Friday, January 24, 2014


Narutokintoki, ima deshou!
Kansha Alkansha

July-August 2013

So many things are happening in the here and now of the Japanese economy. It all started in November last year when former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the dissolution of the Japanese parliament's lower house. This paved the way to the December 16th General Elections and gave us the incumbent and second-timer Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A re-energized conservative leader back in power aimed at resurrecting the Japanese economy from stagflation from Day One. And boy, did we feel the effects. For those of us who were home for the Christmas holidays, we saw how the yen rapidly declined to around 0.46 pesos to the yen in a few weeks. We can tell that Mr. Abe was and still is bent on cranking up the economy with everything in his toolkit and I could almost hear everyone in his team of technocrats chant “Ima deshou!”

We can also see these apparent changes in our midst by looking through the business pages. Let’s see what kind of ads are on a major broadsheet like the Nikkei Shimbun on a weekday. A page and a half on travel packages—nothing unusual there with the upcoming summer break. Yes, but look at the prices 295,000 yen for a 10-day Hokkaido tour via the JR 2429D sleeper train covering 2,500 kilometers! Or, 398,000 yen tour package for 7 days of autumn in Alaska. Price tags I have not seen for a very long while indeed.

What else? A variety of newly released books and soon to be released business magazines with a whole special issue highlighting the tough summer ahead for the 2-month old BOJ president. Catchy bullet points such as interest rates, re-balancing inflation targets, investor’s choice picks, analysis of rising interest rates overseas and its effect on the BOJ, etc. As early as June, a business magazine is already profiting from reselling its back issues for the first three months of the new fiscal year with banners like “Market choice picks in Abenomics era” for the April issue or “Lessons learned from May 23rd,” (the day when the Nikkei index fell by over 1000 points after over a month long ferocious rally) in the May issue and “The lost month of May” for the June issue. All these ups and downs and a lot more in between happened in the first six months of Mr. Abe’s term (and I suppose more to come)— seems like the dawning of a renewed era for the economy that created the super efficient, faster than the speeding bullet trains?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the Nikkei broadsheet. How is Mr. Abe’s term affecting the private sector? Another masthead reads “Seven Keizaien, Kigyo kaeru” (7-eleven economic park changes business) with a small photo inset of the 7-eleven logo and bullet heads that read “Chase market saturation blues with constant change according to Chairman Suzuki” and “Private brands are taking over instant noodle market”. Okay, so it’s yet another article glorifying the convenience business based innovation chain. There are also FREE orientation seminars on new IPO listings, filings and issues that may diminish or interrupt trading, a seminar on surefire way to choose a juku for your child, or health seminars on how to stimulate the brain in your 90s—yes, all for free and sponsored by the Nikkei group of companies.

But what really fascinates me is the motley of ads introducing a variety of goods and services from SMEs to large scale companies. There are ads on insurance plans, memorial parks, silkscreen art, advance sale of 2014 World Cup commemorative gold coins, cloud CAD services, a wide selection of health foods that are panacea for high blood pressure, weak knees, like aojiro, garlic pills, sesame pills, etc. Yes, all of that on today’s Nikkei Shimbun.

On TV, things get a bit fancier. We, in Kansai, often hear catchy commercial jingles from companies BUYING old pianos (piano utte chodai!), or several others selling tombstones. There are also a good number of popular stars who appear in unlikely ads like Akiko Wada endorsing a whole product line of hairline enhancers or even SMAP’s Shingo Katori endorsing Dole bananas! Agricultural farm products advertised on prime time TV include Koshi-hikari rice, Wakayama or Ehime mikan, Aomori apples, Miyazaki mangoes and even Tokushima narutokintoki or sweet potatoes! Not in my wildest dreams would I see a TV commercial in the Philippines promoting the humble kamote. I remember being threatened by my elders when I was young that if I did not do well in school, I would be banished to a life planting kamotes. Well, here in Japan, people will give you a blank stare and say, “Well, as long as you know how to cultivate narutokintoki, you will be fine.” The strategy of branded farm products creates positive feedbacks not only for the agricultural sector but for revitalizing local economies where these farm products are cultivated.

The hubby came back from a day long drive to the countryside with his college buddies with omiyage of narutokintoki.  A net of this variety of kamote came with a small mimeographed paper explaining its origins, nutrients, proper way of storage to keep the kamotes fresh and yes, a picture of the farmer who harvested the kamote and his guarantee that you get your money’s worth when you eat his kamotes! Appa-rently the narutokintoki originated from the areas around the Yoshinogawa river in Tokushima prefecture which were perennially flooded during heavy rains. Upland soil and all its nutrients were washed downstream and through the years enriched the soil in low lying areas. The lowland farmers were limited to planting crops that survive in murky soil and learned to perfect the narutokintoki variety of sweet potatoes. They later found out that the floods made their land fertile grounds for cultiva-ting this variety of kamote which is popular in Kansai for its elegant color and sweet flavor. The kanji characters 「鳴 門 金時」seem to express the twist of fate with the floods as a blessing in disguise for the lowland farmers: Google sensei translates the characters as “When gold comes.”

After cooking the kamotes, I shared my stash with my in-laws and the first thing that my mother in law said after savoring its hot steaming golden creaminess, “Yappari oishii ne. Noukka wa yoku ganbatte kureteita wa. Arigatai desu!” (Indeed, very good tasty. The farmers did well. Much thanks to them!) One of the solid pillars of the Japanese economy is the availability of a rich variety of goods and services that sustains and satisfies the distinct preferences and taste of its domestic population. Whether you are a big manufacturer like Dole or a small kamote farmer, you get a chance to introduce your quality products in the market and make a good living. With Mr. Abe at the helm, he is clearly setting his sights on making the Japanese agricultural sector competitive by selling farm produce in the global market through the TPP. Undoubtedly, there will be tough times and rough sailing ahead. But I say, “Ganbare to the farmers! Narutokintoki, ima deshou!”

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