Fashionista Farm Gals of Tokyo

In rice fields almost 700 kilometres away from the Japanese capital Tokyo, you can find 20-something city girls working hard in a swirl of dust.

You can’t miss them because their fashion inevitably stands out in a paddy — colourful clothes and high heeled boots, over-dyed blonde hair, lush eye lashes and long polished nails. Reflexively, you may cast a hasty second glance, because they are so unexpected.

Are they really farmers, you may ask? The answer is YES.

In addition to working as a model and a singer, Shiho Fujita is the leader of a squad of young women farmers. She started a marketing business at just 19 years of age, targeting the city’s young girls. Fujita felt the need to try and transform the negative image saddling she and other “gyaru” (which is the Japanese transliteration of “gals”, the slang term for a fashion subculture containing vast subcategories).

Eventually this young entrepreneur came to join various campaigns about environmental and food problems, which led her to venture into a new field — farming.

“Young people, including me in the past, don’t have a clear picture about agriculture in general and the food problems we face,” she says.

“That’s what I want to change.”

Tokyo-Gals2

Are they really farmers, you may ask? The answer is YES.

To begin with, last year she ploughed 24 hectares of rice fields with reduced amounts of agrochemicals, after which she sold the rice online. Then one day in October, she marched down to Shibuya, one of the most crowded districts in Tokyo, and handed out 1,000 bottles of rice to young people, many of whom like to use a popular dieting method that involves not eating carbohydrates.

Recently she organised a one-day farming trip for young mothers and their children, published a book on ‘gal farming’, and designed denim overalls that are both party perfect and comfortable enough to work in.

Rustic, cool and creative

In Japan, farming has begun attracting young people, particularly those who were born in the late 1970s and the 80s, like Fujita. Atsushi Miura, a marketing analyst, writes that the children of baby boomers (generation Y) who settled down in suburban areas do not see farming as obsolete but rather as a rustic, cool and creative activity.

But behind the popular scene lies a tragedy: in 2008, 46.8% of Japan’s 2.7 million farmers are over 70 years old. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates that 45% of their income from farming relies on subsidies, a reality that leads more farmers to take on remunerative side jobs, particularly if they do not receive a pension. Abandoned farmland across Japan has tripled in the last 20 years as a result.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been involved in encouraging young newbie growers with a campaign that includes a web presence, ‘how-to-start’ sessions and consultation meetings. Six-month e-learning courses also provide firsthand training for city business people who are too busy at work. In addition, last year alone, there were roughly 1,850 applications put in for 1,000 traineeships available under government supported programs.

While the government’s promotion may have contributed to an increase of new farmers, rising unemployment due to the financial crisis may be another possible instigation for this growing movement.

Is popularity enough?

Never before has Japanese society been so anxious about the future of farmers, and the government too is worried. So this growing show of passion for farming should be a good sign.

But as the trend mounts, so too does scepticism about how much happy-go-lucky youth like Fujita are actually thinking about the country’s food problems ahead. It may be legitimate to ask if they are truly committed to the cause for the right reasons.

Working once a week in the field, Fujita knows the pains of weeding and harvesting in sweltering summer and in the shiver-inducing winter. Yet this cannot give an understanding as deep as that of the farmers tied to their work through long hours on a daily basis.

Although she is interested in living in the countryside in the future to engage in farming with other ‘gal’ buddies, for now Fujita has no plans to live full-time on a farm in a sparsely populated area. She says she is glued to the city for the time being so she can draw more attention from young city dwellers. The easiest recruitment is to send out messages from within, she told us.

Looking for something new

People in Ogata village in Akita prefecture, where Fujita grows rice, must find her project interesting because the village has long sought something more innovative and creative to lead the country’s agribusinesses.

Ogata has also been the site of another riveting agricultural saga. Established during large-scale reclamation work designed to expand the country’s granary in the 1960s, the town has since the 70s felt the effects of the government’s divisive agricultural policies, including rules that limit the development of new rice fields in order to support domestic prices. The village is therefore well known for its strong resistance against conventional policy and struggle for more control over its own rice.

Recently, faced with declines in rice price and consumption, some farmers in Ogata started growing a specific type of rice which they grind themselves and sell as rice flour. Maybe it is a coincidence but Fujita, similarly creative, has an idea to produce bread, pasta and even cosmetics from rice flour.

Real ways ahead

In any case, many believe a sweeping reform is necessary to thoroughly re-vitalize agricultural industry in Japan. The country’s self-sufficiency rate for rice, nearly 100 per cent, exceptionally higher than other grain crops, symbolises Japan’s unbalanced agricultural policy. Excessive provision of subsidies to rice farmers has weakened their competency in a global era.

“I’m aware of the criticisms,” Fujita writes on her blog, “but I’m just standing at the starting line. I believe that Japan’s agri-scene won’t change unless young people are motivated.”

