Friday, October 26, 2012

Yokoishi San: an icon of happiness

Mr. Tomoji Yokoishi, President of IRODORI
speaking to high level Local Government officials of Bhutan
Most often, people speak one thing and land up doing some other thing. If only we speak what we intend to do and do what we have spoken anywhere any time, I’m sure this world would have been a much better place for all of us to live, for our trust and confidence would have been at its highest. But such people – who does exactly what s/he thinks or talks is very rare. I’m not saying we are in dearth of such people either. I’m proud to have met one such people recently. He lives very close to the hearts of the people of that area. I first got introduced to him through a short film on his achievements during a short briefing at JICA office, Thimphu on 19th October, 2012. Watching the film, I was beginning to visualize him as a great philanthropist. Yes he is and his story has already gained popular support of his country’s populace. Therefore, I’m afraid, my version here is based on my own little understanding gained through brief interaction with him and may not be able to do justice to this great inspiring story. But I can’t resist writing it down in my own words and it is my hope that at least some readers will be inspired by this fascinating story, like it did to me.
Self with Mr. Yokoishi San

This is a story of fascinating rural enterprise development of Kamikatsu called IRODORI. Kamikatsu is one of the remote towns in Tokushima prefecture of Japan. Pre-IRODORI Kamikatsu had been different – people (particularly women and elderly) had no hopes for the prosperity with their farm productivities going very low and when suddenly it was attacked by severe cold wave it only inflicted further pain to the people living here. It was somewhere during this time, that Mr. Tomoji Yokoishi appeared in the scene as a young and intelligent agriculture extension officer. Since then he shared the pain and suffering of the people and constantly sought solution to his question: “What can be a good job for women and elderly in Kamikatsu?”
     (Ms. Hariki Tsuneko, 90 year old IRODORI producer still strong, active and happy member)

One day it took him by a chance encounter to hear joyful words from young ladies at a restaurant in Osaka city, “How pretty and beautiful!” over those leaves and not for the delicious dishes. Ladies liked the dishes adorned with beautiful leaves. An idea suddenly struck young Yokoishi San to sell leaves, for Kamikatsu town is blessed with bountiful natural gifts of varieties of trees and leaves. He followed his intuition and the IRODORI was kicked off immediately. Some people even laughed at him saying, “Nobody would pay for leaves that can be everywhere. Are you joking?” This did not deter him. He persisted on to it even when IRODORI did not make any profits at all. He visited high class Japanese restaurants (Ryoutei) as a customer to learn more about the reality of the actual site of use. He initiated sales promotion throughout Japan with brochures in his hand. At night he visited restaurants to study further and returned for works at market in the morning. With his dedicated effort, the words spread, customers increased and the sales of his leaves expanded. And with this, smiles on the faces of Kamikatsu people broadened too. Today IRODORI has about 200 participants who are mostly women and elderly people supplying leaves to restaurants all over Japan. Today, people make a good living out of this business. More so, it has identified roles of elderly people in the society that made them happy to find themselves contributing to the society even at an old age. Through this project people have been able to discover a gold mine right at their door steps. People happily say, "The moment we step out of our house, it's all money." People who shared sarcastic laughs once are now wearing huge smiles of joy. This is all because of Mr. Yokoishi San’s philanthropic effort and the IRODORI.
A book written by Mr. Yokoishi San
"Let's sell leaves"

Mr. Yokoishi San has restored the smiles of the people. He is an icon of happiness to people of Kamikatsu and a hero of Japan. Hariki San a 90 year old lady describes him thus, "He is our God. He gave us happiness." With his rule of three steps – notice, verify and implement, he strongly believes that “elderly people are resources in the society as well as in the business.”

Senior citizens! They do have a role in our society and in it lies their happiness. They must not be neglected but rather create an enabling environments to keep on hold the setting sun for awhile, for their years of wisdom may be beneficial for the continuity of the mankind. This is Yokoishi San, an icon of happiness and a hero of Japan. His story inspires me and hope it will inspire you too.

His book, Let's sell leaves has been made into a movie called "What a wonderful world: IRODORI" and has already gained popularity in the theaters of Japan. What a wonderful WORLD indeed?

Monday, October 22, 2012

I dreamt Tokyo

Kamikatsu town: Image courtesy - Google image

I remember reading a passage on “Life in Tokyo” while I was a primary school boy. It was in mid 1980s. Our memories keep fading with constant ageing. I can barely remember what it was all about, but I’m confident enough to say that it did talk about busy life of the people in Tokyo. Back then, the word ‘busy’ never appeared on our lips, while fantasies of new things would immediately take us to rounds of gossips among the friends. The name Tokyo was one such thing that aroused lots of imaginations in me. I used to think, what kind of people lived there? Why they have to be so busy? How Tokyo looked like, and many more. The more I imagined over it the more I felt an urge to see it and feel it myself. I would often wrap up these imaginations with my blatant dream, that, ‘one day I’ll visit Tokyo.’ As my education level advanced, most of those imaginations and questions gradually got answered without having to go there in person. But my dream of going there remained vague.

Today I find myself boarding a flight to Japan. Yeah…I’m going to Japan, one of the pioneer Asian countries to claim the status of a developed country. Watching through the window as I flew over beautiful Paro valley, I thanked the JICA and the Royal Government of Bhutan for making this possible. This is the charm of being in the civil service for once in a while one gets opportunity to fly, I thought. If I were to go on privately, it would have taken me years of hard earned savings and sacrifices to make this happen.

Unfortunately, it’s not to Tokyo as I dreamt. I’m heading to Kamikatsu, a small rural town located in the southeast of the Shikoku Mountains. Forget Tokyo for now. It could have turned even busier that would only give me tensions for these old cells of mine would take time to get accustomed.

I am more interested to visit Kamikatsu because of some classic initiatives it undertook in changing the lives of the people. The town proclaimed itself as ‘zero waste’ town as the new century began. This town has initiated the use of locally available resources for wider economic benefits of the people. This town is renowned for Shitake cultivation and many more such projects. All these success stories give me enough reasons for the excitement.

I’m excited to learn more about the town’s ‘zero waste’ management and policies;
I’m excited to hear from Mr. Yokoishi (President of IRODORI) whose brilliant idea of exploring local resources have changed the lives of people, particularly women population. (Through IRODORI project, people have started to sell various locally available leaves in the market). With so much excitements going on in my mind, I’m hoping to bring home some lessons from this trip.