Thursday, April 14, 2011

Opinion = Japan + "Chisan-Chisho"

Japanese barn and rice field
   Every year I take a trip back to Japan to visit family in Sakura- a small city on the eastern coast, just north of Tokyo. I get to learn about new food and my son, who is half Japanese, gets to see his grandmother and grandfather. We stay in the family home surrounded by large bamboo and chestnut trees that grow on the hillside overlooking the house. A tiny building sits on the property that has stood for centuries. The walls are thick wood that have become black from almost 400 years of exposure to the erratic weather patterns of Japan.

   This is the home of my son's ancestors, and behind it is the family rice field that was planted and harvested every year up until the early 1980s. Over time a slow progression away from farming occurred throughout the family. The grandfather, both a farmer and a city planner, was the last to harvest rice from the property and the field slowly went dormant. A medal and intricately decorated scroll now hang on the wall in the family room- awarded to him by the Emperor of Japan for public service in helping to build the surrounding communities. Both the scroll and the rice field are constant reminders of a man who lived in a transitional period, and it seems to mark the moment when the family moved away from their agrarian lifestyle and into a new era. Later generations have subsequently moved into

finance, banking, and insurance sectors while others practice and teach the art of calligraphy.

The move away from agriculture is the same story for other families in Japan. Many of them relocated to more populated areas as the country became more industrialized and technology driven. Generations would go by before anyone would pick up where Japan's ancestors had left off. Beginning in the late part of the last decade the practice of farming had shown signs of a resurgence in popularity in rural Japan. A movement towards local, fresh food began taking hold. "Chisan-Chisho" is a phrase meaning "produce local, consume local".  "Chisan-Chisho" became the term used to describe this movement as it spread through the outlying areas of Tokyo. A new breed led the charge towards small-scale farming. Most of these new farmers were urban-chic professionals and Harajuku-types who gave up their office jobs and distinctive street style for a life of farming. They were drawn to farming by its freedom, and by its sense of community. They took on the task of making farming fashionable, and before the earthquake, they were beginning to succeed.

   One goal of this new breed of farmer was to address Japan's fresh food shortfall; another was to rekindle Japan's cultural connection with the land- one that had begun to disappear as a result of a growing lack of interest among the younger population. What seems to be prophetic in some ways is that the participants in the "Chisan-Chisho" movement understood when they made the leap into farming that small farms are and would remain important. The fact that these young Japanese chose a really meaningful and lasting cause to call their own, and they took it on without any prodding, is extraordinary. They started the process of breathing new life into small-scale farming in Japan, and they did it without losing their identity or urban edge. 

    The Japanese government began to take notice of this renewed interest in agriculture and created initiatives to keep participation levels and involvement up among young urbanites, further increasing the country's agricultural production along the way. As a result, small training-farms cropped up in places that would seem too far-fetched for even the most progressive of people. A rice and vegetable field that serves as an underground agricultural training center now exists beneath an office building in Tokyo, giving young people valuable hands-on experience that would give them an entry point into the agricultural sector. Other various government entities encouraged the further growth of the movement by facilitating cooperatives and greenmarkets, and provided much needed public space and funding. In other areas farming became a new and greatly expanded part of the curriculum in public schools. 

   Hopefully the end result of all of these increased efforts will prove that the seeds have been sewn deep enough to now bear fruit and interest in small farms in Japan will continue. Given the right support, "Chisan-Chisho" could help in figuring out how to make farming appeal to younger groups and help Japan secure its food supply. Japan will need a lot in the coming months and years, and the "Chisan-Chisho" movement may be just the thing to provide results. When faced with something that will undoubtedly take years to overcome, who better to look to than the next generation