Japan's Local Food Business Helps Local Economies

Japanese Local Food or Dishes Are In

The Japanese economy is being struck down by the corona virus.  How to lay out a strategy for future growth for Japan in the midst of worries about a deflationary economy is a major issue for today.  Japan’s provinces, outlying cities and rural areas (governed by local authorities) face a major turning point.  Regional disparity in Japan is growing as some areas prosper while others fall into financial collapse as a result of failed planning.  All Japan’s localities need to come up with viable strategies for growth.

In the past, local economic revitalization strategy generally took the form of luring manufacturing and industry to the area, but lately policies that have more to do with the lifestyle of local residents have been coming to the fore.  One example of this type of movement is helping local food (designated Go-Touchi Gourmet, or popular dishes locally prepared, comfort food) catch on as a means of economic revitalization, equaling community rebuilding.  A B-class Gourmet Grand Prix chooses the best fare among simple local dishes all over Japan.  This event has been the chance for some local dishes to instantly attain national-level popularity.  Boosting the name recognition or branding of a local product has in some cases brought more tourism to the area.  In addition to these new movements, there are also efforts to bring back traditional foods of a particular area and link that to regional revitalization.  Whether they are less traditional comfort foods or venerable old stand-bys, these movements are like an experiment in how to create a prosperous community by changing the flow of people. 

But competition among communities and menus has become fierce, and it seems we are already in an era where a local revitalization effort cannot survive just on the topicality of its local ingredients or cooking style.  What is the key to succeeding in local food-based community revitalization?  Let’s look at last year’s B1 Grand Prix venue and winner Yokote City (about 100,000 population) in Akita Prefecture.

B1 Grand Prix & Yokote City

Yokote Yakisoba Festival
Yokote Yakisoba Festival

There are varying views as to what kind of a dish constitutes B-class Gourmet depending on what elements one considers to be important, and opinions are divided even on the same dish depending on the ingredients used or the particular shop where it’s made.  Generally the term is applied to cheap, popular comfort foods like yakisoba and curry dishes.  In many areas of Japan the B-class Gourmet designation is being actively used to spark community revitalization programs.

The B1 Grand Prix is the largest event in the B-class Gourmet movement.  Forty communities from all over Japan that are using local food to revitalize their economies gather together with examples of their home-grown B-class Gourmet dishes to compete for most popular entry.  Event attendees sample the entries and vote for the grand prize winner.  The first B1 Grand Prix was held in Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture.  At the fourth event in Yokote City in Akita Prefecture, the local Yokote Yakisoba was honored with the grand prize.

Yokote Yakisoba is fat straight noodles topped with a soft-boiled egg and fukujin-duke (vegetables pickled in soy sauce, usually served with curry rice).  Even now on weekends there are lines of customers seeking out the local specialty in front of Yokote city yakisoba shops.  Cars with license plates from well out of the area pull in to city parking lots.  According to East Nippon Expressway (NEXCO East Japan) traffic passing through the Yokote exit of the Akita highway in the one month period starting with the B1 event was up 20% from the same period in the year prior.  Actually, talking to people in Yokote City itself, many storeowners say that on weekends they have more out-of-towners than locals, and that they have had two to four times as many customers since the B1 event.  There have also been inquiries from major food makers about commercializing Yokote Yakisoba as an instant noodle or snack dish.  Some of the shops have started selling their yakisoba to the major metropolitan areas.

The 2008 B1 event brought in about 3 billion yen, including the money that the event’s 200,000 visitors spent on lodging and local specialty products.  The 2009 B1 Grand Prix with 270,000 attendees is estimated to have had a similar economic effect.

Yakisoba & Fermented Foods Are the Weapons to Achieve City Sales

Yokote had been involved in promoting its local specialties and trying to develop new products, before being invited to host the B1 Grand Prix, with no particular success.  The depressed business climate means there are few jobs, and for an area that is losing about 1,000 population a year, Yokote Yakisoba seems to have been its savior.

