Place: Hida Furukawa and Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
Hosts: Special thanks to the Satoyama Expreience
Duration: March 24-25, 2012
Impressions of the Journey:
Thanks to the Satoyama Experience, we were able to spend a weekend in mountainous Gifu prefecture. In Gifu we had the opportunity to interview Hajime Jimmy Tanaka, who runs a 400 cow cattle farm and produces the high-quality “Hida Gyu” beef that Gifu is famous for.
We left Tokyo early Saturday morning by bus, crossing the beautiful, fruit-producing regions of Yamanashi and Nagano in order to reach Hida Furakawa just after noon. Hida turned out to be a quaint, quiet town with canals and old japanese architecture located in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We traipsed around in the snow, taking in a photography exhibit and chatting with a few locals in the afternoon. In the evening, we sat down together with Mr. Tanaka to enjoy a beautiful and delicious dinner (pictured above) made of locally produced Hida specialties. These included hoba miso, a dish in which locally produced miso and vegetables are placed on a sun-dried Hoba leaf and grilled on a charcoal fire.
During our chat with Mr. Tanaka over dinner we learned that the Japanese beef industry, and Japanese beef (wagyu), are very different from their western counterparts. Japanese livestock farms, like their veggie counterparts, are typically much smaller in scale than cattle farms in the United States. As a luxury item, great care is taken in the preparation of Japanese beef. While Japan’s Kobe beef is known worldwide, there are several types of wagyu, including Mie prefecture’s Matsuzaka beef and Gifu prefecture’s Hida beef. According to Mr. Tanaka, while the three types differ in name based on where they are produced, the actual beef is more or less the same since the cows used to produce the meat are all descended from the same original group of cows. Good wagyu was once described to us as “beef you can eat with a spoon”. Whether or not this sounds appealing, wagyu is certainly fattier, softer, and more expensive than beef produced overseas.
Hajime “Jimmy” Tanaka runs a Hida beef farm with 400 cows in Hida Furukawa. The cows are bred exclusively for their meat, and in order to enhance the flavor of the meat, the cows live a stress-free life indoors and get almost no exercise. Farmers have different methods for producing especially fatty meat. Some of the more famous ones include massaging cows with sake, feeding the cows alcoholic beverages, etc. Tanaka does not employ these methods, but they are not fictitious. Once a week a beef auction is held in Hida Furukawa, where restaurant owners from Nagoya, Tokyo, and other Japanese cities bid on 800 kilogram or so cow carcasses or live cows.
During a one-year agricultural exchange program to North Dakota, Mr. Tanaka worked on a 5000 acre cattle farm. In response to our question about differences between how Japanese and American farmers think about and treat their livestock, he said that in America people are more aware that when meat is eaten it means that someone had to kill an animal. This connection tends to be more hidden in Japan. He believes that farmers’ attitudes about livestock vary from individual to individual, but Japanese and American ideas about the value of life and death are different, perhaps due to the influence of different systems of belief and/or religion.
Tanaka made an important distinction when we discussed Japanese agriculturists’ ideas about liberalizing trade that I would like to highlight here. He mentioned that farmers who are most strongly opposed to Japan’s involvement in the Trans-pacific Partnership (TPP) are the kengyou farmers – those who farm only part-time and generally farm for household use. Some of these individuals fear that they will lose their government subsidies if trade is liberalized, and since they are not farming for commercial purposes, they do not stand to benefit from improved market access or the other opportunities the change might present. Sengyou farmers – those who farm full time – are of mixed opinions, but Mr. Tanaka said that he and his colleagues in Hida recently had a discussion about it and decided that they we in favor of TPP because it would open up new opportunities in international markets.
The ratio of part-time farmers in Japan has been steadily rising over the past thirty years or more, and in Hida and its surrounding area alone, there are over 4100 part-time farmers but only about 900 full-time farmers. More people being involved in agriculture may raise Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate, but it also renders the nation’s agricultural community and its interests much more complicated and nuanced.
As we will likely delve into differences between full-time and part-time farmers more in the future, this is a good opportunity to deconstruct the two terms presented above, sengyou farmers and kengyou farmers. Kengyou [兼業] means “second business”, with the “ken” character referring to something that is happening concurrently. Sengyou [専業]means “principal occupation”, with the “sen” character referring to a specialty. The kanji are pretty straight forward. So is the distinction between the two groups, but it seems nonetheless that they are often lumped in together and represented as having the same interests, when in fact they do not.