Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Saving Seed - Part 3

Save biological diversity by saving seed: the genetic resources needed to feed the world are under threat. Human intervention, climate change, pollution - and neglect - are all factors that severely reduce biodiversity. For food crops and livestock this is a very serious issue.

If farmers choose to grow only one crop on huge farms, and reject varieties that they do not think are as profitable or easy to grow, who is going to preserve those other crops?

As a seed is left forgotten (or eaten), its amazing genetic information is simply lost forever. Traditionally, farmers carefully saved seed based on observation of how the crops grew, how they handled changes in the weather conditions - and how good it tasted!

Much of colonialization was really about accessing and bringing back edible plants to feed the growing population in Europe. The potato is a classic example. Often, there was little understanding of the need for genetic diversity. The famine in Ireland is often cited as an example of how growing a single crop can cause huge problems, as plant disease easily strikes a monoculture, and ruins the entire harvest.

Botanical gardens are another example of this way of thinking: useful or exotic plants could be kept in a colder climate when Europeans built large glass houses. But most tropical plants did not survive well and this approach was abandonded, and most botanical gardens today are more like parks or zoos for pleasure rather than for serious research. Here is a list of some 75 different botanical gardens around Japan, including an alligator garden in Shizuoka!

You can visit Japan's oldest Botanical Garden in Tokyo:

The University of Tokyo has two Botanical Gardens, the main garden in Tokyo (Koishikawa BG) and the satellite garden in Nikko, Tochigi Pref. (Nikko BG), of which purpose is to contribute to research and education in plant sciences. The Botanical Gardens are open to the public. The Botanical Gardens are not only the oldest in Japan, but also have a prominent and long history by world wide standards. The Botanical Gardens originated as the Koishikawa Medicinal Herb Garden, which was established in 1684 by the Tokugawa Shogunate. There are many historic plants and ruins that indicate the long history of the Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens were the birthplace of modern scientific research in botany in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.

The 20th century was the era of seed banks: huge collections of seeds carefully selected and stored. The pioneer was Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian researcher who created the largest seed bank at the time in Leningrad. The new Seed Vault in Svalbard is an example of this way of thinking. But how useful is that really in time of crisis?

A much better approach to saving seed and thus saving biological diversity is to grow the seed. If we want to achieve sustainability and make sure no genetic resources are lost, there is not much point in keeping seed in a box on a shelf. We need to put the seed in soil and watch it grow. This is also known as "farming" ;)

The Seed Vault in Svalbard has a sculpture by Mitsuaki Tanabe from Yokohama. He said:

Preserving the natural habitat of wild rice means protecting the rich genetic resource of rice along with all the plants and animals living there. It is linked to basic protection of the diversity of all life, including fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians." He argues convincingly for three measures: 1. Preservation of existing species through conservation by farmers. 2. Preservation of natural habitat through in situ conservation. 3. Preservation and storage in institutions or ex situ conservation (using general seed banks). According to Tanabe, "Future biological diversity will be protected when these three measures are carried out."

Source: Mitsuaki Tanabe website. Photo from The Japan Times.

Top image of botanical garden in New York from Daily Kos - wonderful article about Japanese 菊 kiku (chrysanthemum) on display.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Saving Seed - Part 2

In the first part I dealt with the way we can save seeds from plants, by carefully paying attention to what happens during their entire cycle. In this part, I want to talk about saving seed - from seed companies. And I mean that in the literal sense: we need to understand the way the seed companies control farmers, and thus how they control what we eat.

If you want seed for your garden, and you buy what is available in the usual garden shop, you basically support the large, multinational seed companies.

Saving (as in "rescue" or just avoiding) seed from the companies that try to genetically manipulate (and patent) is a first crucial step. I have also previously talked about F1 hybrids, that do not breed true. F1 hybrids are not GMOs, but if you try to save seed from F1 hybrids, you don't know what the outcome will be in the following generations (technically speaking, the F1 seeds come from "inbred" lines of parent plants). The reason seed companies spend so much on GMOs and F1 hybrids is obvious: this is how they make money.

Here are 3 good reasons from wikipedia why F1 hybrids are not so great for biological diversity:

  • The main advantage of F1 hybrids in agriculture is also their drawback. When F1 cultivars are used for the breeding of a new generation, their offspring (F2 generation) will vary greatly from one another. Some of the F2 generation will be high in homozygous genes, as found in the weaker parental generation, and these will have a depression in yield and lack the hybrid vigour. From the point of view of a commercial seed producer which does not wish its customers to produce their own seed, this genetic assortment is a desired characteristic.
  • Both inbreeding and crossing the lines requires a lot of work, which translates into a much higher seed cost. In general, the higher yield offsets this disadvantage.
  • F1 hybrids mature at the same time when raised under the same environmental conditions. This is of interest for modern farmers, because all ripen at the same time and can be harvested by machine. Traditional varieties are often more useful to gardeners because they crop over a longer period of time, avoiding gluts and food shortages.
Small seed companies that focus on a larger variety of natural seeds from heirloom vegetables are facing an uphill battle to reach consumers. Here in Japan, I have previously mentioned two small seed companies, if you want to support organic agriculture and biological diversity:

Tane no Mori (Organic seed, heirloom varieties)
Noguchi Seed Part 1 and Part 2 (Unusual, traditional Japanese varieties)

