Trading houses join effort to boost economies of regional communities

by Asako Takaguchi

Trading houses are teaming up with local governments to foster homegrown industries that could revitalize small cities and towns.

The joint efforts will embrace such strategies as expanding sales of regional specialties and promoting tourism, offering benefits for both sides.

The local governments will make use of the sales networks and expertise of the trading houses, which will in turn search for marketable products and ideas in these areas.

The Japan Millet Association, a grain body born out of Mitsui & Co. subsidiary Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute, held its first exam in December to certify “grain sommeliers,” a qualification it established to promote rural areas.

The aspirants take a two-day lecture program that is followed by a test of their basic knowledge of grains and how to produce and cook them.

The program was a huge success, attracting about 300 homemakers, self-employed men and others.

Masahiko Sonoda, chief of the institute’s land and regional promotion department, said the test was aimed at creating a grain boom.

The institute established ties with local governments in 1991 to promote regional industries and has since set up more than 20 associations to revitalize rural areas, including the Japan Trekking Association and the Slow Town League.

“There may be seeds for (developing such industries), but local governments alone don’t know whether they can expand markets” for them, Sonoda said. “The mission of trading houses is to help them (achieve that development.)”

Trading house Itochu Corp. inked a tieup with the Gifu Prefectural Government in 2004 that has led to the beginning of trips to “roadside stations” in Gifu where people can get hands-on experience in making pottery and “soba” buckwheat noodles. It plans to organize similar trips in Miyagi Prefecture.

Fellow trader Sojitz Corp. has been helping new business projects in Aomori Prefecture by teaming up with a local foundation.

So far, the trading house has worked out 14 projects, including one for promoting and selling “gamazumi” (viburnum dilatatum), a juice rich in vitamin C.

“We would like to not only help distribute local products and offer sales routes and information technology, but also invest in startup companies,” a Sojitz official said.