The greatest risk in writing about Japan is to allow yourself to be swept away by a flood of stereotypes. The bowing, the punctual trains, the cherry blossoms, the electronics, the sushi, the contrast between modernity and tradition, the business cards… and so on, one cliché after another. It is certainly not easy to break through the barrier of superficial impressions. Language problems and the reserve of the Japanese people take years to overcome. But it is equally true that stereotypes are signs of truths, certainly more complex and profound, but truths nonetheless.
Japan is the place where modernity—and by modernity I mean above all the influence of the American style of life—has reached such levels of artificiality that at times it becomes a caricature. Imagine that the government is funding cooking courses for university students because the majority of them are no longer able to cook an egg or a vegetable. Instead they live on snacks and street food, with disastrous consequences for their health and psycho-physical equilibrium. And Western stars, whether sportspeople, musicians, actors or chefs, enjoy a level of fanatic adoration inconceivable to us.
Modernity has wreaked havoc on the ancient identity of the Japanese people. This was already understood by the Japanese intellectuals who gathered in Kyoto in 1942 to draw up a strategy to stop the phenomenon of Westernization. They believed that the glorious Japanese traditions were at serious risk, and with them national identity (for more on this see Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit). Resistance became the official policy, and we all know what the consequences were: a bloody war and ultimately atomic disaster. But the cultural and social value of these worries, interpreted in the light of the present, should not be undervalued, nor simply branded as reactionary. Authentic Japan is in fact slowly disappearing, along with the country’s splendid gastronomy and the food biodiversity which guarantees its uniqueness and excellence. The country today imports almost 60% of its food and the local ingredients for many traditional recipes can no longer be found.
Slow Food can play a very important role in this country, and in fact it is surprising that the movement has not yet developed here as much as it could. In no other place is there such great harmony with the philosophy of those locals who believe in the survival of traditions and are fighting for recognition of their value, without giving in to the abusive power of the food industry.
Visiting the Unzen Takana Vegetable Presidium in the prefecture of Nagasaki, followed by a meeting of the local Slow Food convivium, was extremely encouraging and showed us just how aware people here are of the issue of food biodiversity. Thanks to the area’s unique geography, with a series of deep and twisting peninsulas, it has preserved a strong cultural specificity, protected from hybrids and contamination. The recently formed Slow Food Nagasaki Convivium has already firmly oriented itself towards promoting this specificity. It is not by chance that the first and only Japanese Presidium, for the Unzen Takana Vegetable, was established here. The group of women (the consortium of Moriyama processors) who process the vegetable using traditional drying and salt fermenting methods now find it easy to sell their product, which has found space on the shelves of Tokyo’s shops and airport boutiques. The takana growers are equally satisfied, and they participated enthusiastically in the convivium meeting.
The meeting was held in a restaurant called To, in the center of Nagasaki, which uses only local, organic ingredients. Listing the cross-section of society represented by the participants is the best way to explain the role and work of the local convivium. In addition to leaders of Slow Food biodiversity projects in Japan, such as Yuko Hisano, the dynamic future head of the Ark of Taste in Japan, and Tokuya Kawate, a professor at the Nihon Daigaku University who has been involved with the Japanese Ark for several years, the meeting was attended by salted fish producers; Nakamura, probably the world’s only producer of persimmon vinegar; Koshei Shirotami, an architect who teaches young people how to make ceramics for culinary use; two producers of artisanal tofu; Sugino Hiu, owner of the Ferme de Sotome, where she grows Nagasaki citrus trees and makes excellent preserves and juices from their fruit; and the deputy mayor of the town of Unzen, where, if everything goes as planned, Terra Madre Japan will be held in December 2011. Also present were other Slow Food members and association leaders.
In short, it was a stimulating group of people, pointing the way towards the ideal make-up of a Slow Food convivia: a mix of farmers, artisans, Presidia producers, academics and consumers. Leading the convivium is Masatoshi Iwasaki, a farmer and intellectual of the land who has become an iconic figure and is known internationally as a seed saver. Iwasaki organically farms several hectares outside of Nagasaki, and just as his gardens of local fruit and vegetable varieties are carefully tended, he has taken a well-considered approach to move the convivium in the right direction, rousing others with his infectious enthusiasm.
This visit to Nagaski left an impressive impression, and we are convinced we will soon be seeing more projects, Presidia and innovations to support good, clean and fair food coming out of this region.
President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity