Photos by Mirai no Hyakusho
Mirai no Hyakusho (Ways We Work) is a new podcast created by our friends, which presents alternative lifestyles, bridging urban and rural, and rethinking life in community with human and nature. Each program introduces an individual working in agricultural communities throughout Japan.
To accompany their podcast episodes, available for listening now on Apple, Spotify and Anchor.fm, we are publishing articles in English to summarize the fascinating conversations they share in Japanese, with three innovative individuals living in rural Japan.
EPISODE 4: (Technologies to connect people) Building and maintaining the network, with Kunihiko Murayama
*Please note all translated quotes are paraphrased.
Japan is often regarded as having one of the most advanced and speedest logistic systems in the world. In metropolitan Tokyo, almost everything can be ordered and delivered to your door within three days, including fresh food products like vegetables, fruits and dairy. However, a drastic contrast exists between such developed urban areas and the remote countryside of Japan, where human settlements gather in small valleys and are separated by rolling mountains.
In Iga City, located deep in the mountains of Mie Prefecture, Kunihiko Murayama runs a company called Iga Vegetable Farm. Not only an organic farm, the company also connects regional small-scale organic farmers through a logistic system, which was established by Murayama since 2012.
At the age of 30, Murayama quit his job as a salaryman, working as an engineer in a manufacturing company, and set out to become an organic farmer.
"I wanted to cherish the rhythm of life. I wanted to have a lifestyle where my mind and physical body are connected."
Tired of living within the boundary of a businessman who depends on the corporation culture and structure, he left the job and first started working as a physics teacher. He attended a pivotal seminar in organic agriculture, where he started building connections with people who were commonly interested in organic farming. Inspired by and drawn to the self-sufficient farming lifestyle, Murayama decided to step into the world of agriculture.
Murayama recalled his first visit to Iga to attend a seminar, feeling anxious but also a sense of anticipation, "It was like going into a different world," he said, "When I looked out the window of the car leaving from Kyoto, I wondered how many mountains I would have to cross."
It is no exaggeration to say that the world of agriculture was a fantasy for him then, a world with completely different values from what he had experienced in life.
The first year to make a living as a farmer was tough, and as a new farmer, Murayama felt trapped in his role as a producer with no connection to his consumers. It was an encounter with his mentor that saved him. The mentor inherited a family farm that has been in existence for generations, and had a solid foundation in farming. His mentoring was technical and logical, and with Murayama’s background in engineering, it was not difficult to rationalize and absorb what he learned. He quickly adapted to the organic farming mindset, and soon reached a major turning point.
Murayama discovered an issue with the distribution of organic agricultural products in the region. Normally around Japan, vegetables are distributed from producers to regional central markets, then through middle vendors to end-market consumers. The majority of the process is run by contracting food companies, and without direct connections to vendors and consumers, Murayama felt like he was working as a 'hired salary farmer'. The situation hit Murayama - his previous job was just making and selling things, a way of living he tried to avoid by quitting and becoming a farmer. He did not want to work as a passive producer anymore, but aspired to create a new system by himself and the people he worked together with. He had to break through the constraints of the existing logistic system because it was not a good fit for distributing organic produce, especially in the case of new, small-scale organic farmers like himself.
"Although we’ve been saying to spread organic agricultural produce across Japan, the truth is that there are no well-developed logistic systems for these produce. And that is why I created such a business, to bridge the gap between producers and the existing distributional system, and to benefit producers and consumers mutually."
Using the local network of organic farmers in Iga, Murayama began to build a more voluntary distributional system. It is a bottom-up mechanism that enables producers to think about their real needs by connecting the production process and the flow of produce. By exchanging and gathering information from local vendors and consumers (small vegetable shops and restaurants), and using such information, he started to build an infrastructure of logistics and to strengthen the sense of local food safety and security.
Murayama created a system that allowed producers to gain knowledge and techniques to overcome daily production challenges, as well as lower the barriers for newcomer producers (such as in establishing a place within the local distribution network). He took several small yet deliberate steps, starting with facilitating an open and flat environment among regional producers.
He first brought the farmers together, asking more experienced farmers to teach and share knowledge, technology, and tools used for production. Such learning and sharing helped reduce the barrier of new farmers to enter and bridge the relationship between experienced farmers and new ones. Soon, an open and comfortable space formed, and farmers were having closer communications about things like their annual profits and business concerns.
It was a 'natural extension of the conversation' when the idea of establishing a new logistic system emerged among producers, says Murayama. By then, the group was used to exchanging information and solving issues together, and had built strong and close relationships. As people started to recognize each other as fellow producers with the same concerns or visions, it became easier to advocate for a common idea.
One thing that Mr. Murayama emphasizes in this system is that everyone is a key stakeholder. In the same way that there is a different in perception between the locals and migrants in a village, the results will vary depending on whether the people in the system are actually producers, supporters or investors.
Murayama believes that when creating a system among farmers, you have to build the community in a way that people have close relationships and are comfortable with expressing their true voices. And only by being a producer himself, can he fulfill his role as a bridge to build 'a relationship where we can talk honestly'.
A great majority of Murayama’s work is gathering and matching information between food producers and vendors, like matching the harvesting season of cabbage with the needs of vendors, and taking in consideration the potential demand from seasonal occasions and events. He coordinates the logistics of transportation so that producers can save time moving produce from place to place; such detailed logistic coordination is commonly seen and practiced in urban centers such as Tokyo, but for the countryside with small-scale producers, it's more challenging. The more rural the area, the more time it took to go back and forth between the needs of grocery stores and the timing required by the growers to be able to ship the produce, and the more difficult it was to arrange for logistics, making it difficult to improve efficiency. As issues keep evolving, Murayama is determined to create a system that fundamentally solves the problems as they are discovered.
Another challenge for Murayama is how to scale up the current system. In addition to his work in Iga, Murayama has been involved in organizing similar networks amongst organic producers in the Kyoto area. In Iga, the movement started from the producers' side because it was a production area, but in Kyoto, the movement started from the end market such as the grocery stores. By intervening in the creation of a system also from the consumer side, Murayama hopes to apply his Iga-style system to smoothly facilitate the whole distribution process, eventually connecting producers and consumers.
Reflecting back on his experience, whether it is energy or environmental issues that he used to work on, or the organic farming community he is currently working with, he thinks about the big picture of how to create solutions to make the current situation better.
"There was no bright future ahead of me, had I only made and sold things by myself and for myself."
Ways We Work Project Staff
Akane Bessho (Host)
Bobby Adriel Moses/violin
Fukunaga Mayumi Research Lab