Even today, most of the “milk” in Japan is soymilk, eaten as tofu. The lactic sort, from cows, may be steadily growing in popularity, but consumption per person is still only around a liter a week, according to government data issued last year.

Even this, though, represents a huge increase in a country that until 50 years ago had virtually no tradition of drinking milk at all — but which now has a dairy herd some 1.7 million strong.

Though the finds are few, archaeological evidence suggests that domesticated cattle may have been kept during the period of the Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300). After that, their next appearance on Japan’s stage seems to have been a walk-on part in 1727, when Shogun Yoshimune is known to have imported three white cows that were kept in Chiba, seemingly as novelties for the aristocracy’s amusement.

In more modern times, a milk company run by a man named Tomekichi Maeda was in operation briefly during the Meiji Era in Yokohama. Otherwise, milk’s fortunes largely languished until the postwar era.

Then, as the nation strove to rise from the ruins, a remarkable American, with a vision of pastures dotted with grazing cows, came forward.

Paul Rusch, who would become the driving force behind today’s dairy industry, first came to Japan for a year in 1925 as a Christian volunteer helping to rebuild Yokohama’s YMCA, which was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake two years before. Then he was chosen to be a teacher of business English and American business practices at Rikkyo (St. Paul’s ) University in Tokyo, and decided to stay on.

Though he left Japan again — to travel abroad and to raise funds for the construction of St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo — it wasn’t long before Rusch was back. Not only did he continue his teaching, but he also found time to lead Rikkyo’s baseball team on a U.S. study tour, and to introduce American football to universities in Tokyo — as well as becoming the first president of the Tokyo Student American Football Association.

Before he went back to the United States at the outbreak of World War II, Rusch made his first trip to Kiyosato. On that occasion, in 1938, he set up a youth camp called Seisenryo. Located in that famously scenic part of Yamanashi Prefecture, it had a majestic view of Mount Fuji, whose beauty he revered. In those days there was no road up into the high Kiyosato hills where, despite abundant natural attractions, life was lived at little more than a subsistence agricultural level.

When Rusch returned to Japan in 1945 as a lieutenant-colonel on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation forces in Tokyo, it was to a hungry land in ruins. His dream of dairy farming in the Kiyosato hills, too, seemed to be in ruins. In 1949 the Agriculture Ministry had given 60 Holstein cows to Yamanashi farmers in hopes of creating a much-needed new source of nutrition. In the harsh conditions, though, the cows barely survived and produced little milk due to a lack of feed grains and farmers’ knowhow.

Of course, this only confirmed the locals’ belief that diary farming in Yamanashi was impossible.

Rusch, though, still had his vision.

However, it wasn’t until 1951, during a trip to Tennessee to raise funds to start a daily farm, that he was given the key to realize his ambition. He was told that the Jersey breed of cow would be perfect for Kiyosato’s conditions. Originally from the Channel Islands in the English Channel off northern France, Jersey cattle evolved to thrive on grass alone, and yet to yield a particularly creamy milk.

Rusch was not only told about Jersey cattle; church friends he met on that trip also donated a fine bull. It became the first one on record to cross the Pacific when he brought it back to Japan, along with a new American farm tractor. Despite local farmers’ profound skepticism, Rusch took both to Kiyosato. He was determined to show how the highlands that occupy 80 percent of the country’s land area could rise above subsistence farming and help nourish the nation as well.

The bull not only survived its first winter, but it thrived. The following year, Rusch imported 30 Jersey cows, which also thrived. Encouraged by the success, the Agriculture Ministry imported 580 more Jersey cows in 1953, of which 140 were installed on Kiyosato-area farms.

A highland industry was born.

Meanwhile, however, along with Seisenryo, which he revived after the war, Rusch also established an experimental farm called the Kiyosato Educational Experimental Project, Inc., which is, to this day, among the area’s leading attractions.

However, commenting on those early, pioneering years of dairy farming in the Yamanashi hills, KEEP adviser Minoru Masaki recalls that it wasn’t an overnight boom. “The local people remained wary even after the initial success,” he said.

“But Rusch kept on providing free milk to local schools, and the children loved it. Later, adults started seeing how their children’s health improved, and they realized how good it was and they gradually saw the possibilities of dairy farming.”

Of the first experiment, Toru Komiyama, former chief of Yamanashi Prefecture’s animal husbandry section, recalls, “In winter, we were able to feed the Jersey cows on straw, corn husks, and sasa [stripped bamboos leaves], yet they still stayed strong, whereas Holsteins have to have grains that we couldn’t afford at that time.

“In summer, as we have ample grassland around Kiyosato, they just graze and then we milk them twice a day. Also, even though it is a small cow, at about 450 kg, a Jersey produces nearly half as much milk as a Holstein that weighs 675 kg.”

Nowadays, of course, the 250 Jersey cows in the area have a much better winter diet, including silage, grains and concentrates. And with improved access to the area, thousands of visitors every year who’ve likely never even heard the name Paul Rusch enjoy the creamy ice cream and yogurt made from their now-famous and sought-after milk that’s transformed an impoverished rural community beyond recognition in half a century.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.