April 30, 2004



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.20 (April 2004)
"Unique NGOs in Japan" Article Series No.5


In recent years, movements to return to lifestyles that are more holistic and in harmony with nature have been spreading worldwide. In Japan, with the message "the food we eat is the environmental issue closest to our lives," ILFA (the International Life and Food Association) views food as a matter of environmental concern directly affecting our bodies, and advocates eating grains as the staple food for individuals and society.

Life expectancy in Japan at birth is currently 81.4 years, the longest in the world. The available data indicate, however, that this longevity record is due to the people born in the Meiji and early Taisho periods (i.e., prior to about 1920) who have maintained their traditional diet. Ironically, among people on nutritionally "improved" diets, half have lifestyle-related diseases, a third suffer allergic reactions such as atopic dermatitis, and a fifth are obese. While no one starving in Japan today, one cannot say that people are getting healthier.

ILFA was established in 1982 by its founder, Yumiko Otani, when she was 30 years old. In her earlier career Ms. Otani was active in the business world, planning various fancy products. When she ate millet for the first time, she was surprised to find it tasty, despite its image as an ancient, unpalatable, nutritionless food for the poor.

Contrary to what many people may think, millet and other "miscellaneous" grains were the staple food for the Japanese across the country from ancient times until 30 or 40 years ago. These grains are known to contain essential nutrients in balanced proportions that are good for the human body. In the past, people ate whole (unrefined) grains, sea salt and wild vegetables. Surprised by this fact, Ms. Otani and her family switched to a diet consisting of grains, vegetables, and seaweeds cooked with salt, soybean paste (miso) and soy sauce.

After her revelation, Ms. Otani launched ILFA to promote millet-based foods. Since that day, she has been developing and introducing simple and speedy ways to prepare millet dishes as well as recipes that suit modern tastes.

Currently, ILFA's research division, called "Future Food Atelier Fu (Wind)," promotes millet-based foods by creating new recipes (now exceeding 1,000 in number), holding seminars and cooking classes, and putting out publications.

To provide opportunities for people to become familiar with these recipes and millets, ILFA operates the "Tsubu Tsubu Cafe" offering a menu of related foods and the "Tsubu Tsubu Shop" selling these grains and cooking tools. ("tsubu tsubu" is a Japanese expression to describe something grainy.) ILFA also makes an effort to nurture millet producers by conducting a "Life Seed Campaign" every spring since 1997, where pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free millet seeds and millet growing manuals are sold. The organization, currently with 16 full-time and part-time staff, is financially independent and does not rely on any particular corporations or sponsors.

"There are several dozen kinds of grains in the world," says Ms. Otani, "but what we see now are mostly rice, wheat and corn. It is other types of 'miscellaneous' grains that people used to produce and eat traditionally in various regions."

For example, among native peoples of North America there is an old expression of the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash). Other grains include quinoa in the Andes of South America, and teff, pearl millet and amaranthus in Africa. In Japan, we have barnyardgrass, foxtail millet, sorghum, and buckwheat. Ms. Otani gave the nickname "tsubu tsubu" to these kinds of colorful and "unique" grains.

But why do we now have to pay attention to these "miscellaneous" grains? Ms.Otani enumerates the following reasons:

- Expansion and stabilization of the food supply: Miscellaneous grains can grow in poorer soil or colder areas compared to rice and wheat, and are resistant to aridity and climate change. They do not require irrigation or much fertilizer.

- Human health and nutrition: Miscellaneous grains contain dietary fiber and minerals in great quantity, as well as high quality protein and vegetable fat, and they are nutritionally well-balanced. The millet diet may solve malnutrition due to the widespread diets based on polished rice and wheat (highly processed grains can cause "hidden starvation" because they lose many of their nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals).

- Safety and sustainability: Miscellaneous grains are resistant to diseases and pests, and therefore easily grown without pesticides. They can be stored for a longer period of time after harvest. Their germinating capacity lasts for many years.

- No-meat diet: Miscellaneous grains can be used as main dishes. Miscellaneous grains are ideally suited for our staple food, since they contain protein, fat and starch in balanced proportions. Being fiber-rich, they require a lot of chewing, and they are tasty and rich in flavor, making it easier to switch to no-meat diets.

Are such grain diets widely supported in Japanese society now? Ms. Otani says, "Currently the graduates from our seminars operate some 10 Tsubu Tsubu Cafes across the country, and there are increasing numbers of restaurants that have introduced millet dishes based on our books. Most people had not even heard of "miscellaneous grains" 20 years ago. But now everyone is familiar with them and knows that they are good for health. Especially among artists, a millet diet has become something of a status symbol."

What's behind all this attention to millet food? Amid growing interest in
the "slow food" movement (in contrast to "fast food"), more and more people think of millet food as "the" slow food of Japan. Some people also relate its popularity with a concern for the international food security issue.

"Our customer base for the Tsubu Tsubu Cafe has changed in the past 20 years. We used to have customers eating alone quietly, but now we have a variety of visitors enjoying meals with friends and family members in a more friendly atmosphere, just like any other restaurant," says Ms. Otani. She also mentions that a wider range of people are now participating in our seminars.

In March 2004, ILFA launched a magazine (three issues per year) featuring millet food recipes and related lifestyles. While natural food books usually sell only 3,000 to 5,000 copies at most, ILFA's magazine has achieved a circulation of 10,000 copies to deliver unbiased information on safe food, and without corporate advertisements.

Where is ILFA headed? "To those wishing to change themselves, I have taught techniques to nurture their sprit and body with millet food. However, many of them were unable to continue due to social pressure. From now on, I want to promote millet as the food of the future, that can eventually be even more recognized by society as the stable food rich in nutrition," says Ms. Otani. She now proposes a "correlative" food study that goes beyond dietetics. In this study, relationships between food and cooking, as well as between mind and body, are approached through broadly-defined natural sciences including dietetics, physiology, and the art of divination.

Her strong desire to deliver "real food" that is good for both the inner workings of the body and those of the earth is described in simple language in the Tsubu Tsubu magazine as follows:

What does it mean to eat?
What is food?
We are what we eat.
So eating is vital to our lives.

And yet, food has become like an industrial product.
It is no longer blessed by nature and the land.
Food at supermarkets has no sign of life.
It's convenient, fast, and appeals to the palate of many,
but lacks something important..

It's not something complex like calorie calculations or nutritional balance.

You know it when you eat "real food."

Fresh food grown on the land energizes your mind and body.
When you feel energized,
you have a peaceful mind filled with joy.
You then want to cherish the land, food, water and people.
And in the end your mind is refreshed and your life becomes simpler
even before you know it..

(Staff Writer Kazunori Kobayashi)