of “local production for local consumption” regarding energy — a project to generate electricity from solar energy on the island for islanders to then use. Matsuyama aims to promote the island for its eco-friendliness and improve the region’s attractiveness in the hopes of more economic revitalization.

There has been a serious drop in the populations of small islands. The number of islanders on Nakajima has also decreased by 40% over the past 15 years to about 2,300, with the elderly making up 65% of that. With the number of natural disasters on the rise, there is growing concern about how to respond to emergencies on the islands.

The city government launched a council to promote the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, in 2020. Here, 18 companies and organizations, including the municipality, are participating in a subcommittee that aims to turn Nakajima into a “smart island.”

The subcommittee has set a goal of achieving a carbon-neutral state on the island and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030. It is also considering the widespread use of electric and hydrogen vehicles on the island and the introduction of ferries powered by fuel cells.

“The climatic and geographical conditions of Nakajima are ideal for the smart island project,” said Ehime University Prof. Shinfuku Nomura, who is also the head of the subcommittee. “We want to create a model that can be expanded nationwide.”

Charm of nature

Attempts to attract tourists to Nakajima are underway by combining the appeal of the island as an “SDGs island” and the charms of the nature it possesses.

The Matsuyama city government is using the city’s lodging facility on the island, Hoshihuru Terrace Himegahama, as a base of exchange for residents and tourists. They are inviting tourists to explore the island using the slow vehicles and electric bikes offered. The lodging facility was renovated in July 2020.

More than 150 people stayed at the lodging facility in July and August last year, and in November, a tour was planned for elementary schoolchildren to enjoy fishing and cooking fish.

“We would like to revitalize tourism as an eco-friendly island full of humanity and restore the vigor of the island,” said Kazuya Nakajima, the head of the organization that operates the facility.