Yokote Yakisoba
Yokote Yakisoba

Mayor Chuetsu Igarashi tells, “It’s very pleasing that when people hear the word Yokote, they think of yakisoba.  But yakisoba is a just a new ad balloon for Yokote - I’m not satisfied to stop there.  The real effort at community rebuilding based on local food and agriculture starts now, with people finding out about and buying our local products and specialty foods.”

So what other ad balloons can Yokote float besides yakisoba? And how is Yokote working to promote sales to the big cities?  Fermented foods are one area on which Yokote is pinning its hopes.  Fermented foods including miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), natto (fermented soybeans) and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) that are very familiar to the Japanese are starting to be looked at by a global market thanks to the boom in Japanese food and the Slow Food movement.  In fact, beyond the fact that they taste great and are good for you, there is a spirit of innovation that dwells in fermented foods that has great promise for the future.

One is their potential in the world of medical treatments.  The process of fermentation is what creates antibiotic substances, which are what have virtually rid the human race of tuberculosis, typhoid, and plague, also making it possible to perform surgery without risking certain infection.  Fermentation technologies today play an active part in applied research into lifestyle disease prevention, regulation of blood pressure and obesity, as well as in the chemical manufacture of vitamins, amino acids, and hormones.  The second aspect is that fermentation is environmentally friendly.  Waste water is rendered clean by virtue of the bacterial fermentation.  Raw waste materials can also be composted and used as biomass energy.  The third is their function as alternate food source.  In times of hardship when there is a shortage of grain for example, man can supply himself with sufficient nutrients with the power of fermentation.  In this way, fermentation technology has the potential to contribute to solutions in medical development, food crises, environmental destruction, and the energy crisis. 

Yokote City can in fact be termed the virtual mecca for fermentation technology.  Yokote has an extensive fermented food culture that uses massive amounts of kome-kouji (rice with mold grown on it as fermentation starter) as one means of food storage over the winter season.  This town that has used fermentation on a wide variety of foods and prepared dishes really lives up to the moniker: Fermentation Town.  The foods that the townspeople eat casually without a second thought are valuable in a global sense.  If we suppose that the dishes made using these fermented foods are being produced by a unique fermentation culture, and if the fact that kome-kouji is used means that a uniquely Japanese fermented food is being produced, then Yokote turns out to be a community with an unmatched industrial resource that exists on a global scale.

Local Economic Revitalization Through Food & Agriculture

Yokote Mayor
Yokote Mayor

At this very time Yokote City under the leadership of Mayor Igarashi is promoting itself under the banner of Hakkou-no-Machi or Fermentation Town.  The starting point for this effort was remarks made by Takeo Koizumi, former professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and currently leader of the Fermentation in Food Culture Promotion Organization.  When inspecting the premises of a kome-kouji producer in Yokote about 20 years ago, Koizumi was surprised by the build-up of kouji fermented food culture in Yokote.  Since then, Mayor Igarashi has been appealing to Yokote to wake up the sleeping giant industrial resource of fermented foods at their feet, and campaigning for recognition of its competitive edge in its location in a fermented food culture zone rare in the world.

Yokote has been working on economic revitalization based on fermented foods since 2007.  The basic concept created at the time was “Rebuilding Our Town Through Food & Agriculture.”  The main thrust of the strategy is exactly as it sounds, namely the activation of the regional economy through the core industries of food products and agriculture.  Then how is Yokote City to bring fermented food technology up to date?  The first task has been the establishment together with more than 160 private citizens of the Yokote Fermented Food Culture Institute.  This group will be the engine driving the energization of the fermented food industry in the area.

Plan Exit Strategy at the Same Time As Entry Strategy

Iburigakko pickled daikon radish
Iburigakko pickled daikon radish

In this way the fermented food industry has been positioned as a starting strategy for food and agriculture based rebuilding.  It is to Yokote’s credit that it chose the fermentation industry as its starting point for local economic revitalization, but more important may be the need to devise an exit strategy at the same time, so that the entire effort does not crumble away after a promising start.

