2007/May/08

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(Text from The Nation website)

Drinking big

A small Japanese village takes its locally produced fruit drink to the cities

An advertisement poster depicts a village boy saying to his older brother who works and lives in a big city: "Please come home this New Year." The ad is not part of a love-your-hometown campaign. It's for "Gokkun Umajimura" yuzu citrus-fruit drink, a product from a village in rural Japan that has become popular nationwide.

The ad idea and the drink recipe came from the same person - Motifumi Toutani, 55, the head of the village's agricultural cooperative office. This so impressed author Otoshi Masahiko, a columnist for a marketing magazine, that he penned a book on the subject called "Gokkun Umajimaru No Mura Okoshi". He says he was impressed by the way everyone in the village worked together on the project, which is uncommon in today's Japanese working environment.

The author and the village leader were in Bangkok last week to launch the Thai edition, entitled "Prasobkarn Ying Yai Nai Moo Baan Lek Lek" ("Big Experience In A Small Village), translated by Muthita Panich. The event took place the Thailand Book Tower on

Sathorn Road
.

The book tells the story of the small village, whose yuzu drinks start selling like crazy, rejuvenating the community through its business success.

In the early 1960s around 4,000 people lived in Umaji village in Kochi prefecture on the south coast of Shikoku Island. Umaji means "horses' way" - there were no highways or railways. The population had fallen to 1,200 by 2005 due to the exodus of young people going to work in big industrialised cities.

With only the old folk and children left behind there was nobody to tend, harvest and market the village's yuzu fruits. An additional problem was a regular glut of the fruit of every four years, leading to uncertain prices.

"Uncle Toutani", as the Thai translator Muthita calls him, thought that the only solution was to make a processed product out of them. After several months of determined trial and error, using his children as guinea pigs, he eliminated the fruit's sourness through adjustments of honey and water. Finally one day, his children said it tasted great.

Gokkun Umajimura manages to be both sweet and sour - and very refreshing. The drink won a Japanese village product award in 1988 and today about 350,000 people nationwide are on the mail-order customer list. Revenues total
7 million (Bt2 million) per year, with related products totting up more than 3 billion over the last fiscal year.

The village has undergone a complete change. There has been an influx of tourists as well as case-study tours from other provinces to learn the secrets of revitalising a community, and many of the young people have returned. Outsiders have even moved to live and work there. There are now 10 telephone operators just to receive orders, and calls are coming in from suppliers who before used to refuse the products.

"The drink's name is a combination of 'Gokkun', the Japanese word for a gulping sound, and 'Umajimaru', literally meaning 'Umaji village' - but many Japanese call it 'Gokkun' for short," says translator Muthita.

"I once visited Tokyo and saw a poster that said, 'In the big city we have lost the sense of the village'. The sense of the village is what urbanites need. So I used the word 'maru' as part of the drink's name," says Toutani.

"I smiled a lot while reading Masahiko's book. It's a charming story," says translator Muthita. "I visited the village after reading it and felt very impressed. I wanted Thais to share the experience."

But Uncle Toutani and the villagers don't rely only on the drink. Other products from the village include yuzu vinegar with shoyu, originally made for seasoning but now also used popularly as a salad dressing, explains Muthita.

Shoji Kinoshita, another village leader who came to the book launch in Bangkok, says that the Umaji residents also produce plates, fans and bags from recycled materials, as well as notebook-computer cases made from wood. The bags won a national good-design award last year.

Jaturapith Chompoonuch, a webmaster, was among those at the launch. He had previously found the book in the store's business section, but it wasn't the business side that impressed him most, rather the community aspect. "I love the idea that they are proud of their home," he says. "They have made a unique 'baan-nok' local product widely available - this localisation is what Asian people need, rather than globalisation or the things Western countries introduce to us." The book should also be put in the children's or teens' sections, he adds.

After the launch, translator Muthita, who is also founder of the Foundation of Regional Empowerment Education, took Uncle Toutani, Kinoshita and Masahiko to exchange ideas and experiences with Thai farmers in Prachinburi, Phuket and Phang Nga.

The last word goes to Uncle Toutani, who says: "A successful community needs leaders who have zest, understanding of the villagers' situation and a strong determination to forge ahead."

"Prasobkarn Ying Yai Nai Moo Baan Lek Lek" by Masahiko Otoshi. Translated by Muthita Panich. Published by Suan Nguen Mee Ma Co Ltd. Now available at leading bookstores for Bt190.

Aree Chaisatien

The Nation

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