FUKUOKA, Japan—Once outside of Tokyo, a raucous anomaly within Japan, one quickly gains the sense that the Land of the Rising Sun is also the land of the small, local farm.
Here in Fukuoka, Japan's seventh largest city, acres upon acres of tranquil rice fields and farms are tucked between houses and temples in the shadows of skyscrapers no more than ten miles away.
In a climate roughly similar to coastal Virginia's, family farms grow fruit and vegetables nearly year-round to feed this hungry city of 1.3 million. In the suburbs, where the local farms are more abundant, consumers often will have vegetables with dinner that were picked that morning. In supermarkets in the heart of Fukuoka City, it is not uncommon to have vegetables harvested the day before.
Bite into a tomato or strawberry here, and the impact of this freshness is readily apparent. Food is so flavorful that it hardly needs preparation. Even children eat their vegetables, including notoriously nasty ones like spinach, okra, peas and beans.
The Japanese have a term for this desire for fresh, local food: chisan, chishou, which means "produce local, consume local."
The preservation of chisan-chishou in one of the most urbanized countries in the world highlights what's right about Japan's food production system and what's wrong with the centralized American system. Those advocating for more organic and locally produced food can take heart that, given government incentives and consumer support, chisan-chishou can work in the United States, too.
Except for Hokkaido, the most rural and northernmost main Japanese island, most farms in Japan are small-scale operations run by a few family members. This results not only in an abundance of fresh, local food but also a unique dedication to the product. Grapes and peaches, among other fruits, are lovingly covered with bags while still growing to protect them from insects and bruising. Soil is carefully tilled so that root vegetables such as daikon (white radish) and gobo (burdock) will grow several feet deep. Vegetable patches are mulched with rice straw or covered with plastic to maintain moisture and to thwart weeds without herbicides.
With the help of permanent glass greenhouses and temporary tent-like plastic ones, there is a constant flow of different spring, summer and fall/winter crops. Much of the work is done by hand.
Is this overkill? Well, Japanese farmers do produce square watermelons, sort of a bonsai trick of shaping the watermelon into a cube as it grows, supposedly so that it fits more easily into a refrigerator. That's a bit extreme. But that only highlights their dedication. You will be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person living in the United States that doesn't lament the comparative lack of taste and freshness of American produce.
This is not suggesting that American farmers don't take care of their crops. Caring for each fruit or vegetable as if it were an infant simply isn't possible on a large farm.
One would think that chisan-chishou comes at a price. Japan does have the $50 cantaloupe. But by golly, that's one perfect cantaloupe. And it's presented as a gift. Basic fruits and vegetables, of far greater variety than that found in the States, are affordable. Demand is high, which feeds more local production. U.S. consumers pay a higher price for similar quality, whether organic or gourmet.
All is not entirely rosy here, as I learned on a tour of the Fukuoka Agricultural Research Center. There has been a slight decline in local farms in recent years, with the younger generation either not fully appreciating chisan-chishou or not willing to take on the hard task of farming. But unlike in the United States, where the loss of small farms is more extreme, the government is fighting back.
Within the last 10 to 20 years, governments, particularly at the local level, have been encouraging chisan-chishou by facilitating cooperatives and greenmarkets. Also, selling farmland for commercial use will incur a high tax, yet passing on farmland to children for farming involves very little inheritance tax. And agricultural centers invite school children to plant and harvest, to spur their interest; farming is sometimes part of a school curriculum.
Minoru Yoshino of the Fukuoka Agricultural Research Center describes the government's interest in chisan-chishou as three-fold. Fresh, local foods are healthier, and the good taste encourages vegetable consumption. Small, local farms are better for the environment, requiring less water and pesticides.
Yoshino also highlighted the aesthetic value of small farms in and around a city. Rice paddies called tambo nestled between modest green hills dominate the landscape. Dragonflies hover inches above the golden grain, keeping mosquitoes at bay. Summer days are filled with the sounds of cicada, and nights bring the songs of crickets and tiny frogs near the tambo. Losing these is tantamount to losing the spirit of Japan.
Conversely, reclaiming local farms in the United States could foster a healthier and more beautiful America.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.