-A year after graduating, you got married and both went to study at the Technical University of Munich Graduate School (TUM-GS) in Germany?
Kota: To be honest, it was a total coincidence that we both ended up studying abroad in Germany. Each of us was looking for the right place where we could study what we were interested in, and it just so happened that we both found ourselves at TUM-GS.
That year before going abroad, I worked part-time at an environmental impact assessment company while studying under a rural planning expert at a graduate school of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. I also learned a lot about sustainable agriculture while in Germany.
Eri: For me, it was studying abroad that got me interested in agriculture and renewable energy. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, it was becoming common for German farmers to invest in renewable energy solutions like solar power and biomass power generation at the time that we were studying abroad there. For me, it reaffirmed how remarkable it is that farming can produce both the food and the energy that people need to survive.
-When did you start working as farmers in Minamiaso?
Kota: We started 15 years ago, in 2003. My uncle took over the farm from my grandfather, and I knew that I would eventually have to take care of the land, but to be honest, I really didn’t feel that I would be able to succeed as a farmer.
Eri: It was actually me who pushed him to start farming so early on. I was of course interested in farming, but I also thought that it would be the perfect environment for raising a family. I grew up as an only child in the city, so I wanted to have a big family. And I realized that the place to do that wasn’t Tokyo; it was the countryside.
Kota: When I brought her to Minamiaso, she seemed to fall in love with it right away.
Eri: I thought it was such a wonderful place. And it just so happens that the year we graduated from university was the year that Yamaichi Securities declared bankruptcy. So I felt that even if I got a job at a large company like that, the future would always be uncertain, and I decided that even if it wouldn’t always be easy, I wanted to take a stab at being a farmer in a beautiful place like Aso. That’s why I told Kota that if we were going to farm in the countryside, it would be best to get started early.
Kota: When I heard how enthusiastic she was about living somewhere rural, I made up my mind to go back and start farming in Minamiaso. There was no one else to inherit my grandparents’ and uncle’s farmland and protect the natural beauty of the area. I founded O2 Farm together with Eri and chose to keep growing rice the same way my grandfather had, an organic method using duck and carp. At first, my grandfather was against my decision, shouting about how a college graduate would never be able to run a farm. But nevertheless, he helped me work with the local community and the unions, and with a house, some land, and an existing market for our products, we were off to a good start.
Eri: But he was secretly happy that you followed in his footsteps and chose to be a farmer.
Kota: Whenever I was out operating the rice harvester, I would see my grandfather watching me from afar, his hat pulled low over his brow. He may have thought he was hiding, but I knew exactly what he was doing. [laughs]
-You are currently raising your four children on your farm, and Eri has been quite visible in the media for her agricultural outreach activities, both as the appointed director of Heroines for Environment and Rural Support (HERS), an organization for female agricultural works across Japan, and for her devotion to registering the Aso region as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).
Eri: All this media exposure was actually Kota’s idea. I’m like the dancing bear at the circus who entertains the audience with my real-life stories as I present a compelling case for the sustainable agriculture that we are trying to achieve at O2 Farm.
Kota: We need more understanding and support in order to protect the natural beauty of Aso. Eri’s media activities are just one part of an increasingly important trend for farmers to communicate with society. That was one of the major benefits of studying at SFC, a place where the Internet first took off in Japan. We had a blog before blogging became popular, and it has become a platform for us to argue that agriculture should not merely pursue productivity but that there is an intrinsic value in farming that cannot and should not be lost.
Eri: Our outspoken approach may have been one reason why we were asked to help out when it was announced that Aso was being considered for designation as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).
Kota: Eri is fluent in English, so Kumamoto Prefecture asked her to go present their case at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) headquarters in Italy. After several favorable presentations by local farmers, Aso received its official designation as a GIAHS.
-We’ve heard that young people hoping to make a living in agriculture come to see you from all over the country.
Eri: We’ve been happy to host many people, including several SFC students who have said they want to start farming in rural areas. In fact, I even accepted a request from SFC to talk about agriculture as part of a job-hunting seminar. I think it’s fantastic that Keio students are considering agriculture as a viable career path.
Kota: It may seem like agriculture and SFC don’t match, but in reality, agriculture has a depth and breadth that extends into many other areas and is an occupation where the concepts of policy management and environment and information studies really come alive. That’s something I only realized once I began farming.
-We get the impression that Eri has accelerated a variety of community revitalization efforts and renewable energy initiatives since the Kumamoto Earthquake two years ago.
Eri: Thankfully, the damage to us was minimal, and we were the only house in the village to have power at night during the blackout that followed the earthquake thanks to the electricity stored in our solar power system. We knew that we had to do something for the areas most impacted by the earthquake, so we started a project that brought agriculture and tourism together. We held a restaurant bus tour where visitors traveled in a double-decker bus to see how crops are grown in the farmlands around Aso and try local specialties. We also organized a little farmer’s camping activity where students learned about food and agriculture. We even opened a cafe that can serve as a shelter during disasters.
Kota: And last year, Eri was honored for her revitalization projects with the FAO’s Model Farmer award. She was the second person in Japan to ever receive the award.
Eri: I’m extremely grateful. Over the past two years, there have been many projects to help support the disaster areas, and I feel like I’ve been able to give something back to the region. Now I’d like to focus on agriculture and renewable energy and have established my company Satoyama Energy, Co. Ltd. in order to realize a form of agriculture that generates both food and energy, much like they do in Germany.
Additionally, I’d like to focus more on education in order to improve parenting in rural farming communities. Raising children in the countryside can be freeing, but the reality is that there are not many education options once they reach school age. Schools here are quaint and the teachers are friendly enough, but we currently have no other choices. I believe that there needs to be more diversity in where children learn. I would like to increase educational opportunities in rural farming communities so students can choose their own futures based on their individual personalities. I’m still not sure if my ideas will take form as a type of school, or as a kind of terakoya learning center for the IT era.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
Kota: I think the potential that young people have during their late teens and early twenties is amazing. I hope that an excellent environment like Keio’s will allow them to have confidence in whatever they choose to do.
Eri: I would go back and say the same thing to myself as a student, and I would also say don’t be spoiled and waste your time in such an excellent environment. Though it can be hard to realize when you live in the city, I would also like to challenge students to really consider and care about the importance of food and farming in their own lives.
-Thank you for your time today.
Kota & Eri Otsu
Owners of O2 Farm
Kota and Eri both graduated from the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies in 1998. After graduating, they married and went to study abroad at the Technical University of Munich Graduate School (TUM-GS) in Germany. There, they learned landscape planning and its applications in sustainable rural development. After returning to Japan, they worked as farmers in Kota’s hometown of Minamiaso, Kumamoto Prefecture, growing organic rice and breeding Akaushi beef cattle. Together, they have four children: two twelve-year-old twin boys, a ten-year-old boy, and a two-year-old girl. Eri has been instrumental in the designation of the Aso region as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System and is active in a variety of fields, establishing a renewable energy company and serving as president of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Women in Farming Project (Nougyoujoshi Project).
*This article originally appeared in the 2018 summer edition (No. 299) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.
Photo: Shinji Hizume