HARVESTING HOPE FOR FARMS IN JAPAN
Kizuna - the Bonds of Friendship
By Kara Chu, 9th Grade OCO Octagon President
I raced off the bullet train this summer, smiling widely with excitement at seeing my old friend, Mr. Ootomo. The last time I saw him four years ago, he was watering his vegetables with only a bucket in his determination to resume farming. It was then that I saw first-hand how the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan had completely and mercilessly obliterated his local farming community.
Mr. Ootomo welcomed us back with open arms. It was so great to see him again! At the train station, huge paper decorations for the Sendai Tanabata festival swayed colorfully. Thanks to the mentorship and coordination from Mr. Glenn Tanaka, we were also joined by our wonderful translator, Ms. Tina, and two deserving students, Genta Takahashi and Minori Goto, on scholarship from the Orange Coast Optimist Club (OCO) and Tanaka Farm's yearly June fundraiser in Irvine, Walk the Farm.
We all piled into his van, and as we drove through town, I solemnly noticed a highway overpass with a line that marked where the water level had reached during the tsunami. There was also a new super tall structure designated as an emergency shelter in case of a future tsunami. Newer temporary housing caught my eye, looking more like apartments than the hurriedly built rectangular portables I saw back in 2013.I learned that depression and domestic violence continue to be a cruel reality for residents. I was told the temporary housing units were all full, and about 230,000 people are still in temporary housing in Japan.
Many of us saw the horror of the earthquake and tsunami on the news. We watched the waves crush everything in its path. We watched homes and cars destroyed. Lives lost forever. What we did not see was the recovery from the disaster and how the Japanese people persevered through so much tragedy with "gaman." Gaman is a Japanese term which means "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity." Seven years later, through all of this stoic suffering, recovery and reconstruction are actively still ongoing.
Today, I would visit farmers that have received aid from the Walk the Farm fundraiser. We drove to a nearby farm, and after proudly showing me her restored small but flourishing plot of land, Farmer Kayoko firmly grasped my hands with her own worn and weathered hands. With her stooped shoulders, slight frame and grandmotherly glasses, I was surprised by the strength of her grip. I was then taken aback when she bowed so low and deeply towards me, a mere teenager. With raw emotion, she told me to tell everyone thank you for helping her family rebuild her swept-away home and farm. She said she was so grateful for everyone's support and all the blessings that kizuna has brought.
Kizuna. Before this trip, the only association I had with the word "kizuna" was with gokizuna.org, which provides valuable programs for Japanese American youth. I didn't know what the word meant. Kizuna means bonds and connections. One month after the devastation in 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke of kizuna as the "bonds of friendship" as he described how over 130 nations and 40 international organizations swiftly came to Japan's aid. Throughout the day, the farmers kept mentioning kizuna and stressed with appreciation the importance of these local and international relationships in their recovery process. Every cloud has a silver lining. For the farmers, that silver lining has been kizuna.
In 2013, Mr. Ootomo's dream had been to move out of temporary housing into a permanent home. I was so happy to see a newly built house in the field we had visited four years before! He still grows fruits and vegetables, but he was sad to say that he had retired from farming. He is older, and it is too difficult for him to farm. Rather, he and his wife help the farming community by hosting events in their home. They arrange activities such as informative talks, sewing classes, exercise sessions, day-trips and picnics to lessen post-traumatic stress and anxiety for survivors. They also organize and deliver donated food to temporary housing residents. Mr. and Mrs. Ootomo feel that it is their mission to lift the spirits and to create and deepen kizuna within their community. He and his wife give their heartfelt thanks to Walk the Farm for providing financial and emotional support to the farming community in Idohama.
Farmer Sachio and Farmer Keiko, husband and wife, shared with us their horrific ordeal on that March 11th. Just as they began to describe it, Farmer Keiko began to cry, overcome with the memories from that day. When she began to speak, her words choked me up as they described their terrifying chain of events and showed us their pictures. Farmer Sachio was away from the farm when the tsunami surged through their community. Luckily, Farmer Keiko was able to run up to the second floor before the water inundated the first floor. However, four new tractors that they had just bought were swept away. One even turned on its side and slammed against their front door, trapping her inside overnight all by herself. The next day, her frantic husband was able to reach her by climbing on top of the tractor and smashing a window. I could not imagine going through that all by myself like Farmer Keiko bravely had; nor could I imagine the desperation Farmer Sachio must have felt in his efforts to reach her.
