Thursday, November 7, 2013

Keibo Oiwa on the Localization Movement & Heirloom Vegetable Revival in Yamagata

In Keibo Shinichi Oiwa Tsuji's (14-min.) talk, "Cultural Creatives and Localization Movements in Asia," at the 2013 International Society of Economics and Culture (ISEC)  Economics of Happiness conference, the slow life advocate explores the heirloom vegetable revival in Yamagata, a prefecture in northwestern Tohoku:
Many people feel that localization is isolation. This is totally wrong. In fact, localization is to rediscover and recreate relationships. It restores meanings to relationships.

I will try to illustrate this with one example from Japan.

Shonai is the northeastern part of Japan, in Yamagata Prefecture. At the center of this local food movement is a charismatic chef and restaurant owner, [Masayuki] Okuda. Today he is one of the most renowned chefs in Japan and recognized as one of the slow food master chefs. He is known for his cooking philosophy: The distance that ingredients travel from field to table should be as short as possible. Dinners are served with the freshest of local ingredients, brimming with life energy.

When I met Okuda, he was a young and unknown chef and had just opened his own restaurant in Tsuroka City. He was active in a citizens' group called "Good Water Fan Club" protesting the construction of a dam and trying to preserve underground water wells that were soon to be destroyed.

I asked him why he got involved in this kind of movement. And his answer was, "The kernel of cooking is water." In fact, the region of Shonai was known for good water throughout history, and good sake.

The name of his restaurant, Al che-cciano, sounds to Japanese like Italian, but is actually an expression in Shonai dialect, meaning "It's been always here, hasn't it?".

Just after he opened his restaurant, he became good friends with one of his regular customers, [Hiroaki] Egashira, an agronomist from Yamagata University. Okuda would tell Egashira that, "My mission as a chef is to let people rediscover the quality of almost forgotten local foods, to encourage and support local farmers, and to create a community with a vibrant local economy."

So this rediscovery is what Okuda really meant by Al che-cciano.

Egashira was so happy learning about his new friend's mission as he himself was just launching production of a variety of heirloom vegetables.  Inspired by each other's passion for heirloom crops, Egashira and Okuda formed a team and started to explore the Shonai region, looking for farmers still preserving heirloom seeds...Egashira formed the Yamagata Forum for Indigenous Crops, with a magazine called Seeds...The forum's researchers have identified already more than 160 varieties of plants which had been, at one point, heirloom crops, transferred from generation to generation, but which had been almost forgotten.  Today, the forum's membership amounts to almost 400 citizens with many different backgrounds.

Kusajima, one of the key figures in the Shonai local food movement, and now a member of the prefectural parliament, is a good example of the new political activism. At the time of the Great Kobe Earthquake in 1995, Kusajima left work in Tokyo, and went to work in the disaster zone in Kobe. It was there he felt, for the first time, that he was part of a community where people willingly helped and supported one another.

He decided to return to his native region, Shonai, where he got involved in environmental issues, and found himself in a community of ecologically conscious people like Okuda and Egashira. With the support of this group, he was elected as a city councilor, and later a prefectural member of parliament, independent of any political party.  Since he played a leading role in the Good Water Fan Club, Kusajima's main campaign was about safeguarding the natural water system.

His thinking has not only been influenced by modern Western teachings, but also stemmed from the ancient nature religion of the region. He's a believer and practitioner of Shugendo...of which one of the traditional centers is the holy mountains of Haguro, in the middle of the Shonai region.

Shugendo is an ancient religion that originated in ancient Japan. It's an amalgamation of Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism...In this tradition, enlightenment is achieved by attaining oneness with the kami (deity...or spirits). This enlightenment is achieved by understanding the relationship between human beings and nature...

Another member of the local food movement is [Satoshi] Watanabe, a Shonai native and professional filmmaker. Her second feature documentary is Reviving Recipes, a colorful portrait of a community in the making. The protagonists of this film are Okuda, Egashira, and a local businessman and partners whose mutual collaboration leads to the emergence of a new local economy.

Watanabe explains, "In plants are a living cultural heritage that have been passed through decades and centuries, to provide generations not only food...but also farming methods and cooking methods.  In this day of globalization, however, that heritage had been overshadowed by big-scale market agriculture and was on the brink of being forgotten."

Watanabe shares the view with fellow members of this movement: An understanding of heirloom plants leads to an understanding of food, farming, and all the people involved. To revive and pass on local heirloom plants is not just a means to enjoy the bounty of food, but also to create and strengthen bonds among local people.

He and all the supporters of the film hope that Reviving Recipes will help remedy the serious problems surrounding food and farming today, not only in Japan, but throughout the world.

It is important to note that the local food movement in Shonai has its roots in the movement to safeguard the communal access to deep underground water and seeds. The sense of the commons is the foundation of a community. Starting with air, water, and seeds. This is what global corporations are trying to commodify.

The sense of the sacred is essential for community, especially in a time of global market economy when nothing is sacred and everything is translated into monetary value.

The local food movement in Shonai is inseparable from the local spiritual tradition like Shugendo. I recently interviewed one of the leaders of this tradition, Hoshino...and he defined what the meaning of yamabushi [practitioner of Shugendo] is.  It is a connector. Anybody who connects things and people: that's yamabushi...

It is a connector, anyone who connects.  All of us here might be yamabushi.  It is a community of prayer.

The word for happiness in Japanese is shiawase.  Awase means to relate and to bring together. This implies that being slow is an essential part of happiness.  A slow life is a happy life. A slow economy is not a bad economy. A slow business is not a bad business.  It is an art that restores, discovers, and creates meaningful relationships between humans and nature, humans to the land, to the community...

As we get local, we get better connected.  Our life gets more interesting and exciting. A slow life is an exciting life. But I'm afraid it might be a busy one.
Oiwa Tsuji is a professor of international studies at Meiji Gakuin University, and the co-author (with David Suzuki) of The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery (with David Suzuki), a groundbreaking travelogue/history/exploration of Japan's indigenous, environmentalist, peace, and nuclear-free movements.


"Japan's Heirloom Vegetable Revival" (April 6, 2012,

Sloth Club (Japanese)

Slow Japan (Sloth Club blog in English)

More great speakers from the 2013 Economics of Happiness conference on video:

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