But for most farmers here, the go-to seed company will be either Sakata or Takii. As you can see from their websites, both Sakata and Takii have a long history and are generally highly regarded by farmers. These are huge operations with large sales departments. Since there is no commercial farming of GMOs in Japan, they don't do GMOs, like many of the other top seed companies on the global market, especially Monsanto. Sakata was in the news recently for its plans to sell more F1 hybrids in India:

Sakata Seed Corp. is betting that rising demand for its disease-resistant hybrid "F1" seeds will help the company triple its market share in India. The seed wholesaler accounts for about 1 percent to 3 percent of the F1 and "open pollinated" vegetable seed market in India, and plans to increase it to 10 percent by 2018, according to Chief Executive Officer Hiroshi Sakata. That would place the company in the top five vegetable seed wholesalers in India.

By moving farmers away from traditional seed saving pratices, seed companies can profit. Sounds simple but it has huge implications for food security and food sovereignty. This can be very risky as more of a country's food supply will become reliant on imported seeds, and trade flows based on monetary exchange rather than sharing seeds as is traditionally the case. It can also have a huge influence on the diet in regions of the world where people have managed well on local foods.

This is data from a report by ETC Group, called Who Owns Nature?

The World's Top 10 Seed Companies

Company - 2007 seed sales (US$ millions) - % of global proprietary seed market

1.Monsanto (US) - $4,964m - 23%
2.DuPont (US) - $3,300m - 15%
3.Syngenta (Switzerland) - $2,018m - 9%
4.Groupe Limagrain (France) - $1,226m - 6%
5.Land O' Lakes (US) - $917m - 4%
6.KWS AG (Germany) - $702m - 3%
7.Bayer Crop Science (Germany) - $524m - 2%
8.Sakata (Japan) - $396m - <2%
9.DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) - $391m - <2%
10.Takii (Japan) - $347m - <2%

Source: ETC Group

The top 10 seed companies account for $14,785 million - or two-thirds (67%) of the global proprietary seed market.

The world's largest seed company, Monsanto, accounts for almost one-quarter (23%) of the global proprietary seed market.

The top 3 companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) together account for $10,282 million, or 47% of the worldwide proprietary seed market.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Saving Seed - Part 1

My veggie farming skills are slowly improving, mostly due to others who are patiently explaining what to do.

This year, I have been helping a local farmer who runs a pretty professional operation with several houses, sprinkler systems, and all the bells and whistles he needs to provide supermarkets with fresh produce, including tomatoes, potatoes, daikon, onions, leech, beans, eggplants, red peppers, asparagus, corn (maize) and more. He is quite amazing and I will blog about him another time, because it really is fun to help out on a "real" farm, rather than having to make all the mistakes on my own.

Meanwhile, my own small veggy patch has been surprisingly good so far this year. I have harvested daikon and leek onions, and just a couple of days ago the first cucumber of the year. I also had some really nice beans from plants I bought in December. Right now I'm waiting for the tomatoes to start ripen, and I have some eggplant as well to look forward too, in addition to the up-and-coming cucumbers.

But the most fun is learning new skills. I just noticed the other day that my leek onions were bearing seed, so I took a couple of photos before planting them. I had left them on purpose to see if I could get seeds from them. The small black seeds are easy to catch from the dried "bulbs" that you can see an example of in the photos. Farmers joke that they look like the shaven heads of Buddhist monks... I planted some of the seeds, hoping to get them to sprout, and if all goes well, I will have figured out how to grow my own leek onions in a "sustainable" way. If I am less lucky, they will be F1 hybrids, which won't breed true, meaning the good traits that the seed company was aiming for with this particular variety will not carry over to the next generation. I don't think they are F1 hybrids, but I can't remember. I really should take more notes!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Car Engine Idling: Stop Wasting Fossile Fuels!

Wasting fossile fuels seems like an increasingly important issue to tackle. I have mentioned how much I dislike drivers who leave their car engines on, while they do other things, including shopping or sleeping. It is a common practice in Japan, even though it is technically illegal in many places. Even large trucks and tour buses just park and keep idling, apparently unaware of the air pollution and noise. Kids especially are at risk and allergies are on the increase. The fact that we are running out of oil on this fragile planet also seems to not bother these drivers, and they need to understand how their ignorance is contributing to climate change.
I often take the local bus in Tokyo, and many bus drivers turn off the engine as they stop at red lights. I have noticed that many transportation companies also encourage their drivers to stop the engine when unloading goods. My postman sometimes stops his Cub bike when he has a lot of letters to deliver, but Japan Post doesn't seem to have any rules or recommendations about this issue.
(Image of "idling-stop" signs from Lets Japan)

I did a quick search and foud some organizations that are trying to address this problem:
1) EICAS (Environmental Imrovement Conference of Automotive Society)
This is an industry-led group of car makers, that focus on "eco-drive"educational campaigns (including teaching drivers how to stop idling) for the "safety of people, mothers and children."
2) Kuruma Shakai (NGO)
This is a group of ordinary people and parents who are worried about pollution issues and promoting a safe pedestrian society, especially for children. They also promote public transportation rather than car ownership.
3) Society for Electric Vehicles
Group that promotes non-polluting EVs and safe transportation.

