2019 / 5月
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell
The Japanese book Fresh Food by Rapid Delivery not only has brought first-hand information from food-producing regions into the hands of consumers, it has also stimulated contact between urban and rural areas, sparking a food and agriculture reform movement that has crossed national boundaries.
In a certain residential building in Taipei, a group of people of different nationalities, ages and professions are gathered together. They are Yang Cheng-ju, Blythe Wei, Zheng Yajun, and Yoshinobu Tsukiashi; Li Yiqian joins them online. The reason behind their meeting is the Taberu magazines, which originated in Japan.
These food-focused magazines, which are delivered to subscribers together with a sample of seasonal produce, not only convey information about agricultural production areas and outstanding farmers in words and images, they also bring farm-fresh foods into readers’ homes, creating a reading banquet that includes multiple sensory experiences.
The realization of the concepts described in the book Fresh Food by Rapid Delivery has been like a quiet social revolution. It all started with Tohoku Taberu Magazine, founded by Japanese social entrepreneur Hiroyuki Takahashi. (Tohoku is the northeastern region of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and taberu means “to eat” in Japanese.) Today in Japan there are 35 sister magazines, while in Taiwan four similar publications have been founded: Taberu in Eastern Taiwan, Yunlin Taberu in Taiwan, Travel Taberu in Taiwan, and Central Taiwan Food Journal.
Perhaps Hiroyuki Takahashi never expected his magazine to get such a broad, even transnational, response. Formerly a prefectural assemblyman, Takahashi devoted himself to reconstruction work in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. In order to give a boost to local agriculture, he created Tohoku Taberu Magazine, which combined a publication with home delivery of foods. However, given the similarities in the problems faced by most developed countries in terms of imbalanced development between city and country, a disconnection between producers and consumers, and cash-strapped local governments, this pioneering work has already spread abroad.
Concern for food and agriculture
The person leading the way in transferring Takahashi’s work to Taiwan has been Yang Cheng-ju, who works at an engineering consulting firm. Despite her work having nothing to do with food or agriculture, she was inspired by Takahashi’s book Fresh Food by Rapid Delivery. “I read this book several times in one week,” she says.
Yang took it upon herself to raise money to invite Takahashi and partners from the Japan Taberu Magazines Alliance to Taiwan to share their knowledge, and thus the spark was carried to Taiwan. A while after the Chinese edition of the book was published, people who felt inspired by Takahashi’s message came out in large numbers. They launched activities and served as editors, while Yang acted as matchmaker. They also invited Yoshinobu Tsukiyashi, director of the Mokichi Okada Association Taiwan (MOA Taiwan), to serve as a liaison between Taiwan and Japan, staying in touch with Japan through an organization dubbed the “Taberu Magazines Taiwan Affairs Office.” Within two short years, Taiwan editions of Taberu have flourished everywhere.
Though these independent publications are emerging in an era of intense competition in the magazine publishing world, there is something uniquely attractive about Taberu magazines. This is mainly because they “bring together people who might come from different fields, but are all interested in food and farming.” As Yang explains, “The greatest appeal of this magazine is that it breaks through the ‘echo chamber’ phenomenon.” Rather than call it a magazine, it would perhaps be better to describe it as an open platform for ideas and dialogue about agriculture: Where are the best farmers and where does the best food come from? Do you want to understand issues of importance to rural communities? Even young people who are thinking of moving (or moving back) to live in rural areas can find answers to their questions here.
Within the broad policy orientation of regional revitalization, in recent years Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has pursued “relational demography” as one of its main strategies. In the non-governmental sector, people like Hiroyuki Takahashi and Kazumasa Sashide, the chief editor of the back-to-nature magazine Sotokoto, have also been strongly advocating this approach.
As explained by Meiji University professor Tokumi Odagiri, “relational demography” is the study of the population that has a relationship with a particular place. At a time of considerable outflow of population from more remote rural areas, the effectiveness of policies such as encouraging women to have more children or recruiting young people to relocate to a particular rural area is quite limited, due to difficulties in practical implementation.
Therefore, in recent years attention has begun to turn to the “relational population,” comprising people who give a location economic support, or who visit regularly or even live there for short periods. Although these people cannot be counted as part of the local population, they still have a relationship, however deep or shallow, with the location. They are a source of energy for local revitalization, and there is a strong possibility that as a result of their long-term association with a place, they may become future migrants who settle in the locality.
Within the strategy of relational demography, the Taberu magazines are one method of promoting the creation of a relational population. One great strength of the Taberu publications is that they can transcend the limitations of a conventional magazine. Since their launch, through their journalism and through food tasting and cultural experience activities, they have been able, as Yang Cheng-ju puts it, to “find interesting linkages.” These diverse links with consumers can help transform fading rural communities.
The best examples of people moving from “consumer” to “activist” are the editors of the magazines themselves. Chiang Pei-yan, founder of Taberu in Eastern Taiwan, who relocated to Nan’ao by herself, has been able to use the publication to link with producers from all over Eastern Taiwan, and even bring together young people who have moved to Nan’ao to play a part in producing the magazine. Also, in view of the unique character of the eastern counties, these young people are very active in organizing cultural experience activities, inviting readers to immerse themselves in the vitality that springs from the mountains and seacoast of this region.
Another example is Blythe Wei, who is currently studying in Taipei. Not only has she been able, through Travel Taberu in Taiwan, to rebuild her former connection with rural communities, she has even enrolled in graduate school in the Department of Bio-Industry Communication and Development (formerly the Department of Agricultural Extension) at National Taiwan University. “After I started studying I began looking at agriculture from a more serious angle,” she recounts. She has also proposed the idea of “participative journalism,” opening up editorial work to others. “This is not my personal magazine, it’s just that I came in contact with the concept of Taberu magazines relatively early on.” Holding fast to this idea, she has invited young people who are still in school to join her editorial team, and by leading them on reporting trips to the countryside, has enabled young students whose lifestyles are far removed from those of rural areas to have the opportunity to visit remote farming communities.
This shows that the significance of the Taberu magazines has not only been to deliver fresh foods directly from farming areas, but also to serve as platforms for promoting interactions between country and city. Besides creating meaningful links between urban and rural areas, they are also searching for opportunities for survival for rural communities that are lagging behind. Or, in the aspirational words of Hiroyuki Takahashi, “They will enable continual contact and interaction between city and country, and spark action to achieve this mission, as the two sides protect each other.”