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Mika Tsutsumi creates local pathways
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Mika Tsutsumi creates local pathways
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I'm reading
Mika Tsutsumi creates local pathways
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Conversations
23 June 2020

Mika Tsutsumi creates local pathways

Interview by Helena Norberg-Hodge

Mika Tsutsumi is a force to be reckoned with. I met her at our second Economics of Happiness World Summit in Tokyo. She is beautiful, petite and soft-spoken. You wouldn’t expect someone who looks so fragile and seems so gentle to be willing to take on the whole global system. And yet that’s exactly what she’s done, with impressive force, in a great number of books, articles, public talks and lawsuits.

In Local Futures we are extremely pleased to have her as a passionate ally in our attempt to build a global movement for localisation. She is committed to reaching out beyond borders to build broad alliances for a truly systemic shift in direction. 

After growing up in Japan, Mika studied international relations in the USA. She graduated believing in the American system, and went on to work in New York for the UN, Amnesty International and on Wall Street. But Mika was on the twentieth floor of the World Finance Centre—the building next to the World Trade Centre—on 9/11. She originally turned to journalism as a way of coping with the post-traumatic stress brought on by the attack, but as her investigations led her to deeper understandings of the American system, her disillusionment with that system grew in tandem with her passion for investigative journalism. She became especially critical of the way the American media used the 9/11 attack to shift focus away from the increasing corporatisation of politics and economics, towards the “War on Terror”.

Back in Japan, Mika began to speak out against the romanticisation of the United States, and her award-winning book USA—Poverty Superpower—became a national bestseller. She continues to warn the Japanese public about the neoliberal economic model Japan is being spoon-fed, and is raising the alarm about the mass-privatisation, corporate-control and impoverishment that it is leading to. Her most recent bestseller is titled, Japan is for Sale.

Mika is equally fierce in her defence of public health, democracy and local food and agriculture as she is in her resistance to corporatisation. She travels throughout Japan to stand up for the rights of small farmers and concerned citizens, and is deeply passionate about connecting grassroots groups together and educating people on their rights. She is currently mobilising mothers to protect their children’s health by campaigning for local, organic school lunches, and helping small farmers to protect their farms and heritage seeds in court.

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Discussed in this Story

First of all, I’m very interested to hear about your experience after the virus, and what the reaction is, particularly at the community level. Is it helping to strengthen localisation?

Oh, totally. I think this could be the death of globalisation. The coronavirus is a huge wakeup call for all of us in many ways, but especially here in Japan. Over the last few decades, our governments have followed American-style neoliberalism: free-trade has been promoted, global corporations have been deregulated, and domestic industries and local economies have been sacrificed. Local communities have been declining, while economic opportunity and education have been concentrated in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Because of coronavirus, the domestic business situation has been a total disaster—especially in the tourist, retail and entertainment industries—due to the disappearance of Chinese tourists. Hospitals can no longer accept coronavirus patients due to years of cost-cutting policies.

Now people are starting to notice what our government is really doing to our society. It is selling off our public assets and services that support our lives, safety and security, such as water, school, medical care and family farms. They have been sold off to global companies that prioritise quarterly profits and shareholder profits. In Japan, there has been a tendency for local stores to be crushed one after another, mainly by chain stores that handle imported goods made in China. But due to the coronavirus, imported goods made in China are running out of stock, and people have remembered the existence of local stores. Interestingly, cheap imported vegetables from China are no longer available and people are starting to go to small, local, direct stores. Many of us have come to understand that small-scale family farming and local shops are the most sustainable system. We have been forced to face the fact that it is the local relationships, not the government and not the big corporations, that we depend on in an emergency. Especially over the last seven or eight years, the government has undercut small farmers and responded to the pressure to accept foreign investment in agriculture, and cheaper imports from abroad. This is despite the fact although 80 percent of Japanese farms are less than 2 hectares, 98 percent of them are family farms.

Ninety-eight percent?

Yes. The family farms are in all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and they are growing foods—like a variety of vegetables and different strains of rice—that are suited to their own climates. They are all good, inexpensive and we are proud of them. But the Japanese government has been abandoning small-scale farmers because they are dismissed as “inefficient,” and policies force them to scale-up or die. Subsidies are handed out to big agricultural corporations.

Yes, and those are big monocultures that they’re supporting, which are of course completely un-ecological and inefficient.