Their home was destroyed, and their farm decimated. After replacing the contaminated dirt with mountain soil, they resumed farming on only one third of the field they had before the tsunami. We saw the organic vegetables they grow and sell like cucumbers, green beans and Romanesco cauliflower. Later, I would instantly flash back to their uniquely-shaped Romanesco when we received it back home at the New Year Mochitsuki celebration at Tanaka Farms. What a coincidence! It reminded me of how small our world really is and how connected we are to each other with kizuna.
Next, we visited Mr. Hiroki Iwasa. He looked like a surfer dude (which he is!) He is also both a successful 41 year old IT venture businessman with an MBA and a strawberry farmer who is known as a pioneer in Agri-Tech in Japan. He has been a speaker at TEDx, Google, and even here in the city of Detroit to talk about using technology to revitalize declining cities into successful and sustainable communities based on their best asset, like agriculture. His innovation in farming has led to his inclusion in an elementary school science textbook. He even checks his crops on a Segway with a tablet in hand - that's one cool dude!
Mr. Iwasa was living in Tokyo in 2011, but three days after the disaster, he rushed to help his coastal hometown, Yamamoto-cho in the Miyagi prefecture. There, the 33 feet high waves swept away 125 out of the 129, or a heartbreaking 95% of all the strawberry greenhouses. Many of the survivors' livelihoods were destroyed, and they were left with very little except each other.
Mr. Iwasa knew that he had to help after seeing the devastation. He started off volunteering with the clean-up efforts. He approached the city's elders, and they pleaded with him to create jobs in their city. Their own sons and daughters and other young residents had left for bigger cities to find work. For the younger generation, farming was no longer considered a viable career option, highlighted by the average age for farmers being 67, the high costs of small field farming, and the 25% fall in agriculture's contribution to the economy.
An entrepreneur since elementary school, Iwasa had no farming experience. His only work experience had been in his startup IT ventures, but he did not let that stop him to do what he could for his kizuna. He decided to "put the thought into action, work hard, and achieve." So, he thought about what made his city unique and marketable. Yamamoto was known for its delicious strawberries. His own grandfather had grown strawberries there 50 years ago. Iwasa was determined to help rebuild his hometown by getting younger generations more involved and interested in agriculture by reviving the local strawberry industry.
Amazingly, he and his his co-founders, Tadatsugu and Yohei Hashimoto, created General Reconstruction Agency Group (GRA, Inc.) in July of 2011, just a few short months after the earthquake and tsunami struck. Iwasa learned the traditional techniques of growing strawberries, but he realized the grueling hours and long 15 year learning curve would discourage younger generations to farm. Other roadblocks included the lack of resources in raising the capital needed for a farm and farm equipment, the ability to consistently produce a quality product, the establishment of reliable sales, and the attainment of a desirable work-life balance.
Iwasa took risks and used unprecedented methods for producing the strawberries. Due to the contaminated soil, he adapted by planting his berries in "benches" that are about one meter above the ground. He used his experience in coding to create cutting-edge technology for strawberry greenhouses using one hundred sensors and custom climate-control software to manage temperature, irrigation, nutrients, pests without pesticides, humidity and sunshine to grow high-quality strawberries. GRA utilizes information and communication technology such as cloud and even big data analysis for these state-of-the-art greenhouses. Incredible!
Iwasa planted fifty-five different types of strawberries, most of them failures, to find the best one. The best varieties for Yamamoto were determined to be the Tochiotome and Mo Ikko varieties. They named these strawberries, Migaki Ichigo, which means "strawberry gems." Just one of his deliciously sweet strawberries with its diamond logo can sell for $10 each in high-end department stores in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The strong brand recognition for his high quality and stable supply of products has tripled the price of his strawberries. He also sells strawberries to supermarkets and through online sales, and he has come up with products including strawberry beverages and skincare that will sustain business when the strawberries are not in season.