Her simple and lucid words seem to hit the nail on the head.

Wherever this serious discussion goes, whatever the rebukes she has, this 24-year-old’s everlasting energy goes on. Fujita’s 2010 plan includes starting creative gardening, in which both flowers and vegetables are planted together, in addition to continuing to grow rice.

So, what about the ultimate goal?

“Today’s market for us gal farmers is limited, but someday I want to expand the market overseas.”

Her never-ending list of ideas will grow until the day ‘gal farming’ gains worldwide fame.

Creative Commons License
Fashionista Farm Gals Of Tokyo by Ayako Iizumi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Ayako Iizumi is a project assistant at the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). Her interests include a range of issues relating to democracy and sustainable development. However, what she finds most fascinating is when these different interests intersect. She holds a masters degree in International Relations from Warwick University in the UK.

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    Go farm gals!!

  • joeblogs90

    Apologies but can’t help finding the article demeaning and naive.

  • BrendanBarrett

    Hi Joeblogs,

    How so? I am impressed Shiho and her friends are trying their hands at farming. It is something I wouldn’t mind doing myself.

  • joeblogs90

    Hello Brendan Barrett,

    I think I was referring to the use of model-esque images to promote a serious matter and then referring to these young women as gals, etc. I believe we have to be mindful in constructing New Media in that we shouldn’t be promoting stereotypes which could be detrimental to the objects and subjects of our communications. I am not denying that what these young women are trying to do is admirable or that the content of the communication has a noble motivation. Do remember though that ‘the media is the message’! A little quality control in terms of deconstructing of the message is necessary so as not to embed negative memes within our messages which could easily alienate some consumers of these knowledge products.

  • BrendanBarrett

    Hi Joeblogs,

    Yes, you make a very good point about the use of the terms “gals” and the model-esque images. The intention was not to embed negative memes with the message.

    What the article does not point out is that “gals” is actually the term used by Shiho and others like her in the Shibuya area of Tokyo to describe themselves. In Japan, the term is “gyaru”. There is actually a wiki page on Shiho indicating that in 2006 she set up her own company called “Gal Revolution’ – see more here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sifow

    Together with her friends they have been trying to rebrand the term “gals”. They still place a lot of emphasis on fashion, but have begun to explore different social themes – such as farming. Shiho has also published a book entitled “No-gal” which is a play on nohgyo (agriculture) and gal. It is a best seller on Amazon Japan with a ranking of 4954.

    If anything, Shiho and her friends are trying to challenge stereotypes.

    But your point is well taken and some context about the “gals” from Japan in the article would have been helpful for the international readers.

  • kgordon

    The use of a ‘stereotypical’ model, especially in a fashion forward country, does indeed leave the impression on the younger generations that this is the right ‘model’ of behavior. As joeblogs90 said, “we have to be mindful in constructing New Media in that we shouldn’t be promoting stereotypes. I am not denying that what these young women are trying to do is admirable or that the content of the communication has a noble motivation. Do remember though that ‘the media is the message’!”
    Children in today’s societies do indulge in the media and follow in suit of these politically forward citizens. The fact that this is a cultural reference with Shiho and her friends use this to describe themselves and are trying to combat these stereotypes is admirable to those of the country. To those of another country, the adding in of the fact that that is the term the models themselves use should be known and the reader should take this in with an open mind that “gal” while it may be derogatory in the United States, is not in Tokyo.

  • joeblogs90

    Thanks for the detailed explanations Brendan Barrett and thanks for the message of support kgordon. I was trying to not be too critical as I did realise that what these young women are trying to acheive may be admirable. I was simply pointing out that indeed “the media is the message”. Maybe a little deconstructionism and critical reflection is required in the publication quality control department? This is actually quite tricky though since who judges what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? The idea that the articles are been shown to an international audience is interesting and that the localisation of the media possibly led to the appearence of naievity and promotion of negative stereotypes. There must be some guidelines out there to help with this or why not construct our own?

    At least we are having a decent discussion about the issues. Both credit to Web 2.0 features herein and the open attitude of UNU.

  • FrankieSaysRelax

    I totally agree with joelogs90. Women should be in the kitchen, not farming.
    Although I disagree about his point on ethics.

  • Name

    This is part of a campaign by the Japanese agricultural organisation. You guys know that they hired Sifow to do this, right? Its an advertising campaign.

  • AyakoIizumi

    Hi Name — I rather see it as cooperation. It is true that recently Fujita does work with agricultural associations in some campaigns and that a farmer gal like her is an ideal figure for the country domestically and internationally to appeal Japan’s so called ‘gross domestic cool.’ Having an interview with her, however, I have an impression that she is determined to go her own way as a forerunner. So far this may be where bottom-up and top-down approaches meet.

    Another point its that when you look at today’s Japanese pop culture, you’ll realize that there are many other types of girl icons acting as goodwill ambassadors in various fields. i.e., train gal (tetsu-jo), history gal (reki-jo), forest gal (mori-girl) etc. They are not hired or used by particular authorities to revitalize the industry, although three kawaii (cute-looking) ambassadors, appointed officially by the foreign ministry last year, are an exception. I think Fujita as a farm gal (no-gyaru) simply adds diversity to it and has gained fame in this context.

  • TokyoBruce

    Hi AyakoIzumi.
    Nice article. It’s great to see important issues like food independence on Government agendas. However, I can fully understand why the tone of Name’s comment is synical. Never does the article show or even hint that this farming endeaveour is a government plan and not that of Ms. Fujita’s. In fact, the wording seems to deliberately lead the reader away from thinking that. Why is this so? Was this cooperation between Ms. Fujita and the Ministry deemed not news worthy enough by someone? If you as the author could shed some light on the background dynamics of this, a lot more readers might come away more impressed rather than disappointed after reading Name’s comment.
    Sincerely, and respectfully, Paul

  • R200802122rm

    The Number of people involved in Agriculture.

    Since the high economic growth of the 1960s, more and more people
    have gone into the manufacturing or service industries. As a result,
    the number of people involved in agriculture has continued to
    decrease.
    Farming has long been unpopular among the younger generations. They
    say farming is the “3K” job. Naturally, the aging of farmers and
    declining of agriculture has become a big problem. However, there
    seems to be a new initiative towards revitalizing agriculture,
    demonstrated by the younger people themselves.
    Shiho Fujita, a young entrepreneur known for her “Shibuya gal”, has
    launched a surprising “Nogyal (agricultural gal)” project this spring
    to encourage Shibuya gals to get involved in rice farming. The image
    of agriculture may be changing from “3K” to something more stylish,
    fun and meaningful.
    So, what lies beneath this change in attitudes? I think that the
    general trend for health-consciousness and fear of having polluted
    foods are probably responsible. If this faming trend continues to grow
    and doesn’t just end as a temporary boom, then this generation might
    play an important role in sustaining Japan’s agriculture.

    kanagawa university minami

  • R200802049

    Gals of Tokyo in Farm

    We can find 20-something city girls working hard in a swirl of
    dust at Ogata village in Akita prefecture. Their fashion inevitably
    stands out in a paddy — colourful clothes and high heeled boots, over-
    dyed blonde hair, lush eye lashes and long polished nails. Shiho
    Fujita is the leader of a squad of young women farmers. “Young people
    have nothing to do with agriculture. That’s what I want to change.”
    She says. Recently she organised a one-day farming trip for young
    mothers and their children, published a book on ‘ gal farming’, and
    designed denim overalls that are both party perfect and comfortable
    enough to work in. She says she is glued to the city for the time
    being so she can draw more attention from young city dwellers. The
    easiest recruitment is to send out messages from within, she told us.
    Her never-ending list of ideas will grow until the day ‘gal farming’
    gains worldwide fame. I think that young people have little interest
    in agriculture. The agriculture is essential in our life. However, a
    farmer is decreasing recently. So I think that it is important to
    intere
    st us in agriculture. Young people have to change future in
    Japan.

    Kanagawa university Marina

  • Midori Tsunashima

    ‘New Style of Farming’

    In rice fields, you can find 20-something city girls working hard. Maybe you’ll be surprised at their appearances, such as colorful clothes, high heeled boots, and over-dyed blonde hair and so on. This kind of fashion is quite unbecoming to rice fields.

    Shiho Fujita, one of them, is a model and a singer. She is also known for the leader of a team of young women farmers. As she took part in various campaigns about environmental and food problems, she was becoming interested in farming. At the same time, she felt the need to change the young people’s image of farming. That’s why she started this new style of farming. To begin with, she rented 24 hectares of fields, and grew rice. She sold the rice online, and then handed out 1,000 bottles of rice at Shibuya to promote rice and farming.

    Now, in Japan, farming is short of hands. So, it needs to gather new farmers immediately. Fortunately, young people are having interests in farming in these days. That should be a good sign. But some people are worried about young people will be get tired of this “farming-trend” soon. However, many believe an allover reform is necessary to re-vitalize agricultural industry in Japan. This trend will be a good help.

    Shortage of farmers is a big problem. Especially Japan is becoming an aging society with fewer children. Besides many young people live in urban cities, and rural cities are bothered by depopulation. So, many young people are unused to farming. To solve the problem, organizing some workshops or seminars is good way. It will be a chance for young people to know about unfamiliar work. In fact, government supported programs were well received, and there are a lot of traineeships those who have interests in farming. Also, workshops or seminars will be a good start to think about the food issues. In any case, support from the government is necessary.

    Midori Tsunashima
    Department of English,
    Kanagawa University