BOOK REVIEWThe cooperative that could
An inspiring account of a remote Japanese hamlet that dared to go its own way, at its own pace, and is now held up as a shining example, a successful alternative to top-down, capital-intensive development
|Prasopkarn Ying-yai Nai Mooban Lek Lek|
Translated by Muthita Panich from 'Gokkun Umajimaru No Mura Okoshi'
By Otoshi Masahiko
Suan Ngern Mee Ma, 283 pages, 190 baht
Almost 20 years ago, a Thai translation of One Straw Revolution, written by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, was published here. It contributed greatly to boosting our nascent, organic-agriculture movement and struck a somewhat romantic chord among a section of the urban population, even inspiring some individuals to abandon the city for a life of toil in the fields.
Now we have Muthita Panich's translation of another Japanese book, which could be described as a sequel to Fukuoka's classic. On the surface, however, Prasopkarn Ying-yai Nai Mooban Lek Lek (Great Experiences from a Small Village) seems like the antithesis of Fukuoka's "do-nothing farming" maxim. The people of Umaji, a village on Shikoku, the same island where Fukuoka's farm is located, embarked on several experiments - with varying degrees of success. But fundamentally, Fukuoka and the Umaji folk share the same drive and goal: Both believe in the value of agriculture, particularly on a small scale, seeing it as the backbone of a nation. Both want people to withstand the lure of the city, which draws so many youths away from the countryside every year. And both have proven that farming can be a dignified career, a life-long process of marvellous learning which can bestow great contentment.
Another coincidence: The tree that plays a vital role in both books is the orange, a heavily promoted cash crop in Japan, as it is here. In his early years as a farmer, Fukuoka managed to wipe out hundreds of his mandarin-orange trees because he refused to follow the methods - pruning and the spraying of chemical pesticides - that had largely been adopted by his contemporaries. But, finally, he stumbled upon the "natural pattern" of the orange - and of many other species, too. Labour being scarce (the village population in 1998 was only 1,269), the farmers of Umaji had to leave their backyard groves of yuzu - Citrus junos (Rutaceae), a sour, Japanese citrus fruit about the size of a tangerine - in the hands of Mother Nature. Thus, yuzu from the area were not "shapely" in the commercial sense and commanded very low prices on the open market.
Along came Uncle Moujifoumi Toutani and some friends of his. An "ordinary section head" of the Umaji Village Farming Cooperative Society, he is depicted in Prasopkarn Ying-yai as a hot-headed, idiosyncratic individual - yet one who is totally devoted to his birthplace. His stubbornness and creativity are contagious, though. Unable to sell the odd-shaped yuzu, the villagers came up with a tart dressing made from its juice mixed with shoyu (Japanese soya sauce); it imparts an unforgettable aroma and taste to sushi, sukiyaki and other traditional dishes. Still, it took them several more years and trips to numerous trade fairs before sales of their product finally got off the ground.
In 1988, this dressing won a gold award in the 101 Village Products Contest organised by a department-store chain. The volume of orders doubled the following year to 200 million yen - and by 1997 had reached 1.8 billion yen. In 1996, this and five other products from Umaji were listed in the top-10 most popular products from Kochi Prefecture.
But there's a big lesson to be learned here, too, for Umaji folk as well as those operating other cottage industries: Don't go big. Prasopkarn Ying-yai is peppered with anecdotes, often comical, about mistakes the villagers made in the past. Uncle Moujifoumi summed it up well when he told the writer:
"The bigger the company, the more heartless the work becomes. Our village cooperative is a tiny one, so we should go slowly as we're used to doing.
"After all, it's much more fun that way."
Unlike the rationale behind our present government's One Tambon One Product (Otop) programme, the people of Umaji realised early on that they couldn't rely only on a single means of earning a living. From the yuzu dressing, Uncle Moujifoumi and his team branched out, launching a score of other products and projects: Fresh, ready-to-drink orange juice; reprocessed organic fertiliser (distributed free of charge to local farmers); a communal hot spa resort; the revival of a railway service through the forest; a one-stop information centre; an annual marathon race; and, for a few years, a series of subsidised, matchmaking trips to the village for city girls as part of a "population boosting" scheme.
Last but not least, Umaji has become a "product" in its own right. Thanks to atypical strategic planning that plays up the rustic image of this remote hamlet in the hills, its name has become synonymous with rural entrepreneurship. At the time when the book was published (1998), some 2,000 people were visiting every year to learn the "secrets" of these island folk. And here the author of Prasop-karn Ying-yai, journalist Otoshi Masahiko, did a commendable job by not overly eulogising the villagers' accomplishments. One chapter lists all the "blunders" he observed - and notes how quickly the locals modified their approach once they heard what changes he recommended. For comparison purposes, he also supplied case studies about other villages in Japan, giving the people of Umaji a clearer idea about what can make or break a community facing the onslaught of globalisation.
Indeed, a large chunk of the book deals with this pursuit of a rural identity - and attempts to reinvigorate it. On one level, the highlight of Otoshi's account is a description of how Gokkun Umajimaru, the brand name under which the village's orange juice is marketed (and which figures in the book's original title), came into existence. In parallel is a story about gokkun bouya (gokkun boy), the spirit of childlike vivacity that energises people like Uncle Moujifoumi and his peers.
But what is this "gokkun"?
In a separate interview, Uncle Moujifoumi explained that the brand name was suggested by a salient feature of the glass bottles used for the orange juice. (The manufacturer was the only company that initially agreed to do business with the villagers; Uncle Moujifoumi turned down bigger, more lucrative offers that poured in afterwards.)
"Gokkun," he said, refers to "the width of the neck of the bottle. And the feeling of drinking it ... that's gokkun." (Translator Muthita came up with the cute, onomatopoeic sound jao euek to suggest the supremely refreshing feeling one gets from glugging down a bottle of juice in one gulp.)
The Umaji folk took a similarly simple approach to promoting their village and their products, launching several campaigns that proved quite successful. They agreed to hire a small team of designers mainly because they were moved by the artists' childlike yet determined quality. Together, designers and villagers developed packaging, posters and a radio advertisement (that won second prize in a local contest), even setting up a Club of Protectors of the Forest Wind, an avant-garde idea to entice city-dwellers to get involved in local conservation schemes.
More importantly, Uncle Moujifoumi and the design team formed a fast and lasting friendship. Prasopkarn Ying-yai is as much about the friends the Umaji folks made as it is about the villagers themselves.
In February, 1998, the Umaji Village Farming Cooperative Society decided to break ranks with other co-ops in the region, which had agreed to join a consolidation scheme. This was drawn up by the government to maximise economic resources and enhance overall efficiency. But in the case of Umaji, as Otoshi notes, the co-op and the village had been through thick and thin together to the point where it would have been impossible to separate one from the other:
"The creation of a popular product, or the promotion of the village is in fact the creation of people. The survival of a small farming cooperative is thus tied to 'building' famous people and famous products. [Like] the professional yuzu growers, the professional fisherfolk, the great carpenters, the cooks who make great dishes with indigenous plants. These great people will create great products, which will in turn make a great village."
There are bound to be a lot of challenges lying ahead for Umaji. As they grow older, will the people who remain in the village be persistent and creative enough to survive the relentless flux of change?
Still, in depicting the capacity of these country people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, Prasopkarn Ying-yai has already given us an encouraging picture of what a modern village, in Japan or anywhere else, can and should be.