So what is the exit strategy of Yokote City?  That is namely the manufacture of products that will sell.  In other words, linking of local agricultural producers with consumers inside and outside Japan, thus creating new employment and increasing agricultural income.  In order to realize this, the city needed an organizer who could oversee the entire strategy from start to finish.  We cannot know how well Yokote was able to recognize the importance of this issue from the beginning, but it did eventually resolve to bring in a private citizen as an overall organizer. 

This person is Hiro Kumagai, chief executive of Ureru-Mise-Zukuri (Creating Stores That Sell).  Kumagai is a former department store buyer and marketing professional who had served as a consultant to Yokote for about five years.  He harnesses his expertise to support the direct shipment and sale of farm products to the markets.  Kumagai considers his most critical task to have been “passing on knowledge about marketing and merchandising” to commercial farmers who did not even know how to develop distribution routes for their products.  Products that were not considered to be desired by consumers will not sell no matter how high quality their ingredients.  In order to have the desire and drive of the producer to create a quality product translate into a high value in the marketplace, it is important to have the qualities of leadership and selective eye for determining what product to market to which consumer target. 

For example, if there is some kind of defect in the product, the producer gets direct negative feedback from the market.  He bears the risk on his own, as well as the reward.  Kumagai says that this is “the fundamental mechanism of the direct linkage between producer and market.”  That is why Kumagai worked so hard to instill producers with the importance of marketing, testing products numerous times and elevating their taste level.

Although agricultural income has not yet increased markedly, results of the Ureru-Mono-Zukuri (Making Products That Sell) effort has begun to become apparent.  One example is the commercialization of the traditional home cooking dish Iburi-Gakko, smoked pickles.  Daikon and other locally raised produce is first smoked (iburi), then immersed in natural ingredients such as kome kouji fermented rice starter or salt to pickle, then cured under intense cold conditions.  Pickling of already smoked material gives a truly indescribable flavor. In an effort to raise the value of the Iburi-Gakko product, Yokote in 2007 solicited about 100 farming households to compete in flavor, aroma, and texture in an event named the “Iburimpics.”  The recipe for the product that took the gold medal was developed into a manufacturing manual, which was shared by all the producers in the region who added further improvements before heading to final commercialization.  The product has become popular enough to be sold in the Tokyo metropolitan area as well as shipped overseas to Taiwan and Hong Kong under the brand name of Kintaru (Golden Barrel).

Come on Over!  Success Stories of Regional Economic Revitalization from the Provinces

Seasonally Held Local Foods Festival
Seasonally Held Local Foods Festival

Fermented foods do play an essential role in contemporary food movements such as cheap and delicious B-class Gourmet, Slow Food, Anzen Anshin Food Safety, and Locally Produced Locally Consumed.   Regarding the potential of Yokote which has put its regional economic revitalization efforts behind this local food which is a fine contrast of the old and the new, Takeo Koizumi said in a message at the 2009 Fermented Food Forum, “The 21st century is the century of fermented foods.  The government & community groups that have taken the lead in this area will be the strong ones.” 

Yokote City gambled on the food industry to ignite its revitalization efforts.  Generally these are focused on industries that supply the domestic market, and even if getting involved with overseas markets it mostly goes no further than raw material procurement.  The whole basis of the Japanese economy is its high degree of dependence on foreign markets.   There are strong concerns that if under these circumstances the gap between domestic and overseas markets widens, it will lead inevitably to a decline in the pace of growth for Japan overall.  Growth industries that would stimulate domestic demand and also call upon foreign markets are being sought out in Japan’s provinces and local communities.

So can yakisoba and fermented food, indigenous industries both old and new, rise to the call for a growth industry?  That was what we hoped to find out in this article, and we did find out that the yakisoba and fermented food products of Yokote City are in a very interesting position.  This is due to the fact that they are highly valued by consumers both in and outside of Japan, and that they both possess a high level of technical application.  The B-class Gourmet movement stimulates domestic demand while the fermented food products will grow into a foreign consumption driven industry.  The strategic use of the recent elevated yen can bring the entire world into its field of operation, making these areas into the next generation of leading industries for Japan. 

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