4) JCCA (The Energy Conservation Center, Japan)
This is an association that started a nation-wide campaign against idling several years ago. They promote installation of a device from MK Japan called ITS-1200 to help drivers. Their campaign is called Smart Drive, which they also aim to introduce in other Asian countries. They also do events together with Toyota and Nissan, with ambassadors who train drivers around Japan...
Idling stop is to stop an engine of a car at the time of a stop. In fact,
this is very effective means to reduce fuel consumption. When you do wait with
somebody, or when you do loading and unloading of a load from a car, energy
saving effects increase if you stop an engine at one time while just several
minutes. For example, it can save about 140cc gasoline when you stop idling for
10 minutes on 1st. Then you profit for about 51L, around 5,000 yen between one
year. Please try it, everybody. Now IDLING STOP is done mainly on a route bus or
home delivery. In addition, interest rises in self-governing communities of the
whole country. For example, in Kitamoto-shi of Saitama, they carried out IDLING
STOP with the acquisition of ISO 14001, quantity of their gasoline use reduced
7.7% from the last year. In Hyogo, as the regulations that a prefecture related
to environmental maintenance and creation, they obliged it to IDLING STOP at the
time of parking for all drivers. And they inflict a fine of 100,000 yen on a
violator. Some car companies develop the car which carried the device which can
easily do an idling stop and commercialize it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Nobel laureate Oe calls for reducing U.S. bases in Okinawa

I met Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe in Lund, Sweden back in 1994. He told the audience that he had woken up that morning, in south Sweden, to the noise of some demonstration or other, thinking they were protesting against him. He said it gave him quite a fright! Turned out it was just a regular animal rights march or some labour union thing. He got a laugh out of that.

Back then, I also wrote about the book he did together with German author Gunther Grass, as the two of them wrote letters to each other about their experiences of being German and Japanese, during/after WW2. As it turned out, Herr Grass wasn't very honest about his past, as he had served in the SS, but had decided to keep very quiet about that for a long time.

I wonder how Oe feels about that exchange, today.

Of course, he is very political. From the NYT:

In a closely watched ruling, the Osaka District Court threw out a $200,000 damage suit that was filed by a 91-year-old war veteran and another veteran’s surviving relatives, who said there was no evidence of the military’s involvement in the suicides.

The plaintiffs had also sought to block further printing of Mr. Oe’s 1970 book of essays, “Okinawa Notes,” in which he wrote that Japanese soldiers had told Okinawans they would be raped, tortured and murdered by the advancing American troops and coerced them into killing themselves instead of surrendering.

“The military was deeply involved in the mass suicides,” Judge Toshimasa Fukami said in the ruling. Judge Fukami cited the testimony of survivors that soldiers had handed out grenades to civilians to use for committing suicide, and the fact that mass suicides had occurred only in villages where Japanese troops had been stationed.

But that also misses the point entirely. Oe has been a strong voice for the left in Japan, and also a beacon of reason who feels Japan is "ambiguous" especially in its dealings with defense and war.

あいまいな日本の私 (Aimai na Nihon no Watashi) Japan, the ambiguous, and myself. The Nobel Prize speech and other lectures:
During the last catastrophic [war] I was a little boy and lived in a remote, wooded valley on Shikoku Island in the Japanese Archipelago, thousands of miles away from here. At that time there were two books by which I was really fascinated: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. The whole world was then engulfed by waves of horror. By reading Huckleberry Finn I felt I was able to justify my act of going into the mountain forest at night and sleeping among the trees with a sense of security which I could never find indoors. The protagonist of The Adventures of Nils is transformed into a little creature, understands birds' language and makes an adventurous journey. I derived from the story sensuous pleasures of various kinds. Firstly, living as I was in a deep wood on the Island of Shikoku just as my ancestors had done long ago, I had a revelation that this world and this way of life there were truly liberating. Secondly, I felt sympathetic and identified myself with Nils, a naughty little boy, who while traversing Sweden, collaborating with and fighting for the wild geese, transforms himself into a boy, still innocent, yet full of confidence as well as modesty. On coming home at last, Nils speaks to his parents. I think that the pleasure I derived from the story at its highest level lies in the language, because I felt purified and uplifted by speaking along with Nils.
Anyway, here is Oe in the news this weekend summer of 2010:
TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel laureate for literature, on Saturday called for reducing U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture and establishing amicable ties with other nations, particularly with China and also with the United States, in accordance with the ideal of the pacifist Constitution.

"While we are under the nuclear umbrella of the United States, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty will become unnecessary if we could pursue peaceful relations, rather than relying on military deterrence," Oe told some 2,000 people at a meeting of the Article 9 Association in Tokyo. "I want to achieve this."

The meeting was held on the 50th anniversary of the automatic enactment of the revised bilateral treaty on June 19, 1960, following a 30-day Diet stalemate after the government under then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi railroaded the revision.

Oe, one of the nine founders of the association, also said, "I have to ask myself if we have kept the principle of Article 9 and if we have taken advantage of it. I believe it is necessary to recreate the treaty in accordance with our Constitution."

Monday, June 21, 2010

...By Any Other Name: What To Call North Korea?

Watching North Korea get hammered by Portugal in the World Cup tonight, I was reminded of the trouble we had at NHK World: What to call that country? Officially, of course, it is (in English) Korea DPR while most of us just say, incorrectly, "North Korea." As far as they are concerned, there is no such thing as a "north" and a "south" Korea, since technically, they are still at war and not... but I digress.

