2007/May/09

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Something in common

Residents of a Japanese village that re-invented itself pay a visit to one of Thailand's leading Otop communities

VASANA CHINVARAKORN 

The three men seem to instantly change into a trio of mischievous boys. Spotting a stream in the backyard of their home for the night, they hurriedly put on their bathing suits and jump in to laugh and splash about in the cool water.

Their behaviour unintentionally mimicks some of the posters used in Japan to advertise the place they come from: The small village of Umaji. If they were gulping down bottles of Gokkun, the famous citrus juice from their hometown, the picture would be complete.

To grow so naturally

In a village so tiny,

Gokkun Umajimura - The Gokkun of Umaji ...

The three Japanese men, Mochifumi Totani, Masahiko Otoshi and Shoji Kinoshita, seem to have retained the spirit of their childhoods just like Gokkun Bouya (Gokkun Boy), the promotional character who has helped catapult Umaji to unprecedented fame. They are, in fact, on an important mission, having been invited by the Japan Foundation and some Thai organisations to come to Thailand and share their experience of reviving a rural community. Their gambolling in the stream was out of character for men their age, yet at the same time perfectly fitting. After all, such spontaneous reactions to and appreciation of new environs illustrate what it means to be "rural". That quality, of spontaneity, adjustability, love of nature and people and a simple admiration of everything that comprises the Earth, cannot be emulated or faked. It can, however, be dangerously infectious.

... Let's give the freshness of the mountains to him,

Let's give the strength of the mountains to her,

Let's give the smile of Umaji to everyone ...

The three youthful men were to stay the night at the hamlet of Keereewong in Nakhon Si Thammarat, their final stop on a five day jaunt through Thailand. Despite their distance, Keereewong and Umaji have much in common, both topographically and historically. During his brief stay, Totani even raised with Aree Khunthon, his host at Keereewong, the possibility of the two villages becoming "brother and sister" communities. Both places - backwater settlements tucked away in remote valleys on Shikoku island and the south of Thailand - have seen hard times, and each in their own way has managed to survive and thrive. What they lack in resources and population they have made up for in the standards and dedication of their people - people who stubbornly and fiercely love their land and their rural way of life.

Totani's Umaji has turned crises into opportunities. The main cash crop from his village, a citrus fruit called yuzu, were once considered undesirable due to their unattractive and non-uniform shape and size (caused largely by being organically farmed, a method necessitated by the shortage of labour that is a common phenomenon in Japanese villages). After years of hard work, Totani, who was originally an "ordinary section head" of the Umaji Agricultural Cooperatives, finally succeeded in securing a large consumer base for Gokkun juice and other yuzu products. At present, his cooperatives make about three billion yen (820 million baht) every year from their line of yuzu products, which include juice, shoyu sauce, seasoning, bath products and organic compost.

And that's not the end of the story. The villagers of Umaji have since branched out into a myriad of tourism-related enterprises: A hot-spring resort, forest activities, an annual marathon (popular with both amateurs and professionals), a museum as well as a scenic train ride. Central to these developments is the successful association of the name "Umaji" with "ruralness" - something that has been lost but has become much desired in Japan's big cities.

The residents of Umaji, currently numbering 1,170, continue to withstand the attempts of the central government to consolidate small villages into bigger administrative units. In recent years, their number has even been increased by some educated city dwellers who have become disillusioned with urban living. According to a report in the newspaper Nikkei Business in January, 72 people moved to Umaji between 2000 and 2004.

While Umaji was once burdened by hostile markets, Keereewong had to endure a number of natural disasters including flash floods and droughts. When a severe flood killed a number of villagers in 1988 and tore down one-third of the community's houses, the state authority suggested the locals resettle elsewhere. Fortunately, the natives of Keereewong did not heed this advice. The village has since become renowned for its delicious fruit (especially its mangosteens, most of which are exported), pristine locale, cottage industries, homestay tourism and, last but not least, one of the country's first community-run banks. During the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, Keereewong was named one of the top four Otop (One Tambon One Product) villages in the country.

Coincidentally, Aree met with a colleague of Totani's, Umaji village headman Takashi Kamichi, a couple of years ago at a workshop on the philosophy of Otop that had been organised by some Japanese institutes in Thailand. After all, Thaksin is known to have taken the concept from Japan, where it is associated with the former governor of Oita prefecture, Morihiko Hiramatsu. The much-touted examples of rural entrepreneurship at Oita occurred around the same time as those at Umaji.

Despite their success, both Aree and Toutani's approaches to business have been rather unbusiness-like. In his best-selling book that has now been translated into Thai as Prasopkarn Yingyai Nai Mooban Lek Lek (Great Experiences in a Small Village), Otoshi, who is a writer, stresses the importance of the "sincere, personal relationships" between the villagers of Umaji and their urban customers. On several occasions, Otoshi writes, Totani has been willing to lose out on a deal or spend on something that appears superfluous or unnecessary in order to maintain the trust of those who consume his goods. Prasopkarn Yingyai tells numerous anecdotes about the "blunders" committed by Totani and his team - he did not hesitate, for example, to dump 18,000 bottles of Gokkun juice after discovering they did not have the "right" taste. What else could he do with drinks that have been "guaranteed by the village"?

The fact that Umaji's products have continued to sell well for the past 25 years is the best evidence available that Totani is doing something right.

Otoshi is clearly proud of Totani, the central figure, perhaps even hero, of his book (which is now in its eleventh print run in Japan). When asked to share his opinion of the 55-year-old Totani, Otoshi quickly responds "this guy has done sooo many mistakes!" which he follows with a wholehearted laugh while the target of his remark flashes a sheepish grin.

