May 13, 2014


Starting from Tohoku: Tohoku Kaikon Aims to Reform Primary Industry through Information Sharing and Communication

Keywords: Disaster Reconstruction Food Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.140 (April 2014)

Tohoku Kaikon Changing Society Through Food Issues

About 100,000 people have been abandoning farming every year in Japan. This decrease in the farming population is a food problem as well as problem of aging farmers.

"I would like to effect change in Japan, where people have lost the sense of owning their lives as a result of leaving the production of their clothing, food, and shelter as well as community development in the hands of others. To start with, I would like to see people to get involved actively in their most fundamental need, food. By doing so, each person will find 'home ground' for providing food to support their life. I hope people will enhance their connections with the sea, land and people that produce food, wherever possible," said Hiroyuki Takahashi from Iwate Prefecture, who established a nonprofit organization, Tohoku Kaikon -- literally translated as "cultivation of the Tohoku Region" -- in July 2013.

In contrast to urban areas where residents tend to be isolated, Tohoku still has a rich and varied natural environment and communities of mutually connected residents. Starting from Tohoku, Tohoku Kaikon aspires to restore a society where people, the sea and land exist in a mutually supporting manner. In this article, we will introduce the concepts and activities of Tohoku Kaikon.

A Better Society Means Better Food

With the theme, "A better society means better food," Tohoku Kaikon's mission is to provide people with access to the food issue. It aims to bringing people into a state of joint ownership of the process of bringing food to the table from the sea and land, while getting a feel for the ideas and philosophy of producers and taking part in a variety of ways. Tohoku Kaikon develops and offers unique services that enable people to experience the fun of getting involved in food and being committed to the society. It aims to connect production and consumption by selling products, providing tourism and educational services, while also contributing to the creation of homelands that sustain people's lives.

"Tohoku Taberu Tsushin" (Eating Tohoku Magazine)

One of its services is the publication of "Tohoku Taberu Tsushin," a monthly magazine focused entirely on food and the joy of eating. Each issue carries a story about a food producer in the Tohoku District and his or her star recipe ingredient, which is delivered together with the magazine.

Readers get information about the food item and its history as well as the personal story of the producer. They can cook the ingredient delivered with the magazine using a recipe from the magazine or in their own way. The magazine's readers form a group that communicates through a social networking site (SNS) where they post their own recipes, express thanks, or ask questions directly of the producers. Under the auspices of the magazine, connections are formed among readers as well as between readers and producers. As of March 2014, more than 1,000 persons subscribe to this magazine.

Tohoku Kaikon has also established a membership-based community to support individual food producers who are committed to high quality and good taste. By paying an annual fee, members provide financial support and share with producers the risks posed by weather and other variables at production sites. Thus, producers can concentrate on production without worrying about fluctuations in market prices.

Under this system, members receive high quality food products two or three times a year. In addition, they can receive various other services, such as exchanges with producers on Facebook. This program is called the "CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Service by Tohoku Taberu Tsushin" and is now underway.

What is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?

The expression, "community-supported agriculture (CSA)" may be new to some readers. CSA is a mechanism in which residents support rural farms by becoming members of a CSA organization. To support small-scale farms, members pay producers a certain amount of money in advance, and then periodically receive shares of food products. It has been said that the Japanese producer-consumer alliance movement of the 1970s has evolved and spread overseas. CSA is now popular in Europe, the United States and other countries as a new approach to agriculture.

Towards a Mutually Supportive Future

How do readers of Tohoku Taberu Tsushin and members of this CSA service interact with food producers? Takahashi responded to our questions about the current situation and future development.

Q. I feel that the name, Tohoku Kaikon, reflects a strong commitment. Could you tell us why this name was chosen?

A. It represents our aim to "bring under cultivation" a new frontier in our society, which is now filled with a sense of stagnation, by encouraging people in urban and rural areas to mingle with each other, with a focus on food, under the slogan of "a better society means better food."

Q: What brought you to take a look at CSA?

A. In our mass-consumption society, the prices of primary products have been kept low. Primary industries with their aging and dwindling workforces were also badly hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent slow sales caused by consumer concerns about safety. This has driven Tohoku's primary industries to extreme exhaustion. Meanwhile, in urban consumer society, people enjoy a convenient and easy lifestyle, but have few opportunities to work together with others to create something in an imaginative way. In such a situation, they risk losing their dreams and vitality.

I observed how young people who were searching for their place in society found their purpose in life through supporting reconstruction in disaster-hit areas, and some of them now regard those areas as their adopted hometown. So, I thought that a key to solving structural problems in consumer society could be to create a new uncharted community by connecting people in urban and rural areas based on common values. As an effective way to achieve this, I picked up on CSA.

Q: The Tohoku Taberu Tsushin website is promoting a CSA service in which consumers pay annual fees to producers they wish to support and receive products two to three times a year, while also directly connecting with producers through the SNS. How many consumers have joined this service so far?

A: Slightly over 100 people are now receiving this service.

Q: Six months have passed since Tohoku Taberu Tsushin started. How is the response? What changes do you see?

A: Catches and deliveries of a marine fish called "Donko" (a type of morid cod, Physiculus maximowiczi), which should have been sent to consumers together with the September issue, were delayed for about two months. But there were no claims from subscribers. In fact, as many as 60 encouraging and considerate comments were found on its Facebook group page, such as "We have to accept the delay because fishing is a business taking place in nature," and "It's one of my pleasures to wait." Consumers are changing into supporters who develop a deep understanding of producers' situations.

Q: What have been the responses of producers?

A: Producers who had no connections with each other so far began to enjoy horizontal ties through Tohoku Taberu Tsushin. Particularly in Fukushima, which is suffering a more complicated situation than the other prefectures, producers are beginning to establish a support system beyond regions or across industries involving areas like Aizu, Iwaki and Soma.

Q: How about communication between members receiving the CSA service and producers in the community?

A: Organizers have not been the ones to initiate events and tours; these generally come about when producers and members voluntarily have contacted each other. In the future, Tohoku Kaikon is planning to hold CSA meetings to share the problems producers have and clarify what members can do.

Q: How would you like to progress with Tohoku Taberu Tsushin?

A: Like the Shikoku Taberu Tsushin, we are planning to extend this Taberu Tsushin service beyond Tohoku to the entire country."

Shikoku Taberu Tsushin will be launched May 2014, and plans call for the extension of the Taberu Tsushin service to other areas such as Hokkaido and Tohoku's Higashi-Matsushima. We look forward to monitoring this movement aimed at creating a new energetic community and cultivating an exciting frontier with the ultimate goal of "Japan Kaikon."

Written by Noriko Takigami and Junko Edahiro