[From January Issue 2014]
With 25% of its population over aged 65 as of 2013, Japan has entered the era of the aging society. Young people, particularly those from provincial towns, tend to move to larger cities in search of work. Therefore, the population of so called productive age – aged 15 to 64 – is decreasing. As a result, economic activity has decreased and it’s become a serious problem. However, there are examples of people tackling this problem, and reviving their regions.
SHIRAMIZU Takahiro runs a shop called “Unagi no Nedoko” (Eel’s Bed) in the city of Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture, with HARUGUCHI Shogo, a former college classmate. They deal mainly in products made in the local region of Chikugo, where Yame is located. “From kasuri (patterned cloth), Buddhist household altars, paper lanterns, bows and arrows, to artisanal earthenware and woodcraft, the region of Chikugo produces both new and old products,” Shiramizu says, outlining Chikugo’s characteristics.
“Unagi no Nedoko” also deals in unique products, such as modern style monpe made with kurume-gasuri (a traditional kind of patterned cloth). Monpe are traditional Japanese trousers many women used to wear for physical work in the past. “At first, I thought that both kurume-gasuri and monpe were for elderly ladies. I changed my mind when I went to a weaver’s and saw different fabrics and patterns. I thought that I might be able to wear them myself.” This experience led to him organizing a “Monpe Fair.” It was an opportunity to let many people find out about the existence of kurume-gasuri and about the variety of patterns available.
While monpe were sold at the fair, many locals already had kurume-gasuri fabrics at home. In response to a demand from those who wanted to make their own monpe with these fabrics, it was decided that they would also sell sewing patterns. Traditional monpe were made to fit loosely, in order that physical work could be done with ease. These original patterns are slender enough to make efficient use of the 36 to 38 centimeter-wide kasuri fabrics. Modern-looking silhouettes were created as a result. Monpe made from those patterns and sold on have been adopted by many young people as part of their fashion.”
Shiramizu believes that it’s important to first display products, so that people can become aware of them. “We run our shop as a kind of showroom. We don’t aim to sell large quantities. We sell products that have taken time and effort to make for reasonable prices. By doing this, their worth is properly appreciated. If they’re properly appreciated, those items will sell and that craft will be passed down to the next generation, I think.” He says that, from now on, they want to concentrate their energies on introducing Chikugo on their website.
There is also an example of a new local specialty being created. This is rhubarb from Fujimi town in Nagano Prefecture. Well known in Europe as an ingredient for jam and other confections, people aren’t familiar with the plant in Japan. Chiyoko ANGEL, who moved from Chiba Prefecture to Fujimi in 1992, cultivated it at home because her English husband liked it.
Native to Siberia and well-suited to Fujimi’s cool weather, the rhubarb thrived when cultivated through division. Angel’s rhubarb was noticeably red. Angel was aware of the tough conditions the aging farmers were dealing with. So around 2004, she began to wonder if she could turn rhubarb into a local specialty. She organized tasting events in order to distribute rhubarb to farmers she was acquainted with and asked them to grow it with no pesticides. Her intention was to respond to the demands of those who want to eat safe food.
She also set out to create sales opportunities. “First I searched for ‘rhubarb’ and ‘red’ on the Internet and wrote emails to people who might be interested.” She hoped to get people to try Fujimi red rhubarb and to write their impressions of it on blogs and so forth. The reaction from consumers was pretty good, she received orders from people who’d seen this positive response and the amount she shipped also grew through word of mouth.
The town hired a consultant three years ago and has expanded its market to include department stores in Tokyo. Through these channels, this year, about three tons of rhubarb was sold. The number of families growing the plant has increased from 15 in 2006 to 74 today. Angel says, “In the provinces, you’re more familiar with the problems of local government than those in the heart of a big city. That’s why I thought we might be able to change the region in some way with our initiative.”
She’s constantly getting closer to her dream of making Fujimi Japan’s largest producer of red rhubarb. But she has some pending issues, too. With increased shipment volumes, a stable supply of pest-free products is needed. She therefore has to reconsider her pesticide-free method of cultivation. The new challenge she faces is balancing quality with shipment volumes.
By creating a specialty from a local item, the town of Kamikatsu in Tokushima Prefecture has created added value. Once known for its production of wood and tangerines, bad weather in the 1980s dealt a major blow to the area. It became tough to maintain the local business.
In those days, as farming advisor to the Kamikatsu Agricultural Cooperative, YOKOISHI Tomoji was looking for new businesses opportunities for the town. In the fall of 1986, the idea struck him to use tree leaves growing on the town’s mountains as decoration for Japanese food. Picking, wrapping and shipping leaves requires little physical exertion and can be done by the elderly. In this way, the leaf business was launched. Irodori Co., Ltd. was founded in 2002 and Yokoishi has been its president since 2009.
Currently 200 farming families ship those leaves. The work is mostly done by women with an average age of 70. An original communication network has been set up to receive orders and control shipments. It may seem hard for the elderly to operate tablets and PCs, but Yokoishi says, “As it’s a necessity, they all naturally pick it up.” His believes that if he can identify the needs of both producers and consumers, things will naturally run smoothly. Kamikatsu’ initiative was featured in a film.
Yokoishi is also actively involved in a project to attract young people from outside town. In addition he provides young interns with jobs and housing and organizes lectures on starting businesses. The elderly now make up around 50% of the population of Kamikatsu and, by increasing the number of young people, Yokoishi aims to bring this ratio down to about 35%.
Yokoishi is from the city of Tokushima City and came to Kamikatsu for work. “It made a lot of sense to take a step back to look at this place from an outsider’s standpoint. There are also things I’ve come to realize after years of putting my hypotheses into practice.”
In recent years, Yokoishi has witnessed growing interest among young people in country life. “Now the tide is turning for the provinces,” he says energetically. “There must be many other places with potential. I hope they can effectively make their regional attractions appealing to others.”
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo