Forging Agricultural Ties:Taiwan Juku
Cathy Teng /photo byChuang Kung-ju /tr. byScott Williams
“Taiwan Juku” was anything but a typical exchange program! Dreamed up by Yumi Takamine, a consultant with the Miyazaki Enterprise Promotion Organization, and supported by the Miyazaki Prefectural Government, it didn’t focus on exports, business transactions or numbers, but on forging friendships between Taiwan and Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, which were previously largely strangers to one another.
Kentaro Morimoto, a third-generation tea grower, got big laughs when he took the stage wearing a “tealeaf” hat designed by his wife, Aya Hidaka. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Located in the southeastern part of Japan’s Kyushu Island, Miyazaki Prefecture has a population of roughly 1 million, a comfortable climate, and a largely agricultural economy. One the few places in Japan capable of growing mangoes and lychees, its produce and scenery are similar to Taiwan’s. In fact, many people say it strongly resembles Taitung.
Orange grower Nobuyoshi Tanaka wants to grow his fruit in an environmentally friendly way and interact more with consumers.
Make friends first
In December 2016 Yumi Takamine, who headed the “Taiwan Juku” program, posted a note on Facebook for her “dear Taiwanese friends,” explaining, “The goal of Taiwan Juku isn’t simply to stimulate Japanese exports to Taiwan, but to deepen Japan’s understanding of Taiwan. What synergies will arise when Taiwan and Japan become cooperative partners sharing a trusting relationship?”
Takamine, a specialist in international marketing, had visited Taiwan many times for agricultural expos, chatting with young Aboriginal farmers about the dumping of Japanese produce on the Taiwan market, and the lack of equality in the Taiwan‡Japan relationship. “It was these conversations that motivated me to establish Taiwan Juku.”
She wondered if there was another approach that could disrupt the one-way street of expos, one that was good for both sides.
While the Miyazaki Prefectural Government didn’t immediately understand what she was proposing, it lent its full support.
Taiwan Juku “opened for business” in late 2014, with seven mutual exchanges over the following year. Japanese participants in the program visited farms in Taiwan, while Taiwanese visited Miyazaki, each seeking to better understand local farming methods and systems.
Shiho Fujiyabu, who works at the Miyazaki Enterprise Promotion Organization, recalls traveling to Taiwan with a group from Miyazaki in April 2015. She says they first visited Yilan and Taoyuan, then returned to Taipei for a meetup, during which all of the participants took the stage to relate their individual stories and foster mutual understanding. The Miyazaki contingent had decided to introduce themselves in Mandarin, which led to everyone practicing how to say, “Hello, everyone. I’m….” Encouraged by the audience’s enthusiastic response, they commented on the friendliness and directness of Taiwan’s people.
Yumi Takamine created the “Taiwan Juku” program with the idea of fostering friendships between Taiwanese and Japanese to benefit both nations.
Inspired by Taiwan’s Oriental Beauty tea, farmer Kentaro Morimoto has made the bug bites on his tealeaves a key part of his branding.
Exchanges reveal differences
The Taiwan Juku exchanges also demonstrated differences in things each side chose to reveal.
Orange grower Nobuyoshi Tanaka insisted on addressing the meeting in his less-than-fluent English, and used the four basic skills of traditional cross-talk to liven up the atmosphere. Listeners might have assumed he was the joker of the group, but the story he told was that of an unhappy farmer.
Tanaka’s family had large citrus orchards, but he was unhappy working there because, even though he was outdoors, the work made him feel like nothing but a piece of machinery. He wanted to interact more with consumers, and to implement environmentally friendly growing practices, but circumstances made that difficult.
The Japan Agricultural Cooperatives’ division of labor strictly delineates responsibilities within the production chain. Farmers are expected to focus entirely on crop production, which ties the hands of those like Tanaka who want to do more.
Tanaka saw his participation in Taiwan Juku as an opportunity to practice his English, learn new things, and make new friends. He found himself especially moved when a young Yilan farmer named Lai Cing-soong told him: “I farm so that I can pass these farmscapes on to my children and grandchildren.” Lai’s statement resonated with Tanaka’s own long-held desire to produce oranges in an environmentally friendly way.
“Rather than simply making money, says Tanaka, “I can leave something for the people of the future, or I can create something. That’s what I learned from people in Taiwan.”
Tanaka formally assumed control of his family business this year. Considering the large size of his orchard, he’s going to have to take any conversion of growing methods step by step, but he doesn’t mind. He plans to gather a group of like-minded people, devise a plan of action, and work gently but resolutely to change the world.
Kentaro Morimoto, a third-generation tea grower, got big laughs when he took the stage wearing a “tealeaf” hat designed by his wife, Aya Hidaka.
Morimoto doesn’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers on his tea plantation. Instead, he uses “natural farming” methods that enable the flowers, grasses, bugs and birds to coexist. He even has fireflies visiting in the summer!