At NHK in Shibuya, the news is broadcast in a number of languages, including Korean. We all had signs in our own languages, such as "Svenska" for the Swedish section and "Deutsch" for the German. The problem, then, was how to write "Korean" in the hangul script, that is used on the Korean peninsula. Since NHK aims for listeners both in the south and the north, so to speak, they had to find a term that was not controversial, even though it was not correct.

In South Korea, the language is most often called Hangungmal. There are also more formal ways of saying it. In the north, however, the language is most often called Chosŏnma. The languages are more or less the same, but the names refer to different ideas about nationhood and culture. Choson, for example, is another name for the Korean peninsula, while hangul is the name of the script that all Koreans use. There are also many dialects, and there is the issue of the Koreans living in China (in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture) and other variations.

Back to NHK, where they broadcast news in Korean. You can read and listen to it here. On the page the language is written as 코리언 서비스 홈페이지.

Ask a Korean person, and that means "Korean Service Homepage" (using the Korean spelling for the English word "Korean" rather than getting into all that political... but I digress)

Ask a Japanese person, and they would call North Korea Kita Chosen, and South Korea would be Kankoku. But never, ever would they say Kita Chosen-go for the language. The usual term for the Korean language used in Japanese is Kankoku-go 韓国語.

And I don't think the North Koreans are too happy about that.

An interesting country, by any other name, in other words.

By the way, several Japanese players on the North Korean football team are Chongryon
-affiliated Koreans born in Japan. This term, Chongryon, is also complex, to say the least. From wikipedia:
Chongryon members primarily consist of those who have retained their nationality registration of Joseon (Japanese: Chōsen), as opposed to those who have chosen to take up either Japanese or South Korean nationality. Joseon nationality was a legal definition that the Japanese government developed in the aftermath of World War II, when the government of Korean peninsula was in an undetermined state.
The other main organization here is called Mindan, the Korean Residents Union In Japan, and consists of Zainichi Koreans who have adopted South Korean nationality. Among some 610,000 Korean residents in Japan who have not adopted Japanese nationality, 25 percent are members of Chongryon, and 65 percent are members of Mindan.

There are also Korean people in the former USSR, who refer to themselves as Koryo-saram 고려사람 or Goryeoin 고려인; 高麗人; literally, "people from Goryeo" and they call their language Goryeomal (고려말; 高麗말; Корё маль). I feel I have to mention that, since I live next to Koma in Saitama, and of course Koma is written as 高 麗 in Japanese. 1300 years ago, a bunch of Koreans were able to escape a civil war on the peninsula, and ended up in the hills of Saitama, where there is still a shinto shrine that you can visit (and lots of Korean tourists do). The head priest there, apparently, is a direct ancestor of the original immigrant families. They have a nice website: Koma Jinja

Lithium In The News, Little Do We Know

Toyota and Honda would not be selling a lot of hybrid cars if they didn't have enough lithium for the rechargable batteries needed. Your cell phone or your brand new iPad would not work without it. This little known mineral is rare, and we know little of how it is mined for use in all kinds of applications (known as "eco" here in Japan). Is it not rather telling that most people have no idea at all where the important metals and minerals are coming from? Who is keeping such information from the consumers?

On his visit to Tokyo, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this week that Japan takes priority over other nations when it comes to mining his country's vast mineral deposits. Karzai made his proclamation during a five-day visit to Japan. Grist has more, and Huffington Post even quoted our very own Japan Times:

"Morally, Afghanistan should give access as a priority to those countries that have helped Afghanistan massively in the past few years," he said, noting Japan has been his country's No. 2 aid donor.

"What . . . we have to reciprocate with is this opportunity of mineral resources, that we must return at the goodwill of the Japanese people by giving Japan priority to come and explore and extract," he said.

Karzai also revealed he would be meeting officials from Mitsubishi Corp. later Friday to discuss mining operations.

The mineral resources should be explored in an environmentally friendly manner and must be used in an accountable way "to prevent corruption in the country." Time and patience to explore these minerals, however, is necessary, he added.

"Rather than doing it quickly, we should do it properly with adequate safeguards, adequate environmental guarantees in place, and (a) proper system of management and distribution," Karzai said. "The sooner the better, keeping these three factors in mind."

Photo from the Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which also has the entire text of the press release by the leaders of Japan and Afghanistan... U.S. data about lithium is "withheld" and major producers like Chile are called the "Saudi Arabia of Lithium" by American journalists, writing for Forbes:

Until recently lithium was a minor commodity, used in small quantities by manufacturers of glass, grease and mood-stabilizing drugs. But demand has skyrocketed in recent years, as BlackBerrys and iPods have become middle-class staples. Between 2003 and 2007 the battery industry doubled its consumption of lithium carbonate, the most common ingredient used in lithium-based products. The lithium bonanza may just be starting. Lithium-ion batteries are integral to the automobile industry's plans to wean itself off fossil fuels.
So, do have a look inside your mobile phone. Take a look at that square battery that helps you keep in touch with friends, family, lovers, or business associates. If it says "Li-ion" (CELL ORIGIN JAPAN/FINISHED IN CHINA) you know you are part of the global rush for lithium. Except, they will not tell you where the lithium was mined.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Watching Football

I'm watching Slovenia against the U.S. at Kodansha, were a couple of friends are live blogging for the gekisaka newsletter. T-kun from the UK is here too in his yellow Arsenal away shirt. As one does ;) Later tonight we will watch England but the big game is Saturday night, when Japan has a chance to make history - or not. Not quite fever pitch but it is fun to see the world come together for an event like this. Only once in four years.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

ANPO At 50: Security At Any Cost?

