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On the Issue of Japan, Fukushima and Rice

In Japan, rice is life. The word for “life” is also the word for “meal” or “food.” The importance of rice to the Japanese people cannot be overstated. The word for rice has been called “emotive.” Damage to Japan’s rice crops goes beyond simple damage to the diet. To be confronted with a shortage of rice calls forth powerful feelings of deprivation in the Japanese. Japanese rice, irradiated by the events of “3/11,” is in danger.

“3/11” is what the Japanese call the series of deadly disasters which struck northern Japan in March of 2011; the earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Northern Japan was devastated and recovery will take many decades.

When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility was badly damaged by irradiation, local crops, including batches of rice grown in Fukushima, found to be badly affected by radiation, were swiftly removed from the market.

Five years after the quake, Fukushima rice producers still have difficulty marketing their produce. But the Japanese government, working in tandem with nonprofits and private organizations, has developed a positive and creative response to the Fukushima food crisis.

The Rice Peace Project Seminar, held on September 19, 2016 in New York, was inspired by the initiatives of a Japanese government supported campaign working together with non-profits, corporate projects, and organizations, including the NPO Project 88.

The NPO Project 88, which takes name from the 88 processes of rice production, mobilizes Japanese high-quality rice as an emergency relief food. Developing tasty, nutritious, non-GMO, low pesticide, and allergen-free, organic and gluten-free rice products is also central to NPO Project 88’s mission, helping to spread peace and disaster-relief in the world through rice.

The Rice Peace Project Seminar, held to publicize the efforts of the NPO Project 88, featured three speakers from Japan. Mrs. Akie Abe, spouse of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mr. Hiroshi Sakurai, President of the sake brewery Asahi Shuzo, and Ms. Nari Takahashi, President of NPO Project 88. The speeches were followed by a sushi tasting prepared by Sushi Chef Yoichi Akashi of Kappo Akashi using Eco-rice as well as a tasting of “Dassai” sake, the sake Prime Minister Abe offered President Obama during the U.S. President’s 2014 visit to Japan.

Jeff Santos, CEO of the Santos Media Group who hosted the seminar, introduced Mrs. Akia Abe. Santos described Mrs. Abe as an activist. Abe is actively engaged in supporting the NPO Project 88 and in promoting Fukushima’s agricultural industry by creating Yamato No Kokoro sake from rice produced in Fukushima.

Mrs. Akie Abe said that in 2011, in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake, she realized the importance of supporting Japanese food production, especially rice. With the encouragement of US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, Abe began to support the production of Fukushima rice and sake,

Abe described the production of rice in Japan as highly political. She said that 150 years ago, after extensive warring between the Chochu and Aizu clans. the two prefectures began to cultivate rice for sake and to brew sake, jointly. The joint effort was successful and the two prefectures now live in harmony.

Abe said that for Japanese, now as always, rice and sake are spiritual foods. “In Japan, we like to get our hands dirty [working the land.] We are a part of nature. We owe our gratitude to nature. It is my pleasure to work with rice producers and sake producers.”

She closed with a warm invitation: “Please enjoy the sushi and sake tasting today and please also come to Japan to enjoy them!”

Hiroshi Sakurai, President of Sake Brewery Asahi Shuzo, opened with praise for Japanese sake in general and Asahi Shuzo’s sake in particular. “Sake has to be ‘oishii’ (delicious) If it is not delicious what is the point of creating it? And our sake is especially ‘oishii!’”

Sakurai said that he wanted to show two world leaders enjoying Japanese sake, Prime Minister Abe and US President Barack Obama. Sakurai’s photo array displayed pictures from the U.S. President’s 2014 visit to Japan.

Sakurai said that his company, Asahi Shuzo, had partnered with the king of rice producers, Yamada Nishiki, accounting for 6.5 percent of total rice production in Japan. He has a staff of 100 and his employees are the best. Production is entirely by hand- they do not use machines. Production is around the clock, 24/7, to produce “oishii” sake.

Sakurai said that rice production in Japan is very eco- friendly. They recycle all that remains from rice production, such as rice husks, used to make sembei, or rice milk.

In closing, he said: “We are eager to promote our sake and we hope you enjoy the tasting.”

Nari Takashashi, President of NPO Project 88. Ms. Takahashi said that rice was the first food served to Fukushima quake victims. It was sometimes all that aged survivors could eat. And for those who could not eat plain rice she and her company developed soft rice cakes. They were very popular, as were their cream puffs.

Takahashi said that some kids with allergies couldn’t eat even the rice cookies or cream puffs. So she developed allergy-free cookies made with rice powder and delivered to the schools. Kids loved them.

Takahashi said that the application for allergy free products goes well beyond Fukushima. Survivors of the Kumamoto quake this past April are their next potential customers. She believes there is a huge market for these products world wide, especially to disaster survivors and to millennials.

After this spirited set of speeches, it was no surprise that the sushi and sake tastings were extraordinary.