"I want to get people to think agriculture is cool," Iwasa enthusiastically exclaimed. "I want them to know that even from a small Miyagi town, you can expand worldwide. I want Japanese farmers to know Japanese agriculture can be a global success." Thanks in part to advances in Agri-Tech in Japan, farm workers under the age of 49 increased from 18,000 in 2010 to 23,000 in 2015, although retiring farmers have resulted in an overall decline in total farmers. To generate interest in farming in even younger generations, GRA organizes tours for junior high and high school students. Iwasa's farm, Ichigo World (Strawberry World), has become a popular tourist farm destination, and attracts over 10,000 visitors worldwide annually. I know I would love to visit their Ichigo World and do their all-you-can-pick-and-eat!
GRA has purposefully started a strawberry academy to educate young farmers and support them until they can start their own farms. Since there were no hotels in the area, GRA built its own dormitory just for them. Academy farmers are given training for a full year and then provided help to locate, set-up, and build their own greenhouses. This gives them the safety-net to quit a current job and see agriculture as a feasible career option. Afterwards, GRA supports them by remotely monitoring their environmental data, offering advice, sharing cultivating techniques and fine-tuning equipment set-up. Additionally, these new farmers are given help with branding their products and establishing sales channels for dependable revenue. In this way GRA supports farmers to increase productivity, lower costs, use less resources like water and pesticides, decrease labor, and improve crops for maximum profits. Wow!
Walk the Farm is supporting Yasuhito Naito with quarterly donations over the next five years. This young man traveled to Sendai to volunteer with clean up, and like Iwasa, he is now passionate about helping rebuild the region. He quit his job in the city and returned to Yamamoto-cho to become a farmer. His goal is to train eleven new farmers over the next five years. We look forward to seeing his progress!
Not only was I so appreciative of the opportunity to meet and be inspired by Mr. Iwasa, but our two scholarship recipients were as well!
Genta Takahashi was the first recipient of a four-year Walk the Farm scholarship. He is a student at Iwate University, majoring in Agriculture. His home was damaged by the tsunami, and he remembers going hungry for a period of time during the disaster. It motivated him to want to study agriculture and somehow be a part of the solution to prevent that from happening again. He wants to be a "power of reconstruction" in the Miyagi area and to engage in the production, processing, and research of food. He was very interested in Mr. Iwasa's use of technology with agriculture to help reconstruct Yamamoto. Genta was inspired by the farmers' enthusiasm and perseverance who never gave up even with repeated and disheartening failures.
Minori Goto, another scholarship recipient from Iwate University, has been studying nutrition and biochemistry. She plans to contribute to the safety and security of food made in the Tohoku area. Minori hopes to do this by evaluating the radioactivity and agricultural chemicals in local food. She was inspired by Mr. Iwasa, and she will never forget his story of progress and recovery.
Mr. Iwasa's story was so inspiring to me because although he didn't know a thing about strawberry farming, he created a better method to grow strawberries by focusing on the skills he did have in IT and saved his ailing hometown. His story of being rejected by department store fruit buyers even when he brought free mouth-watering strawberry samples EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR SIX STRAIGHT MONTHS until he finally got a sales order shows me that I can succeed even when I fail hundreds of times.
He opened my eyes to skills-based volunteering and social entrepreneurship to achieve innovative change for social, cultural and environmental challenges. I also learned about the Japanese concept of ikigai which means the passion that brings meaning to life: Find out what you love; find out what you're good at; find out what you can get paid to do, and find out what the world needs you to do. Mr. Iwasa has taught me to have confidence in my dreams, to never give up, to question traditional ways of doing things(sorry Mom and Dad!), and to always take action by collaborating and giving back to others to my hometown of Irvine and my Japanese American community - my kizuna.
So, please join me in our annual fundraiser, Walk the Farm, at Tanaka Farms in Irvine on June 16th! It is a one and half mile walk around the farm, and you get to sample yummy fruits and vegetables along the way. Visit WalkTheFarm.org for more information and to register or donate now! Walk the Farm not only supports Japanese farmers, but it has also aided our own local farmers here in the U.S. that have suffered from natural disasters such as the tornadoes in Oklahoma and the drought that impacted farming families in Central California. Currently we are looking at ways to assist farmers in Hawaii affected by recent flood and volcanic activity. So when you sign up for Walk the Farm, or sign up to volunteer, or become a sponsor, know that you are strengthening your kizuna here and across the globe!