Over at Ten Thousand Things, blogger Kimberly Hughes writes about a symposium she attended recently. The speakers included Kato Tokiko, Ueno Chizuko, Hosaka Masayasu, Oguma Eiji, Linda Hoaglund with details of the struggle against ANPO, the Japanese abbreviation for the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. This agreement was signed 50 years ago after a long and bitter fight, not just between the political parties* but also on the streets of Tokyo and elsewhere. Today, this treaty is like the elephant in the room, that noone likes but noone seems to like to mention:
“For many people in Japan, the presence of U.S. military bases had been all but completely forgotten about in recent decades—until the issue became dragged out of the shadows by the Futenma base conflict,” explained Oguma, a social historian. “And since the United States has not bothered to provide any explanation whatsoever about what the benefits of this air base might provide, it is only too obvious that this treaty is based upon a completely unequal relationship between the two countries.”

Well-known sociologist, professor and feminist scholar Ueno Chizuko, who moderated the discussion, noted that the Futenma issue has been presented by the media with no accompanying historical context such as the resistance against the ANPO treaty.

The evening finished with brief and yet poignant remarks from famous singer and actor Kato Tokiko, who was herself a student at the University of Tokyo in the late 1960s. Kato has been deeply involved with peace and ecology movements together with her late husband Fujimoto Toshio, a student movement leader who was jailed in the early 1970s and later founded the Daichi o mamoru kai (Association to Preserve the Earth).

“I was sixteen years old when the ANPO protest occurred, and I remember feeling a fierce sense of despair that the revolution we were fighting for did not end up happening,” she told the audience. “We had a vision for a different kind of world, and so the way that events played out—including the death of Michiko Kamba—were completely shocking.”

Meanwhile, over at Consumers Union of Japan, participants at the 37th general meeting on June 6, 2010 called for Japan to "annul and scrap" ANPO:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S. We take this opportunity to request that the Japanese government should annul and scrap the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement. The reason is that military bases are no longer necessary anywhere. We thus resolve to make the best use of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, and build true peace with all the people in the world, to remove and dismantle the military bases.
It will be very interesting to see how this debate continues...

*There is of course a lot more to say about how totally un-democratic the treaty was forced through the parliament here. Shin Kanemaru, who was a young LDP bully at the time, had to use all his strength to physically lift up the Speaker of the House and carry him through the crowd of angry lawmakers, so he could reach the microphone and declare the session open. The other parties had tried to block the session, and were either outside the (locked) doors or in some cases inside trying to stop all of this. A later vote the same year never happened and the treaty came into force "by default" - and of course prime minister Kishi just resigned shortly after that, taking no responsibility at all. It is 50 years ago, but this is the legal basis of American bases and the Self Defence Forces - today.

Read more about Nobusuke Kishi in a January, 1960 article from Time Magazine
Read more about Shin Kanemaru in the 1996 obituary from New York Times

Monday, June 14, 2010

On The Pilgrimage Trail In Chichibu

Prime Minister Kan, it was reported, responded to a scandal a few years ago by resigning from politics and embarking on the famous 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku. This is not as unusual as it sounds. Around the country, there are a number of ancient routes that link Buddhist temples, for those who need time off to contemplate or prepare for a new stage in life. These pilgrimage routes are called 巡礼 junrei.

Visiting me over the past two weeks, T-kun, an old friend from the UK has been walking the pilgrimage route in Chichibu, Saitama prefecture, and completed 30 of the 34 temples on the route, all on foot.

I went with him to a couple of the temples, such as number 12 and from 17 to 20. Some of it is paved road walking, but we also crossed small paths along rice field paddies, and he tells me there are tough climbs as well, especially on the final stretches up by the Arakawa River. The views are amazing, considering you are only a train journey away from Tokyo.

In Chichibu, the pilgrimage is called fudasho, while the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku is called henro. The total distance that my friend aims to cover on foot is about 100 km, or the same length as if he were to walk from Tokyo to Chichibu.You could do this as a day trip or choose to stay at ryokans in the area, enjoying hot springs and local food, especially soba, mountain veggies, and jisake (local sake) such as the Bukou from a small brewery near the JR Chichibu station, where you can sample different types as part of the tour, jokingly called "destination 35" in reference to the fudasho!

Keep in mind that this is a serious endeavour, a real Edo era pilgrimage, dedicated to Kannon, the godess of mercy. Many of the temples in Chichibu are Zen. What is really nice is to get a stamp book, and at each temple, you collect red stamps and beautiful hand written calligraphy inscriptions, as a special memory.

It can be more or less "religious" as some do the route by buss or even motorbike, as I discovered near temple 20 on the fudasho trail in Saitama. He was studying the map and said, "Go ahead!" when I asked if I could take the snap shot.

Note that the biker is dressed in a traditional white shirt, although the straw hat has been replaced by a helmet. He also had the special staff, rosary and more, with symbolism from ancient times, representing the six stages of existence, or samsara...

