Three women practitioners engaging in satoyama and satoumi-based activities discussed their thoughts during a panel discussion at the Japan Times Satoyama Consortium symposium in Tokyo on May 16.
The term satoyama has evolved to refer to caring for, and capitalizing on, natural resources in rural communities, while satoumi is the cultivation of the sea by area residents.
The speakers were Chie Ishino of Ishino Suisan, a fishery company in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture; Chika Tsubouchi from the Ghibli-Hagi Oshima Sendanmaru fishing fleet in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture; and Naoko Oshima from Youbi Co., a wooden furniture and architecture company in Nishiawakura, Okayama Prefecture.
All three hold leadership roles in their respective fields, and of all the qualities and ambitions each one has in leading their businesses, the discussion revealed three things that they have in common: the passion to connect with, and hand things down to, the next generation, communication skills and the ability to handle multiple tasks and roles.
The session was moderated by Tadashi Matsushima, owner of Setouchi Jam’s Garden in Suo Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Ishino had originally left Kashima Island where her family runs the company producing small dried sardines called chirimenjako, to receive higher education in search of a better future than what she could expect in her hometown.
However, after having built a successful career in various cities far from home, she returned to the island to improve the sales of Ishino Suisan by introducing ways to sell their products directly to end consumers instead of wholesaling to fish markets.
One of her motivations is that she wants to pass down the beautiful sea and fields to her children’s generation.
“These assets will be gone if we don’t continue to engage with them,” she said. “I want my children to be proud of what they have here.”
Meanwhile, Tsubouchi binds together the local fishermen of Hagi in Yamaguchi to form Hagi Oshima Sendanmaru, a fishing company that also engages in the so-called sixth industry, the combination of the primary industry with processing and retailing.
The fishermen put prices on the fish they catch and deliver them directly from the ships to restaurants and individual customers.
Before she led the group, they had only followed the conventional approach of selling fish to the local fishing cooperative where the prices were determined. However, the overall fishing business was shrinking due to a combination of different factors, including a decline in individual consumption.
Fishing in general has a long history of being a male-oriented industry. “So the fishermen had always been focused on providing what was wanted at the already existing exit. But now we are drilling holes in a wall that has no exits,” Tsubouchi said.
The fishermen’s community is fully aware that there is need for change, but typically they are not keen on trying something that has not ever been done before.
“Without changes, we cannot keep the younger generation from giving up fishing,” she said.
In the meantime, Oshima was the only speaker who represented entrepreneurs from a mountainous area. She is a furniture designer and carpenter at Youbi. The motto of the company is “Crafting things that will make beautiful scenery in the future.”
“It takes 50 years for a tree to grow before it can be used to make a piece of furniture, and we expect the customer to use the furniture for the next 50 years,” she said. “We, as a maker, act as a go-between as if handing down the scenery itself.”
Oshima also suggested that communication plays an important role in running a sustainable business in rural areas. Youbi’s first studio completely burned down several years ago.
As the rebuilding project started, it was not only the nine staff members who got involved. The communication and connections they had built, not only with their customers, but also with the people inside and outside of the local community, brought 600 volunteers to the construction site in Nishiawakura, which only has a population of around 1,500.
The new studio that opened in May also plans to start accommodating overnight visitors from July. This will further stimulate communication between the makers and consumers.
“A piece of quality furniture is a big purchase. It takes time to make a decision. So we would also like to facilitate a relaxing time for our customers to think or speak with family members,” Oshima said.
Ishino also values interactions with customers. Selling chirimenjako directly to consumers at trade fairs, department stores and the like was a new trial for her family.
“We needed to think about how to get the attention of the people who had no idea who we were,” she said. “So we used transparent cups and heaped them with chirimenjako. Moreover, we talked to the people walking past our shop and offered them a chance to taste a spoonful.”
Ishino Suisan has also started to accept short visits from the passengers of guntu, a cruise ship run by Setouchi Cruise. The visitors can see the processing factory and the surrounding area as part of their off-ship activities.
“Honestly, I don’t like (conventional) tourism,” said Ishino. “People drop by and just leave trash behind. So we treat our guests as if they are our close friends.”
Tsubouchi agreed with Ishino, stressing that the sense of involvement is important in accepting visitors from outside. Hagi Oshima Sendanmaru is also starting a fishermen’s guesthouse from June. Guests will wear the same uniform as the fishermen during their stay and experience life at the fishing port.
To conclude the discussion and find clues as to how the society can encourage more women to use their abilities to revitalizing satoyama and satoumi, Matsushima asked the speakers if there are things that could be improved.
Oshima pointed out that it is short-sighted to think that forestry-related governmental support is the only thing that is needed by the people in the forestry region.
A wider range of support can allow multiple projects to go on at the same time. Such support includes a good water and sewerage system to be able to accept visitors, a reliable internet infrastructure to help create new business opportunities through connections with the rest of the world, among others.
“To expand the business to the field of hospitality, nurseries that can look after our children on weekends would help, too,” she said.
Ishino stressed that it is important to gain a better understanding about their work style from the labor market to attract more new workers.
“We are working with nature. We take a day off when a typhoon hits our area. Working hours vary depending on the season. Our routine is not the same all throughout the year,” she said.
Matsushima concluded the session by saying that they are living a fusion of work and life, playing multiple roles and creating new values.