In Keereewong, Aree started one of Thailand's first manufacturing centres for naturally dyed fabric over 10 years ago, but she says she has no plans to expand. Aside from the occasional NGO-organised trade fair, the only place you can buy Keereewong products in person is in the village itself. The small fabric workshop receives hundreds of visitors every year who come to learn about how natural dyes are extracted from plants like sataw and the peel of mangosteens.

Despite the handsome income she gets from selling the beautiful pieces of cloth, Aree still considers herself first and foremost a chao suan (gardener). Occasionally she has to turn down large orders as too much work leads to pressure that she says limits creativity. The philosophy she applies to herself and the group of housewives who work for her is that "every morning you must be able to smile when you show up for work."

At any rate, the achievements of Umaji and Keereewong came about largely through the support of outsiders. Aree notes with gratitude how some NGOs, notably the Komol Kheemthong Foundation, stepped in to help her explore new ways of making an income during droughts. She still remembers the hardship of carrying plastic bags of water uphill to water the plants in her orchard.

The people of Umaji have similarly benefited from a crew of "cheerleaders" - among them media people like Otoshi, designers and of course the thousands of consumers in cities around Japan.

... Let's give the clear sky from the mountains to him,

Let's give the stars from the mountains to her,

Let's give the nature of Umaji to

everyone ...

But the years ahead are not likely to become any easier for either Umaji or Keereewong. The Japanese national policy of administrative consolidation, in the drive for maximum efficiency, is unlikely to be abandoned or lessened. In Keereewong, Aree admits that the forces of modernity have now surrounded her village. She says TV has, for example, spurred its watchers to "desire things endlessly". She adds that the average household expenses in Keereewong have risen dramatically since mobile phone towers were erected in the area.

The only thing the locals can do is to invest, and trust, in the abilities of future generations. Aree says some youth groups have started researching the history of Keereewong, something she hopes will stimulate love and attachment amongst young people for their home village.

During a talk he gave at Chulalongkorn University, Shoji Kinoshita, as a representative of the "younger" people of Umaji, discussed various projects he has initiated to increase the village's population. One such programme invited city people to become "special residents" of Umaji by receiving regular news on the community and being entitled to a free session at the hot-spring resort should they visit.

"A village without people will be nothing," Shoji said, "but if we can do something, and have fun at the same time, perhaps we can make our home famous and more people will return."

...Let's give the winds from the mountains to him,

Let's give the stream from the mountains to her,

Let's give everything from Umaji to everyone.

To grow so naturally

In a village so tiny,

Gokkun Umajimura - The Gokkun of Umaji.

- The extracts above are taken from a song used to promote the village of Umaji.

- 'Prasopkarn Yingyai Nai Mooban Lek Lek' (Great Experiences in a Small Village) is translated by Muthita Panich from Masahiko Otoshi's 'Gokkun Umajimura' No Mura Okoshi and published by Suan Ngern Mee Ma. Read more about Umaji village at Muthita's blog http://muthita.exteen.com/.

Business secrets 

For years, Mochifumi Totani wished the government would build a bigger, better road to his village of Umaji. But that all changed when a few visitors told him how much they appreciated the rugged, winding, one-lane road that took a few hours to reach this backwater community in the Kochi prefecture of Shikoku island, Japan.

"I then realised that this difficulty could enhance people's impressions of the place," said Totani. "It makes them remember our village. Perhaps, this inconvenience could be turned into a selling point in this age of modernity."

The element of remoteness also forces Umaji residents to improvise and make the best of what they have. The 1,000-plus population have managed to achieve a degree of self-reliance and creativity.

Instead of waiting for government support, Totani and his peers have successfully embarked on several cottage industries, some of which have become nationally famous. From a staff of two, the factory that manufactures a line of products made from the homegrown citrus fruit called yuzu, now hires about 80 people, and sales have grown by leaps and bounds.

In 1989, the village's centennial year, profits hit a record of 100 million (27.4 million baht) . Currently, their annual sales are about 3 billion yen (820 million baht).

Another uncommon phenomenon, Totani added, was the hiring of women, something rarely seen in most rural Japanese communities. About 20 women are employed at the call centre, the key contact point between Umaji farmers and their customers in the cities. A few more enhance their packaging skills, considered a significant task given the policy at this communal factory is to generate as little garbage as possible. They do away with the typical Japanese packaging with superfluous wrappers.

"We use towels to keep the glass bottles intact, which the customers can use afterwards. What we save in packaging materials is given back to our customers in terms of the increased quantity of the products we send them. Our customers seem to appreciate this effort when they learn what we've tried to do."

Pharmacologist Supaporn Pitiporn calls such a business approach "marketing that is not pretentious - by drinking a bottle of yuzu juice, you get in touch with an entire community".

Reading about Totani and Umaji in Prasopkarn Ying-yai Nai Mooban Lek Lek (Great Experiences in a Small Village), Supaporn has found a few similarities between Umaji and the collaboration between the Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital and the Dong Bang community in Prachin Buri.

The staff at the state-run hospital have been encouraging local farmers to switch to the organic cultivation of herbs. The joint venture has now expanded to Dong Bang's own line of herbal products, launched recently, as well as a home stay project.

"Of course, the [Japanese and Thai] cases are not exactly the same," said Supaporn. "But both reflect a new kind of business relationship that is based on sincerity, wherein the welfare of consumers must be closely tied to the strength of the community of producers. Don't merely look at the figures. The Umaji model shows the power of many factors - far-sighted leadership like Totani's, a strong network of people, the mutual learning process and the importance of information flow. In this age of globalisation when people are searching for their roots, the people of Umaji have set an inspiring example of a community that still keeps it roots, which is alive and well."

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