Preferably, you would want to do the temples in the right order, as my friend is attempting to do. As he ends the day at one particular spot, he also makes a point out of starting at that same spot the following day, not making short cuts. I do hope he will manage to complete the last couple of temples, as I know it means a lot to him to have found this so enjoyable and significant.

Searching for images, I was delighted to note that this pilgrimage route does indeed attract attention from some very sincere bloggers, with good cameras to boot:

Buddhist statues at temple 18 from a shakuhachi-playing blogger

Photo of Mt. Bukou from Japanese blogger Footwear Life

Stunning image of Arakawa River from a bicycling blogger from Belgium (click to enlarge)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Consumers Demand Better Food Labelling System

325,125 people signed a petition demanding better food labelling rules in Japan. The signatures were collected by the No! GMO Campaign over a 6 month period, starting in the fall of 2009. This popular grass root movement strongly supports drastic changes to the current labelling system. An event was held on March 26, 2010 to submit the signatures to legislators at the House of Councilors of the Japanese Parliament in central Tokyo.

The main targets of the push for revised rules are:

1) The ingredients of processed foods should be covered by a traceability system to facilitate mandatory labelling;
2) All genetically modified (GM) foods and animal feed ingredients should be covered by the mandatory GM labelling system; and
3) Any food from cloned animals must be covered by a mandatory labelling system.

The background for these demands is that consumers want to improve the nation’s food self-sufficiency ratio and ensure that our food is safe and healthy. The many signatures confirm that this is a long-held desire of the consumers in Japan.

Many people took the opportunity to add their personal opinions to the petition. One consumer said, “Under the current labelling system, I can not be sure if I am choosing domestic foods or not.” “I want you to make sure that consumers have the right to know and the right to choose,” was another comment. Moreover, participants said, “We want processed foods to be clearly labeled if the ingredients come from GM plants, irregardless of whether there are proteins left in the food or not, just like in the European Union, where a traceability system has made it possible to introduce a comprehensive labelling system.”

This applies especially to food oils and soy sauce, which are currently not covered by Japan’s GM food labelling system, based on the reasoning that genetically modified organisms can not be detected in the final products: “Food manufacturers should not be unaware of what kind of raw material they are using. Not being able to detect DNA is no excuse for not labelling all GM foods.”

The No! GMO Campaign will continue to make every effort to appeal to the government to revise the food labelling system to secure the consumers’ right to choose.

(More on the Consumers Union of Japan website)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Japan's New Farm Minister Author Of Food Crisis Novel

Masahiko Yamada, DPJ lawmaker and author of a novel about how serious things could get if there is a global food crisis, was appointed Agriculture Minister today. He has previously served as a senior vice minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

The 300 page novel is a work of fiction with a number of reference points to real events over the past few years. What if grain trading in Chicago goes seriously wrong and Japan's trading companies cannot secure the wheat and corn that Japan needs to feed its population? Would "Heisei riots" follow, with people trying to escape from the cities? Yamada imagines panic and terror attacks and even starvation.

Clearly, what Yamada describes is a worst case scenario that few Japanese people want to think about - but the prospect of a "food war" is something the government should have long-term planning for. An oil crisis in the Middle East could very rapidly develop into a major problem for Japan, with everyone from fishermen to rice farmers completely at loss what to do if gasoline for boats and farm equipment was not easily available.

Yamada has in the past been critical of the previous LDP-led governments' ways of handling other crises, such as genetically modified food and the BSE issue. He has tried to bill himself as someone who has made food safety his "life work" and written about Chinese factory-made food as a threat. In 2006, he spoke out against the Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Australia. In interviews, he explains how important he thinks it is for people to think about a day when Japan may starve. It will be interesting to see how he handles such issues at the helm of a notoriously difficult ministry...

He will also be in charge of the UN conference on biological diversity in Nagoya in October 2010 together with Environment Minister Sakihito Ozawa, who stays on since the Hatoyama administration. Seiji Maehara will be Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister, also in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories. Satoshi Arai will be National Policy, Consumer and Food Safety Minister, another post that I am very interested in, in connection with my work.

Image from Masahiko Yamada 's homepage: 日米食糧戦争 日本が飢える日 Nichibei Shokuryu Sensou Nihon Ga Ueru Hi (Japan-U.S. Food War: The Day Japan Starves)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Save Hirabari Satoyama: How can Nagoya City allow the destruction of this biodiverse treasure while hosting a UN conference on biodiversity?

From Takuya Kamibayashi of Hirabari Satoyama Conservancy:
Hirabari Satoyama is in real danger...

On the 29th of May, developers started blocking visitors' entry to Hirabari Satoyama.

Inside of the Satoyama, local children were growing rice inside of buckets—not inside the rice fields that actually exist inside of Satoyama. But once the developers started the blockade, the children were forced to remove buckets. The only available alternative location for the rice buckets seemed to be the public pathway that actually runs inside of Satoyama; but without a clear explanation, it was also blocked. Some locals asked Nagoya City for an explanation why it allowed the blockade of a public road, but the city turned them away.

I also had a chance to plant rice seedlings inside of buckets, and also to tour inside of Satoyama. What I witnessed there: shining eyes of kids–finding out how their food grows, looking up at the big Totoro tree, discovering the mystery of life. Now, they have not only mystery of the nature, but also the mystery of disappearance of nature.

