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Drawn to the land

City's Morning University turns townies rural

by Eriko Arita

Considering that Japan is only 40 percent self-sufficient in terms of its food supply, few would dispute that the country’s agriculture is in a deepening crisis.

Yet in these times, more and more of Japan’s city-dwellers are now becoming interested in agriculture both as potential farmers themselves or through their role as consumers.

As evidence of this, one crisp mid-May morning recently, some 30 business types were to be found barefoot and braving the watery mud of a rice paddy in the town of Yokoshibahikari in Chiba Prefecture.

The urbanites were students on the agriculture course at community school Marunouchi Morning University, so named because the school’s lessons are held in the early morning in Marunouchi, Tokyo’s business district.

In the spirit of gonzo journalism, I rolled up my jeans and joined the students planting seedlings. The paddy was filled with mud and water, and I walked carefully over to them in the middle of the paddy with a bunch of seedlings in my hand. There, I bent down and planted them in the mud in front of me — then nearly fell face first into the ooze when I tried to move on and found my feet were virtually glued into the field.

But mindful of Japan’s self-sufficiency woes, I bent down and squelched on, planting the seedlings as the pains in my back built up. After one hour of this hard labor, the students and I finally finished planting the entire third-of-a-hectare paddy — a feat that will yield almost a ton of rice in autumn.

Muddy as we all were, we were a happy, fulfilled group.

Rieko Ozawa, a designer at an advertising company in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, said that although working as a full-time farmer seemed too hard for her, since she has experienced rice-planting here she now wants to farm on weekends. “I found it relaxing to plant rice in the paddy,” she said.

For her part, Yumi Arai, the managing director of a company in Tokyo’s Minato Ward that makes subtitles for movies, said that because she loves eating rice, she wanted to learn how it is produced. “It was exciting to walk into the rice paddy and feel the mud and the water,” Arai said. “Now, when I retire from my job, I want to farm.”

Meanwhile, Hidechika Akiba, head of the nonprofit organization in Yokoshibahikari that had made paddies available for urbanites, including the students, said that by planting rice, such people far removed from rural life can learn how difficult it is to raise their staple food.

“One rice seedling will grow and bear enough grains to fill a rice bowl when they are cooked. I hope urbanites who come here learn that fact and say itadakimasu (“thank you for the food”) in appreciation of their nourishment and the farmers and those who cook it,” said Akiba, who is one of the lecturers on the Marunouchi Morning University’s agriculture course.

The course is mainly organized by a nonprofit organization named Nouka no Kosegare Network (Network of Farmers’ Sons), which offers consultations on the marketing and branding of agricultural products to children of farmers and others who want to become farmers.

The students on the agriculture course, mainly Tokyo-area office workers, have been attending classes in Marunouchi from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday since April 21. The course fee, which includes seven classes and one fieldwork day in the rice paddy, is ¥38,000.

But why do such people want to get up early to learn about agriculture?

Ichiro Sugimoto, a system integrator with a multinational company based in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, said that a series of fraud cases involving food mislabeling that occurred in 2007 and 2008 made him aware of food safety.

“As I often eat out, I was wondering how I can learn whether the food was safe. I wished I could communicate directly with farmers who produce food,” Sugimoto said as a reason he took the course. “I also wanted to spend the time before my work starts in a meaningful way.”

Sahoko Shikine, who works in an advertising company in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district, said that since she had a child, she has been interested in food and agriculture. “The lecturers on this course actually engage in agriculture and related businesses and have a passion for their work. They are tackling nature in person, and what they have to say is quite impressive,” Shikine said.

Yusuke Miyaji, CEO of the Nouka no Kosegare Network NPO, and himself a successful pig farmer in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, said that an increasing number of urbanites are becoming interested in agribusiness as they become aware of situations such as the current financial crisis and fraud cases involving food.

“Also, urbanites can begin to feel uneasy, living their daily lives surrounded by skyscrapers and computers, and so become attracted to more natural environments. Because Japanese people were farmers originally, their interest in agriculture is not a ‘boom’ but a return to their original state,” Miyaji said.

In the class held on May 19, Masato Wakisaka, who heads the NPO and also manages a company that offers farming experience to young people, gave a lecture on the five stages at which vegetables and fruits are distributed to consumers in Japan.

Wakisaka said while wholesalers help farmers to sell their products to consumers across the country at each of the five stages, they also take their cut at the expense of farmers’ profits.

For example, when one Japanese radish is sold for ¥100, the farmer who produced it receives ¥45. But the production cost is ¥35, so the profit is only ¥10.

Listening to Wakisaka’s lecture, advertising company designer Ozawa said that an alternative distribution system should be developed in order to increase the return that growers receive.

Also, while acknowledging that imported vegetables are often cheaper than home-grown ones, Ozawa said she thinks that consuming locally produced food is best if you are trying to reduce threats to the environment. Distributing food from far distant areas needs vehicles that consume fuel, which leads to global warming, she said.

“As a consumer, I hope I can help the revitalization of agriculture in Japan by buying domestic products,” she said.

Ozawa’s attitude is what the course organizers expect from their students. Certainly, according to the NPO’s Miyaji, if the students eat less at restaurant chains — which often use imported ingredients — they can contribute to the development of agriculture in Japan.

“I am glad that the course can be the starting point for students to do something about supporting agriculture through their jobs or private life,” Miyaji said. “When they eat food, I hope they think of the farmers who produced it. I also expect they will buy food from farmers they know at least once a month, and enjoy cooking and eating it with their family,” he said.

Farming in Japan has long been stigmatized as a “3K” job — meaning that is kitsui (hard), kitanai (dirty) and kiken (dangerous). But Miyaji said he aims to turn it into a new “3K” job — one that is kakkoii (cool), kando ga aru (moving, impressive) and kasegeru (profitable).

Surely, if the agriculture course at Marunouchi Morning University helps to plant that new “3K” idea in the minds of city-dwellers, then it’s an initiative that can’t fail to reap a rich harvest both for individuals and the wider urban and rural society.