Made in central Japan: Chubu bets on Tokyo Olympics to boost sales of local produce
With the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics taking place this year, prefectures in the Chubu region are eager to make the sporting event an opportunity to promote their local produce.
In the village of Higashishirakawa, Gifu Prefecture, whose land is 90 percent covered by mountainous forests, numerous Japanese cypress trees are seen growing straight toward the sky alongside a 3-meter-wide unpaved road.
“Don’t you think our forestry workers are doing a good job?” says Masahide Osaki, 53, an official of the village’s forestry cooperative, pointing at trees that have branches and leaves only near the top.
Unlike Japanese zelkova or maple trees, Japanese cypress trees need to be taken care of constantly to grow. Forestry workers need to regularly thin and prune for sunlight and nutrition to reach all parts of the tree.
Tono Hinoki, a brand of Japanese cypress trees produced in Higashishirakawa and five other municipalities in Gifu — the cities of Seki, Nakatsugawa, Gunjo, Gero and the town of Shirakawa — was used to construct the Village Plaza, a part of the Olympic Village built in the Harumi waterfront area of Tokyo.
“I hope it will give people a chance to realize the attractiveness of wood,” Osaki said.
Tono Hinoki are felled when they reach 20 to 25 meters high and their trunk measures 20 to 30 centimeters in diameter near the root. Because of the cold weather in the area, Tono Hinoki trees grow slowly and tend to be thin compared with Japanese cypress trees grown in other regions, but the slow growth means they have narrower spaces between the rings, making the wood stronger.
The wood was also used to build Nagoya Castle’s Honmaru Palace.
After World War II, more Gifu-produced wood, including Japanese cypress and Japanese cedar, were shipped for use in building houses, triggering a price hike. But with the decrease in the number of wooden homes, shipments dropped.
Shipments recovered slightly in recent years following the enforcement of a law to promote the use of wood in public buildings in 2010, but sale prices remain low.
According to a local cooperative store that handles Tono forestry products, the price of Tono Hinoki and other Japanese cypress trees was around ¥16,000 per cubic meter in 2018, half that of two decades ago.
To make up for slow domestic demand, Gifu’s forestry industry is looking to explore markets in East Asia.
Exports of Gifu-made wooden products to South Korea are increasing, totaling 380 cubic meters in 2018, roughly seven times that of 2014, when the data started to be compiled.
With that in mind, Gifu sees the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics as a good opportunity to further promote its wood.
“People around the world (who visit the Village Plaza) will touch and smell Gifu-made wood,” said Kimihiro Ito, 46, a Gifu Prefectural Government official in charge of expanding sales channels for Gifu-made wood. “I hope this will create chances for Gifu-made wood to be used in various places around the world.”
Pushing for certification
Mie Prefecture, which hosted the 2016 Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit, has set its sights on the Tokyo Games as an opportunity to further expand sales channels for local foodstuffs that attracted attention when they were served to G7 leaders.
As fruits, vegetables and meat offered at the games and the athletes village need to be certified as meeting Good Agricultural Practices — an internationally recognized standard to ensure food items meet criteria including product safety and sustainability — the Mie Prefectural Government is strengthening support for producers to obtain the certification.
There are different kinds of GAP certifications, including Global GAP issued by Germany’s FoodPlus GmbH, AsiaGAP and JGAP issued by the Japan GAP Foundation and GAP certifications issued by each prefecture based on the national guideline.
As of the end of November, 28 out of the nation’s 47 prefectures have created their own GAP standard and certification to secure food safety and help farmers stabilize their business.
Among six prefectures in the Chubu region, Aichi, Gifu and Mie have their own GAP standard. Although Nagano, Fukui and Shiga do not have one, the prefectures are encouraging producers to make necessary efforts.
“If our products will be used at Olympics and Paralympics venues, it will help motivate workers at our farm,” said Junko Onishi, 39, operations manager of Sigma Farm Toin, a farm based in the town of Toin, Mie, where 15 people, ages ranging from late teens to 60s, with mental or intellectual disabilities work.
In January 2019, the farm obtained Global GAP — the GAP standard with the largest number of criteria — for the production of Mie Nabana, a local brand of rapeseed, becoming the first welfare-related facility in the prefecture to clear the standard.
The farm, which currently ships most of its products within the Chubu region, aims to expand its sales to the Tokyo metropolitan area if its produce achieves widespread recognition at the 2020 Games.
“I also hope the event will become a chance to increase awareness toward cooperation between agriculture and welfare,” Onishi said. Along with the Mie Prefectural Government, the farm is promoting its products not only to caterers for the Tokyo Games but also to nearby hotels and organizers of related events.
Students of Akeno High School in Ise, which has agriculture courses, are also trying to promote their rice and pork to caterers for the games. Their rice brand Musubi no Kami was granted Global GAP certification, making Akeno High School the first high school in the Tokai region to obtain one.
“I hope foreign people can enjoy the sweetness and large grains (of our rice),” said Hiroto Sakai, 18, a third-year student.
As they are considering jointly developing products with local shops, the students hope their produce will be offered at Olympic venues to increase their recognition.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Jan. 1.