Hiroaki Somiya, a retired professor at Nagoya University, lives right next to this problematic land. The coordinator of activities at Hirabari Satoyama including rice planting—he cannot help but wonder:
Why does the nature of Nagoya City, the host of COP10 (upcoming UN meeting on the Convention for Biodiversity), keep being destroyed?

How are we—who live in the cities—supposed to understand the importance of biodiversity?

Our Satoyama might be a small problem compared to really big issues, but it all relates to each other. There is no reason we can destroy small ones.
Professor Somiya sees how the struggle between Nagoya City's and the developers and the Hirabari Satoyama Conservancy over these 12 acres is a microcosm of the ongoing global epic between destructive forces and people who respect and want to preserve their natural environments.

This year Nagoya City seeks the prestige of holding a UN conference, touting the slogan "Life in Harmony, into the future," following a 2008 Japanese government announcement of its "Satoyama Initiative." According to Eric Johnston in "Battle lines drawn across Nagoya land: Loss of 'satoyama' risks loss of face ahead of biodiversity summit" published in the Japan Times on March 4, Tokyo plans push this initiative during the October U.N. meeting "to promote protection worldwide of natural habitats from urbanization. Thus if the site comes under development, this would be a major embarrassment."

What does this contradiction between talk and action say about about Nagoya City's and the Japanese government's commitment to saving biodiversity when they are unable to figure out how and commit to saving an irreplaceable biodiverse treasure in Nagoya's own backyard?

There's still time to change course and save the Hirabari Satoyama. Its fate will determine whether Nagoya's holding the COP10 conference and Tokyo's "Satoyama Initiative" reflects a sincere commitment to a sustainable and biodiverse future or a tragic, transparent pretense.

What is a satoyama?

Satoyama (里山) is a manifestation of the traditional Japanese keen awareness of healthy and respectful symbiosis between people and their natural environment. An ancient Japanese concept describing the transitional space between mountain foothills and flat farmland, the word derives from Sato (里) meaning homeland, and yama (山) meaning mountain. Japanese farmers have refined satoyama, havens of biodiversity, through centuries of small-scale farming and forestry.

Because of unsustainable historical changes, many satoyama have been destroyed. In the 1980's and 1990's, renewed awareness resulted in a satoyama conservation movement.

See Jen Teeter's post "Where Children can see Totoro: Hirabari Satoyama and COP10" on Hirabari Satoyama and one of its defenders, website designer and book binder Takuya Kamibayashi, who shared this latest disturbing news with us.

Please visit the English-language website for the Hirabari Satoyama Conservancy and its Facebook site (lots of wonderful photos that show what's at stake).

Previously on Kurashi: Satoyama In Nagoya? Not So Fast, Construction Companies

Finding Connections: Sea, Forest & Our Lives—Pacific Asia Resource Center DVD features individuals who saved their eco-systems

The Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC) has worked since the 1970’s to promote sustainable development and fair trade in Asia. The Japanese NGO has released their newest DVD, Finding Connections: Sea, Forest and Our Lives, produced to encourage sustainable development and biodiversity conservation in Japan and abroad—particularly in rapidly developing Asian countries.

In the name of "development," humans are destroying ever-increasing swathes of our planet; thus wiping out entire eco-systems which we depend upon for food production and the continuation of life itself. Finding Connections: Sea, Forest and Our Lives features ordinary people who defy this trend living in harmony with nature—often against overwhelming forces. By listening to their experiences, we learn about the intimate interconnections between humans and nature.

Patterns of human relationships with nature reflect values that have changed with time. During the 1960's, Japan’s oceans, rivers, forests and fields underwent major changes as the country attempted to double its national income by exporting industrial products. At this time, productivity and efficiency ruled. Finding Connections: Sea, Forest and Our Lives paints a picture of staggering environmental damage throughout the Japanese archipelago:

• Coastal tidal flats, precious habitats for various aquatic species that sustain the food chain of the sea, were destroyed when corporations reclaimed shores to build industrial plants.

• The flows of rivers, which bring rich nutrition from mountains to the sea, were interrupted by dams built to generate electricity, prevent floods, and create reservoirs. The government build the dams meet projected increases of industrial and domestic water demand.

•  Broad-leafed trees, the natural vegetation of the Japanese archipelago, were replaced with conifers in order to meet growing demand for wood, which later began to face fierce competition from imports.

•  Planted conifer trees were left abandoned; their reduced water-holding capacity resulted in floods and landslides.

•  Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced to agricultural fields through which rivers and oceans flowed.
However, ordinary citizens, who dedicated their lives to saving the natural eco-systems that make up their homes and provide their livelihood, made a difference:

Kudoh Kohta (Representative director of Iwaizumi Pure-wood Funiture): “All living things are protected by the environment and the earth...humans are just one of these species.”

Kohta believes that trees must only be used sustainably, taking into consideration the pace of forest regeneration. The furniture artisan runs a furniture work shop that operates on the concept, “Making furniture that last for 300 years with trees that have lived for 300 years.”

Kumagai Hiroyuki (Former Executive Director of the Campaign Coalition Against the Niitsuki Dam): “We’ll never get back those 27 years. We spent blood and sweat, but now we have peace of mind. We preserved the foundation of our livelihoods.”

