Featuring Jack Lichten, a PhD Candidate of Environmental Sociology at the University of Tokyo
Welcome to the second half of our discussion with Jack Lichten, an American doctoral candidate of Environmental Sociology and Ethics at the prestigious University of Tokyo. Catch up on part one here!
The catastrophic 9.1 earthquake one decade ago not only destroyed thousands of lives, but also led to the nuclear disaster now referred to as Fukushima. The consequential effects of failing reactors progressed into a crisis that not only contaminated the land and sea around the power plant, but also created “radioactive plumes” that spread toxins as far as the Chiba prefecture in Tokyo. Thousands of agricultural acres on the archipelago were now under question of their ecological safety. As such, citizens all around the country became aware and rightfully concerned about the possible detrimental effects coming from the environment and domestic produce.
“After 3/11 the population became more aware of 'invisible pollutants' that could exist within their food,” said Lichten. With this newfound awareness, Japanese consumers wanted to know what exactly goes into their food — from the ground up.
The seeds of anti-chemical farming, last seen in the mid-20th century, started to take root again within Japanese culture. But this time around, the name “organic’’ became less of a political virtue and more of a mindful movement to reduce the pollutants used in their daily diet.
It is important to note that organic produce currently takes up around only 1% of the Japanese domestic market. It was also clarified that while the “organic” opinion isn’t anywhere near the majority, the younger generation takes the majority within that small percentage.
To this day, according to Lichten, companies from the Tohoku region of Japan test the terroir, water, and even the animals for possible radiation levels. Notably, the ARI performs regular radiation tests within their cattle population in order to ensure the safety of their products.
The Culture of Organic
With wagyu cows going for $10,000, strawberries receiving an “emperor” grade, and humble ramen bowls costing 500 yen, Japan is renowned for its high-quality food — across all budgets. But there is one thing you might notice when visiting the “Land of the Rising Sun”: the lack of an organic label.
Why doesn’t Japan feel the same way about produce, despite its profound culinary reputation?
As many Americans would know, the USDA Organic label portrays itself to be a hallmark of quality. Farmers’ markets all over the country feature local goods made by producers who showcase the best offerings from the regional terroir, largely with that green and white stamp of approval. In return, the consumers feel confident that their purchases are meeting certain quality control standards set by the USDA.
While taking into consideration the different distribution systems existing between the US and Japan, Lichten said that there isn’t as great of a need for organic labels because it doesn't carry a lot of weight in Japanese culture. The standard for excellent produce is already set extremely high — without special stickers. Another reason Lichten gave for the weak culture of organic food is the culture of aesthetics.
“When you grow organic vegetables, you have to accept a certain amount of imperfection.”
Citing an interaction with a negi (green onion) farmer, the grower told Lichten that it would be near impossible to grow scallions in a natural, organic way without them being visually perturbed by insects. In a culinary hertiage that puts great value in aesthetics, Japanese farmers who don’t take appearance into consideration would be left out of the market’s consideration.
From a Line to a Circle
When asked to compare agricultural attitudes between the US and Japan, Lichten saw a much more “top-down” approach in the States. Producers from Western farming industries focus more on the singular benefit of the land owner, rather than having more consideration for the ecosystems from which they profit.
Diametrically, Japan has a more harmonious relationship with the environment. According to Lichten, the idea that we are “hand-in-hand” with the world instead of having our world in our hands finds a theme within Japanese agriculture and the policies within areas that contain integral habitats for other creatures. These fraternal attitudes towards other creatures and the land in which they thrive help conservation efforts, said Lichten, using the example of the Oriental White Stork within the southeastern Kansai region.
The Oriental White Stork originally thrived within rice paddies that were maintained by humans, said Lichten. But throughout the years, these famous figures from medieval Japanese poetry faced near extinction due to the changing landscape and overhunting. In fact, the bird population in the wild went extinct by the mid-20th century.
However, local governments in the Hyogo prefecture saw this great threat and chose to spearhead conservation efforts to save this sacred symbol. By preserving the wetlands and breeding storks in captivity, cities like Kinosaki created policies and spaces dedicated to supporting the kounotori.
“Preserving the environment where the [stork] lives became an important part of the Hyogo area where the bird species is able to survive.”
Looking forward, Lichten sees the ecological importance of educating the youth by using agriculture as a tool. Children being exposed to the environment and the realities of food production is vital to understand the impact we have on the environment when we consume the food. With this knowledge and awareness, Lichten hopes, the future generation of producers and consumers will be more mindful and “look at other beings in nature and see what they need to survive.”
As for his own future, Lichten aims to either continue his path into academia or work directly in the agrarian industry in the US or Japan. He hopes to work in an environment that honors and prioritizes the collaborative decision making process — similar to his fond experiences in agrestic Tochigi. In the meantime, he works to complete his doctorate in Environmental Sociology & Ethics while observing the effects of the global health crisis within the Japanese farming communities.