Elderly-run ‘leaf business’ in Shikoku town drawing interest from abroad


A business project focused on selling decorative leaves for use in Japanese cuisine is attracting overseas attention to Kamikatsu, a mountain town in Tokushima Prefecture.

In 2011, officials from 37 countries, including developing economies in Latin America and Africa, visited the tiny Shikoku town to learn about the business.

The project, dubbed Irodori, meaning “bright colors” in Japanese, was launched in 1986 by a group of four farmhouses in the town, which is around an hour’s drive from the prefectural capital.

The project, which succeeded in commercializing colored leaves grown in local mountains and fields and now claims members from nearly 200 farms, has become a vital industry in Kamikatsu, which has a population of less than 2,000.

The Irodori project sells some 320 different kinds of leaves ranging from autumn leaves to pine needles used for Japanese-style table settings. The average age of the farmers involved in the project is 70, and many are women. Some earn more than ¥10 million a year from the business.

Irodori members use tablet computers to check for updated information on orders. The leaves are grown in their own mountains and fields, then distributed to markets across Japan via an agricultural cooperative.

Yukiyo Nishikage, 75, joined the project 18 years ago. She was doubtful about the business at first, but said it turned into a great source of energy for her.

“As long as the Irodori project carries on, I’ll work until I’m 100,” she said.

In October, a group of officials from Bhutan visited Kamikatsu. “There is a lot to learn from the project,” one official said, pointing out that the business gives the elderly a sense of purpose and attracts people from urban areas.

The concept behind Irodori bears similarities with Bhutan’s gross national happiness index, an indicator developed to gauge the quality of life, the official said.

According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which promotes international visits to Kamikatsu, the response to its English DVD on the Irodori project was huge. It has been translated into Bengali, Spanish and French.

Tomoji Yokoishi, 54, who came up with the Irodori idea and is president of the managing company, said perceptional shifts are responsible for its success.

The project turned regular leaves into a valuable resource and turned its elderly into a workforce, Yokoishi explained.

“The vivid colors of the mountain leaves and the local people’s experience with nature are irreplaceable,” he added.