After arriving in Taiwan, he met with Taoyuan tea grower Lin Ho Chun and learned that Taiwan’s famous Oriental Beauty tea owes its flavor to the bite of an insect called the tea jassid, which causes chemical changes that give rise to the tea’s unique flavor. The information inspired Morimoto to brand his insect-bitten tea, which had previously been classed as a lower-quality product. His wife then designed packaging for the brand around the concept of sharing the tea with the bugs, attracting many environmentally minded consumers.
Kentaro Morimoto is proud that his tea plantation coexists in harmony with flowers, weeds, insects and birds. He even has fireflies in the summer!
One of Miyazaki Prefecture’s first wagyu cattle.
Developing a relationship
But what benefits does this kind of exchange offer?
Relationships built on friendships open up a much broader range of possibilities than business-oriented transactions.
Takashi C.Y. Lin, CEO of Hayashi Office and a facilitator of the Taiwan Juku events, says, “Takamine was interested in bilateral exchanges.” He then explains the underlying significance of such exchanges: “To Taiwan, Miyazaki is Japanese. To Miyazaki, Taiwan is ‘international.’ Miyazaki doesn’t necessarily want to sell [its goods] to Tokyo; it wants to go international, to be internationally recognized.” When a place chooses to step out into the larger world and forge ties with other countries, methods that don’t necessarily accord with central government policy may provide a more effective means of doing so. Taiwan Juku has turned Taiwan and Miyazaki into each other’s preferred partners.
Agriculture is a mainstay of Miyazaki’s economy. The Taiwan Juku program represents one of the prefectural government’s efforts to connect its farmers to the larger world.
Drawing on Miyazaki Prefecture’s example, Taiwan’s government is helping farmers develop products and evaluate markets.
The story continues
Although Taiwan Juku wrapped up its formal operations in October 2015, the interpersonal connections that it helped to shape remain.
Takamine thinks for a moment, then says, “So far, Taiwan Juku has enabled me to help 5627 people conduct exchanges, including Japanese visiting Taiwan and Taiwanese visiting Japan.” This figure isn’t a key performance indicator, but rather is the number of people who built relationships through Taiwan Juku, and who will likely further extend their interpersonal networks in the future.
When Ko-Tong Rice Club founder Lai Cing-soong returned to Taiwan after completing studies in Japan, he took up farming in his wife’s hometown with the goal of providing locals with safe, healthy food. Many urbanites were taken with his methods, which in turn sparked curiosity in neighboring nations, drawing visitors from mainland China’s Hainan Island, Hong Kong, and Malaysia to his farm in Yilan’s Shengou Village.
“I went to Japan to study when I was younger. Now, having Japanese people coming here to see me is very encouraging.” In late 2015, he dreamed up the “East Asian Island Time Seminar,” and invited experts from Hong Kong, Hainan, and Malaysia, as well as both Miyazaki and Kyoto in Japan, to share the agricultural ideas they were trying out. “We don’t have anything to do with formal diplomacy between capitals, but we can connect smaller places to one another, link farmers to other farmers.” For them, connecting people and thinking together about the likely future of local agriculture is a way forward.
In official institutions, another story is unfolding. In April 2019, six agricultural research and extension stations opened “agricultural value-added prototype centers” modeled on Miyazaki’s Food Open Lab. The centers help farmers develop new products and evaluate the market for those products, while the government provides processing equipment and technology, and assists with hygiene and safety standards.
Lin Heng-sheng, deputy director of the Business Promotion Center of the Agricultural Technology Research Institute, says that Taiwan has adapted the Miyazaki model to local needs, and notes that Taiwan and Japan have different goals for the processing of agricultural produce. “Japan’s objective is to use rural renewal to keep people in rural areas. Taiwan’s is to enable the distribution of local products, and through that encourage the formation of production hubs that become local highlights.”
On the day we visited the center, we saw a Nantou farmer named Tang Yinghua roasting rice bran. Following food safety practices, on the instructions of Su Chih-jou, an assistant researcher with the Taichung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, we donned uniforms, hairnets and facemasks, and washed our hands for 30 seconds before entering the processing room.
The entire roasting process is being tested to provide farmers building their own food processing rooms with a template to follow, and to ensure the safety of the resulting product.
Beginning with conversations and then developing into groups working together, Taiwan Juku bridged the seas between Taiwan and Miyazaki Prefecture, forging connections that are still growing. This is a story that looks sure to continue.
Farmer Lai Cing-soong wants to connect farmers on the islands of East Asia so they can pool their experience and come up with new directions for local agriculture.
Shiho Fujiyabu (seated at far end of table) came to Taiwan in 2019 to host a food workshop, one made possible by her 2015 participation in the Taiwan Juku program.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama