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Barry Duell

Last year Barry Duell published a book that he wrote in Japanese. This year he is putting it out in English. Its title indicates its unusual content: “The Other Potato: Sweet Potato in the U.S.A.” Duell said that when he was considering the book he found few sources of information. “The biggest source was cookbooks. They deal with only cooking. There are technical books, aimed at the researcher. But there was a gap in good, broad information for the average person.” Duell set himself the task of filling the gap.

As an aficionado of the sweet potato, and as a teacher, he is the ideal person to make his subject better known. It is his mission. He has been zealous since his Sophia University days, when in his work on cultural anthropology he chose, he said, “the sweet potato as something to focus on for my master’s thesis.”

Before getting so far as Japan and Sophia University, Duell had belonged to Oregon. The eldest son of a chemistry professor, Duell said that he, too, had set his heart on being a chemist. “Then I toyed with the idea of running a restaurant or a bakery. Liberal arts opened my eyes to many other ventures, and I took my degree in natural science. Before I graduated, I came here for one semester of Japanese studies.”

He liked his experience in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, very much. He also met his future wife. “She could already speak English and German, and had been teaching flower arrangement in Germany. She and her mother were used to foreign folk, and were a host family on weekends for foreign students. I stayed in their house.” Two years later, he and Masako married. She has followed a career teaching English in a public high school.

Their first child is about to do in reverse what his father did nearly 30 years ago. He is leaving Kawagoe to enter graduate school in America. His subject has a family ring. It is chemistry.

Duell has the status of full professor of English at Tokyo International University. He is also teaching cultural anthropology, “in English as much as possible.”

He has devoted himself to Kawagoe since he went to live there. Early on, with the sweet potato his specialty, he and a friend organized an adult continuing education program, conducted at the Community Cultural Center, on the sweet potato. Duell said: “We considered the history of the sweet potato, growing it, cooking it. We looked at it from an anthropological point of view. In the second year, we focused on other aspects.”

That program led to the organization Kawagoe Friends of Sweet Potatoes, which included “some very obscure groups: farmers concerned with Kawagoe’s special variety, a sweet potato digging association, makers of sweet potato ‘senbei.’ We also had cooking teachers, dietitians, researchers in nutrition. The group’s activities are toned down now, but it still exists.” The Kawagoe Sweet Potato Museum still exists too, funded by a sweet potato restaurateur.

His avocation has made Duell a frequent traveler. The International Society of Tropical Root Crops has taken him twice to conferences in the Caribbean, and to Thailand. He has also been delegated to India, the Philippines, Brazil and the U.S.

He helps receive overseas visitors to Japan, some of whom specialize in plant diseases, others interested in new varieties, and chemists concerned with what goes on inside plants.

Most interested in the cultural side, Duell gives presentations on how the sweet potato is used in Japan. “It is used in more different ways here from any other country that I know of,” he said. He has taken visitors to a brewery that produces sweet potato beer, to a farm to see the sweet potato being grown and the harvesting machines that are used, to a processing factory, the museum and restaurant kitchens. He is very keen on looking out for the packing boxes in which sweet potatoes are transported.

Two other local organizations claim Duell’s time and attention. He founded one of them, the Kawagoe-Salem Friendship Society. For a dozen years this society took groups every summer from Kawagoe to Salem, Duell’s hometown in Oregon. Kawagoe set up the other group, the Kawagoe Foreign Residents Board. The board’s purpose is to facilitate understanding between the city government and the 3,000-strong foreign community. The International Center Kawagoe, due for completion in 2002, is designed to further communication and understanding between non-Japanese and the Japanese majority in Kawagoe. Duell is chairman of the Kawagoe Foreign Residents Board.

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