While his two brothers followed their father into local government service, Akimi Fujimoto took a different path. “My father had two working lives, as a government official and helping my mother farm our land in Niigata. There was no way I ever wanted a desk job.”
At high school, Akimi scouted academic institutions for a degree course in agriculture. He chose the third-oldest in Japan, founded in 1891 by Takeaki Enomoto to promote “practical science.” “We became Tokyo University of Agriculture in 1925.”
TUA was Akimi’s choice because it was the only university with a department of international agricultural development, training not only Japanese but students from developing countries. “From childhood I dreamed of going overseas, drawn by stories of Japanese farming in Brazil and Hawaii. Then in 1965, when I was 15, the Peace Boat Corps came to Japan. Suddenly the rest of the world seemed much closer.”
Akimi began his career in Malaysia, researching rice farming. “From 1973 to ’75, I worked on my master’s. It was during this time I met my Australian wife, Helen. She was in Kuala Lumpur, finishing her own degree.” He and Helen spent the 1970s going backward and forward between Australia and Malaysia, even coauthoring a book, “Jalan Jalan,” meaning “Wandering Around” in Malay. “I did my survey in one village while she wrote the manuscript, based on her daily life, in another.”
They went to Australia together, but he couldn’t find a job. “So I went back to university, this time to Flinders in Adelaide, where Helen’s family lived.” His Ph.D. dissertation? “Land Tenure, Rice Production and Income Sharing Among Malay Peasants.” “I based my findings on production management in four villages in two locations, for a theoretical framework towards income sharing to alleviate poverty.”
In 1983 Singapore University Press published a book on what Akimi calls “my theory,” which sold out. A Canadian researcher then published a book that disagreed with everything Akimi had written. “Oh well,” he says, shrugging philosophically. By this time he had tenure at his old university. (Returning to Japan in 1980, Akimi had taught English in Niigata while waiting for his Ph.D. to be confirmed. Soon after he was hired by TUA.)
After a decade developing comparative studies in land tenure, Akimi’s interest moved on from rice to growing vegetables and concentrating on sustainable development. This evolved into what he calls “double eco” — “eco-eco” — for ecologically sound, economically viable farming systems.
“Food security is an urgent issue. We’re conducting trials in the Malaysian highlands, focusing on using pesticides every three days only, and not at all the day before harvesting. We are also ‘companion planting.’ In this case tomatoes protect cabbage from the diamond back moth. It’s so interesting.”
Japan is way behind in facing the problems of food security. Because the climate is hot and humid, and consumers demand perfect-looking products, farmers use seven times more pesticides than any other country.
Current thinking regards globalization of food as dangerous. “Food travels so far. Each area should have its local production and consumption system. For the sake of future generations, we should know what we’re eating.”
In 1999, Akimi helped pioneer a five-year Academic Frontier Research Project. Last year this was extended for another five-year period. “As project leader, I’m trying to convert conventional farming into organic farming. Our efforts can be followed in Journal of ISSAAS, published by the International Society for Southeast Asian Agricultural Sciences.”
He travels farther afield these days. “As secretary general of ISSAAS, I was in Hanoi, Vietnam, in December, helping organize a congress and workshop. Some 100 concerned individuals attended from seven countries, discussing modern organic farming. Also we made our first award, to President Arroyo of the Philippines, an economist with a strong interest in rural agriculture.”
Akimi’s concern is not just food safety but what we’re going to live on in the future. Japanese farmers are now on average aged 60. “Who is going to grow our food? When this second phase of research is completed, I plan a model business farm in Niigata, which can give rural experience to city people.”
In his positions as director of international programs and professor in the Department of International Bio-Business Studies, Akimi had the idea of organizing an International Students’ Summit at TUA. The first ISS, with delegates from nine countries, met in late 2001. The result was the “Tokyo Declaration” concerning the urgency of food safety, published across two pages in the Mainichi Shimbun.
Twenty nations were represented in 2004. Now Akimi is working toward ISS 2005 on the impact of international trade on the agricultural environment and food issues.
All this — a department with 800 students, 180 of whom are from abroad — together with cooperative research cooperatives in Southeast Asian countries, and a farmer in Niigata assisting in organic rice trials — costs money. But it seems TUA and the government are equally committed.
“There’s a rapidly growing awareness. My problem is not so much money, but time. I have lots of money. No, I need cloning, at least five more of me to do as much as I want with the time I have.”
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