Exactly. I’m very proud of the fact that in Japan we have 300 kinds of rice, which is our staple food. And as you know, Japan has a lot of natural disasters, like typhoons, earthquakes and huge rains, so it’s very important for us to have a variety of different kinds of rice which can withstand different climactic conditions. About 70 years ago, in 1952, Japan created a law that protected the original, heirloom seeds, and guaranteed support to farmers cultivating them. Because it takes three years to develop heirloom seeds, farmers needed that support. That law was so important—it’s why we still have 300 kinds of rice, and it’s why we’ve never had famines. But a couple of years ago, the government suddenly abolished that law, saying we have to open everything to the global market. Global corporations are wanting to export genetically modified seeds and pesticides to Japan, which will push Japanese farmers to buy new seed from these companies every year. It doesn’t make any sense! All our farmers fear for our food security.

Absolutely. But there is this grassroots countermovement to protect the variety of local seeds, isn’t there? Including the former Minister for Agriculture who has collaborated with us at Local Futures.

Yes, exactly. As a matter of fact, the former Minister for Agriculture and I are among the plaintiffs for a lawsuit that’s suing the government for this policy move. We are arguing that it is a violation of constitution to take away the right to access seeds from farmers. But you know, lawsuits take a long time—10 years sometimes. But in the meantime, a wonderful thing is happening; local communities are waking up to the fact that food security is an emergency, and they are taking a stand! The thing is that, even though the federal government abolished this law, seed legislation can be made by local governments. But most Japanese people aren’t even aware of that. Since the government abolished the seed-saving law, people started learning about their options, other than just giving up. They realised, “Hey, here’s what we can do!” They are creating study groups and learning about the issues, and then approaching local politicians in order to educate them. Usually local politicians are not so connected to ordinary people, and are in leagues with business lobbies and such. But things are changing, as family farmers, students and mothers are starting to make sure their voices are heard. I always think a politician does not become a politician just because they were elected, but only when the voters educate them and hold them to responsibility after the election. And that is exactly what’s starting to happen between voters and local politician right now.

For us at Local Futures, it’s so wonderful to see that, internationally, there really is this awareness growing within local government as local people begin to pressure their representatives and inform them. I hope you know about Frome in England, where the entire local council became independent of party politics, just to represent the local. So there is this very inspiring trend, and we need to stay informed about both sides. Unfortunately, we still have almost all national governments working with this globalising trend which makes less than one percent of the global population richer, while 99 percent are literally getting poorer, and having to work longer hours just to get by. So, I’m really happy to hear there is this wake-up going on in Japan too, and as I know with our Economics of Happiness work, everyday there is a bit more happening, as more and more people wake up at the local level.

Totally. At this point, 23 prefectures have introduced their own ordinances to protect their local seeds and have introduced them in Congress. This is very revolutionary! It was a powerful statement to the central government: “Do not trample the locals anymore. We will decide what is valuable to us.” What I think is best of all is that the movement proved that local people are not helpless. Most people couldn’t even imagine that a local council could make an ordinance to protect them. That is why the local elections in Japan have a very low voting rate, and the political awareness has not grown. We used to trust our federal governments and big companies, but this is changing, and the world is awakening from the illusion of globalisation. Seeing that local councils can make a meaningful change, many citizens have felt encouraged.

Wow, that’s really amazing to hear.   

I’m also part of another great movement, which has to do with school lunches. Because we have more and more free trade happening in Japan, the government has been lowering the standards for foods imports. It is gradually loosening the standards for residual pesticides, including glyphosate which is carcinogenic, and antibiotics in meat, under pressure from the United States. And as our schools are becoming privatised, their budgets are getting squeezed, and Japanese children are eating more and more cheap, imported foods from the US, Thailand, Brazil, usually from factory farms: highly processed, full of pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, sugar—you name it. So our children are getting unhealthier—allergies and problematic behaviours are increasing rapidly. So now our mothers and kindergarten teachers have gotten together and said, “Enough is enough. We want to feed healthy, local food to our children!” With local foods, you don’t have to put a lot of pesticides or preservatives, because you don’t have to transport them over long-distances. Imported wheat, which accounts for 90 percent of wheat flour, is heavily contaminated with glyphosate. So the mothers are saying, “Let’s do local, and let’s do organic.” Last year, I met with the director of a nursery school in Shimane Prefecture who is healing mentally and physically ill children by changing the school lunch to local, organic vegetables. At the smallest level in many prefectures, these mothers and teachers have started taking a stand just to protect their children.