Kumagai led the campaign coalition against a local dam project for almost three decades; engaged in relentless civil research and promotion until the project was finally frozen in 1997. He was elected as a local city council member.

Hatakeyama Shigeatsu (Oyster farmer, Representive Director of Mizuyama Sea Farm): “It’s important to raise awareness among people living in the river basin.”

Hatakeyama, a fisher, planted broad-leaf trees along upstream mountains along a river slated for a dam project, to let people know that rivers are vital sources of nutrition for the blessings of the ocean. His movement, named “The Forest Is the Sweetheart of the Sea,” gathered widespread attention.

Ohno Kazutoshi (President of Funabashi City Fishery Cooperative): “Rivers flowing into Tokyo Bay were once full of aquatic species. Tokyo Bay and its tidal flats were also habitats for various marine species. But human beings destroyed these habitats. They didn’t do so on purpose, but out of ignorance.”

Ohno lived on Tokyo Bay for over 60 years carrying out his family’s fishing business. Its tradition may be traced back to the 17th century. He contributed to the conservation of Sanbanze, an 1800-hectare tidal flat remaining in Tokyo Bay. The fisher emphasizes its importance for the fishery.

Onodera Hiroshi: “With wet rice paddies, you can harvest a certain amount of rice without fertilizer, since the water from forests is rich in nutrients.”

Onodera, a farmer living upstream of the basin, joined “The Forest Is the Sweetheart of the Sea” movement, thereby becoming inspired to stop raising broiler chickens and become an organic farmer.

With natural resources rapidly disappearing throughout the world, we believe the Japanese experience can help us reconsider the concept of “development” itself—helping us to relearn what we’ve lost. It is our hope that more people will make the choice to return to natural, sustainable lifestyles.

For further information, please contact Natsumi Koike from PARC: Tel: +81-3-5209-3455 Mail:

PARC would be very happy to provide sample DVDs upon request.
Video information:
Title: Finding Connections ; Sea, Forest and Our Lives
Directed by Suzuki Toshiaki, Produced by Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC), May. 2010

● 35min, DVD (NTSC or PAL)
● Bilingual (Japanese/English)
● Price $20 for developing countries, $60 for developed countries
● “Finding Connections; Sea, Forest and Our Lives”


Chapter 1: Nature Changed by People
Humans and Nature in the Modern Era / Reclaimed Tidal Wetlands and the Impoverished Sea

Chapter 2: Severed Connections
The Agricultural Basic Law and the National Income-Doubling plan / Extensive Forestation and Increased Timber Imports

Chapter 3: The Roles of the Forests and Rivers
The Soil and Water Holding Capacity of Mountains / Proliferating Dams / Connecting the Mountains and the Sea / Awareness Changed Reality / Harnessing Nature in the Mountains

Chapter 4: Interconnected Lives
Culture of Broad-leaf Forests / Sanbanze, a Fishing Ground in Northern Tokyo Bay / Values behind Choices

The video website page is here.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Will Kan Have Hap?

With Yukio Hatoyama's exit on Wednesday (while his wife "was quietly stuffing a pillow with cotton" according to The Yomiuri, that naughty old rag) Japan welcomes yet another new prime minister. Mr. Naoto Kan was health minister in 1996, during a very interesting time in Japanese politics, helping victims of a medical company scandal expose what involved blood from U.S. prisoners sold by Green Cross Corp. He has been finance minister under Hatoyama and must know that neither country involved in the Okinawa military base debacle really can afford more massive military spending. Reuters thinks he will be more pragmatic but notes that

He will also face challenges on the diplomatic front, where his views are less well-known. He is likely to stick to the Democrats' basic line of seeking a more equal partnership with the United States and closer ties with Asia including China.

But implementing a deal clinched by Hatoyama with Washington to shift a controversial U.S. airbase to a less populous northern part of Okinawa will be a big challenge, given local opposition.

Hatoyama's decision to abandon a campaign promise to move the base off the southern island, host to half the U.S. forces in the country, was the last nail in his political coffin, helping to send his ratings below 20 percent.

Blogger Shisaku asks, What does the election of Naoto Kan as DPJ leader mean?

Having a PM coming from a district where the voters are almost all white collar salaried workers or members of the managerial classes will likely have a significant effect on economic policy. Urban and suburban voters tend to see government as a regulator and a guarantor of fairness rather than as a source of largess. Indeed, many urban and suburban tend to see the state through corporate lenses: when there is a shortfall in revenues or an economic slowdown, the correct policy response is cutbacks and restructuring, making darn sure that the only projects getting funded are the ones likely to have an economic return.
The question I would like to ask is if Mr. Kan can avoid the faith of the "hapless" Hatoyama.


1. Fortune; chance.
2. A happening; an occurrence.
intr.v. happed, hap·ping, haps
To happen.

[Middle English, from Old Norse happ; see kob- in Indo-European roots.]

BP Oil Spill Model: From Gulf Of Mexico To The Atlantic Ocean

This brief video shows how the BP oil spill could spread to the Atlantic Ocean from the Mexican Gulf, using a model with dye injected continuously each day for 2 months. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research predict that BP oil "might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer [2010]."

"I've had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?'" NCAR scientist Synte Peacock said in a statement today. "Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."

NCAR's statement also addresses whether the slick could reach Europe and concludes that it will have disintegrated beyond harmful concentrations by then.
From Grist