November 30, 2003



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.15 (November 2003)
"Report on Environmental Education" Article Series No.4

The October issue of the JFS Newsletter introduced the movement of "Jimoto-gaku," or local study, that emerged in Minamata City, Japan. In the last few years, this new movement to "rediscover one's community" has been growing throughout Japan, in which local people develop a new appreciation for the many unique lifestyle, historical, cultural, and natural assets around them, while being aware of outside influences. Another type of "Jimoto-gaku" focusing on regional food has been emerging in Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku region. This month, the article series explores the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, and introduces stories by one of the advocates of "Jimoto-gaku," Mr. Tomio Yuki, an amateur ethnologist.

"No convenience store: A hopeless village?"

Miyazaki Town is a small town in Miyagi Prefecture with 6,000 people in 1,500 households. Every autumn since 1999, the town's gymnasium has been filled with homemade dishes prepared by locals to celebrate the annual local food festival. Participants feast on about a thousand food items, ranging from Japanese to Western and Chinese. One can see the kinds of foods they eat day-to-day just by coming here.

Miyazaki Town has many elderly residents. Take a 70 year-old women, for instance. Suppose she married at the age of 20. If she prepared three meals a day, 365 days a year, a simple calculation shows that she has cooked 50,000 meals in 50 years! Those who bring homemade dishes vary from a 12 year-old girl to a 92 year-old grandmother. One can feel the "power of food" that resides in the region.

"This town has nothing." Until five years ago, people here used to lament the absence of a convenience store, a family restaurant, and a large supermarket, and looked down on their town as "backward." The residents were looking outward, not inward toward their own town. They desired what large cities had and they didn't have, negatively evaluating their hometown.

In psychological terms, this is called "subject at a distance." Humans have a tendency to look for value in distant subjects rather than in near ones. We tend to believe that the truth is not here, but out there.

But in this town that has "nothing," each house has a small field that yields 50 to 60 kinds of vegetables throughout the year. Nearby mountains provide wild edible plants in the spring, and mushrooms, nuts, and fruits in the autumn. A pristine river running through the town provides local fish including miller's-thumb, landlocked salmon, mountain trout, and sweet fish. These fresh seasonal foods are cooked and prepared for daily meals. Surplus harvests are preserved as jam, pickles, and other preserved food, and passed down to the next generation with the wisdom and skill.

Through the food festival, people in Miyazaki town have rediscovered the precious assets in their town. This town, which enjoys harmony between nature, industry, and people's lifestyles, did not need a typical convenience store or large supermarket in the first place.

"A town without consumer products has nothing at all?"

Kitakami town in Miyagi Prefecture has 4,000 people. The town is known for producing just a few types of edible seaweed and freshwater clams. Assessing this town with an economic yardstick, Kitakami town has no real industry and no product to sell to consumers in large cities.

But a survey of 13 female residents in the town showed that they grow over 300 types of food in a year. They harvest about 90 crops in their gardens, 40 kinds of wild vegetables in "satoyama" (forests created and managed in conjunction with human activities, as introduced in the article above), and 30 species of mushrooms. Some 20 kinds of freshwater fish, eel and freshwater clams, are caught in the nearby Kitakami River. People there say "delicious seasonal foods come from rice fields, farms, rivers, the ocean, and the mountains in all seasons." Yet, an economic yardstick suggests that this town probably has nothing to offer, just like Miyazaki Town, because there are no convenience stores, family restaurants, and shopping malls here.

By working together with "people of the wind" (people from outside the town), "people of the earth" (the locals) have realized the uniqueness of their culture, the richness of their food, and the comfortable lifestyles. They have begun a project to teach children about regional food and customs on a community level. In the past, people would prepare meals and eat together at a communal table, but today there are typically only two kinds of table in Japan, one at home and another at the restaurant. At this third table, local people exchange recipes and skills, teach children the regional flavors, and bestow wonderful memories of local foods.

"From 'borrowed' vision to 'inner' vision"

Rural towns and villages often suffer from a negative self-image. Agricultural villages in particular, are seen as being backward, with aging populations, poor living standards and the lack of cultural facilities and buildings, and people assume that they need to be "modernized" quickly. City dwellers often perceive country villages with this image, and rural people themselves have often damaged their own surroundings, with their eyes only on modernizing to become like the big cities.

Through the study of "Jimoto-gaku" on food, I have reconfirmed the importance of rediscovering one's community through the eyes of the local people. A "good" place is where nature, industry, and nature coexist in harmony, where there is a will to conserve the environment, people don't judge everything by an economic yardstick, and a person can enjoy life based on one's own values. Let us start living enjoyable lives, enriching ourselves and reconnecting with the people around us, and feel the "en" (connection) with the local region.

If someone says to you, "we have many valuable assets in our town and it's a good place," you will want to visit the town. Destroying local assets to attract non-locals for short-term gains is like overlooking the forest for the trees. Why not inspire non-locals to be fond of your town so that they will become repeat visitors instead of building a big facility to lure tourists who will visit just once? This "Jimoto-gaku" on food has given me a change to glimpse that sustainable development is also being sought at the local community level.

Reference: Niigata Jimoto-gaku Forum, "Kaze-ni-kike, Tsuchi-ni-Kike"

(Staff writer Ayako Takahashi)