Fantastic.

But they were not connected with each other. So what we’re trying to do is to connect all of them, and connect them with local governments so we can turn these demands into local legislation, with an allocated budget. And once we have a budget, small farmers will get a guarantee, and their livelihoods will be much more secure. If that can be achieved in one prefecture, it can be used as a model case in other prefectures. It can be spread all over the country.

Absolutely. In our work we’re so privileged to be able to try to facilitate international information-sharing. It’s so helpful for people to see the bigger picture—to understand more clearly that their national governments right now are actually promoting a path that works against their health, that works against the climate, against nature, against economic security. And it’s this “people’s movement” from the local that is growing. Particularly with this virus, there’s this need for people to have faith again in human beings, and less faith in big government and big business—it’s the big wake-up that needs to happen.

Yes, that’s very important. The Japanese government is doing some strange things in light of the coronavirus—it seems they are focusing more on promoting the Olympics and sustaining international tourism as a means of supporting the economy. So people have seen how, in times of crisis, the government moves to protect big corporations over their citizens.

Yeah, we’re seeing that in many countries now, governments who are more concerned about keeping the economy going than they are about keeping people healthy. Hopefully, people will understand that this momentum towards supporting global business has been accelerating over the last 30 years. Governments have ended up blindly supporting the health of the economy rather than the health of Nature and the health of their citizens. We really have two paths in front of us now, and we need to be clear about both of them. We want to support the path that’s being pioneered by people at the local level, despite a dire lack of support from mainstream media, academia or big governments. We care about our health and the health of our children, and we care about our future. And we know that the health of the water, the soil and the actual living world is our real economy—that is our sustenance. This is the common sense that the localising path is founded on. Do you have any more examples of people building more community connections, particularly after the virus?

Sure. When school lunches were suspended because of the impacts of the coronavirus, local restaurants in Tokyo’s Egodawa ward began distributing free lunches to school students, using ingredients provided by local farmers. We worked with these farmers and local child-rearing support groups and five restaurants in the ward to get the project going. So many children, who used to eat mainly fast-food restaurant processed foods, have had their first experience of eating local. Before the coronavirus, our economy was becoming increasingly dependent on foreigners. Department stores, markets and such were designed for tourists. But now, since foreigners are no longer coming in, people have started panicking. And suddenly, they are realising they have to re-orient towards providing for Japanese people! All prefectures are suddenly saying, “Please buy local! Please buy local!” It’s so funny, because it’s totally opposite to where the whole Japanese economy was heading right before the coronavirus. It’s like, “Oh my god, we are more interconnected than we imagined!” Before, we depended so much on globalisation that people thought it was no problem if our small fisheries and family farms went out of business—they could get their fish from Norway or Chile, their vegetables from China, their dairy from the EU and their meat from Canada, the US, Australia or Brazil. But now, there’s nothing on the shelves of the huge chain supermarkets! So people are saying, “Oh my god, we have to go local.” Local farmers are the only ones we can buy food from. There’s one strawberry farmer I know—he’s very small-scale, just him and his wife on a very small strawberry farm on the top of a mountain. He’s not making so much money, but my husband and I absolutely love his strawberries because it’s all organic, so we always go there. We were so worried about him because of coronavirus, which has put many huge strawberry farms out of business. So we called him, asked, “Are you okay? Do you want us to buy like 10 packs?!” He told us, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m making more money than any time in the last 10 years! Because I’m small, I’m not affected because I’m not selling my strawberries through huge chains, I’m just doing local.” And now so many people from different prefectures are going crazy, running to his strawberry farm, and he is so busy! We were laughing so hard.

One more thing about why people are going crazy about his strawberries—people are realising that there’s no vaccine for this coronavirus yet, so that means we have to boost our immune system! Mothers all over Japan are having to think about what they are feeding their children. Before, they were just thinking about which one’s cheaper, which one has a prettier package, which one has its own commercial. Now, they have to think about which one is good for their child’s immune system. Mothers have started flipping the package on the things they buy, to read about where it has come from, how many pesticides are on it, how many preservatives it has in it. People are starting to realise that imported foods have more preservatives because they travel longer distances, and that supporting a small-scale, local, organic farmer is indispensable in securing access to healthy food. This is another wake-up call; we are what we eat! To boost the immune system, we have to buy local. We have to eat safe food. We don’t go to supermarkets, we go to local farms!

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