1 Kyoto University Graduate School of Agriculture Department of Natural Resource Economics, Kyoto, Japan
Maximilian Spiegelberg 2
2 FEAST Project, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan
Outside of the conventional grocery model, Japan hosts a wide variety of food practices and access points for food that feature local, alternative, informal, and wild characteristics. Examples include unattended farm stands, wild plant foraging, beekeeping, foodbanks, community gardens, and local vegetable shops. We present evidence from a mapping project conducted in 2019-2020 to provide a visualization and spatial understanding of where food practices exist and operate. Our analysis explores the multiple dimensions that exists within food practices and explore how these practices relate to one another. These diverse activities operate in decentralized manners and thus can offer flexibility and redundancy in order to create a more resilient base for local food systems. We conclude that Japan’s diversity of food practices speaks to Japan’s culture of not stepping outside of social norms or pointing attention towards large disruptions to existing systems and instead points to how these acts emerge from a sense of individual responsibility and values.
Alternative food network, informal food, wild food, local food, resilience, sustainable transitions
Japan’s rural areas face de-agrarianization, propelling rural flight and impacting domestic caloric self-sufficiency to fall below 40% where its food system becomes heavily dependent on imported goods (Hisano et al. 2018). In response to the increasing dominance of agro-industrial food systems, many movements have emerged focusing on food practices that draw connections to theoretical concepts such as Alternative Food Networks (AFNs)/Civic Food Networks (CFNs), Food Democracy, Geographic Indication/terroir, Slow Food, Sustainable Diets, and Food Sovereignty. However, many of these concepts often carry a heavy focus on the market economy and such narrow focus can overlook the rich and diverse landscape of food practices that exist among families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and activists.
Japan carries a rich and diverse landscape in relation to food practices as it holds a strong history of regional autonomy where each region carries idiosyncrasies in their food practices and food culture. This landscape is often overlooked for its potential in creating strong safety nets, promoting community resilience, and holding potential for sustainable transition. The many food practices that exist outside of the mainstream food system not only operate on the individual but also on a grassroots scale where momentum in building alternative food systems is seen in their “quiet” action and the co-construction of intimate social ties amongst consumers, producers, distributors, and other related actors (Holt-Gimenez 2019; Vivero-Pol 2017).
Unlike many AFNs highlighted in other countries that often hold public opinions regarding the mainstream food system, the co-construction of intimate social ties among consumers, producers, distributors, and other related actors serves at the core of these hidden food practices. The scope of our paper aims to answer the following questions: How does the diverse array of informal, wild, alternative, and local food practices manifest themselves and how do these activities create the potential for a sustainable and resilient food system?
2. Methods and Results
In this paper, we chose Kyoto as an area of study because of its strong branding surrounding its food culture and its acclaimed frontrunner position in sustainability transition within Japan as it placed first in Japan’s National City SDG ranking in 2019. Based on a digital search, in-person mapping, and information sharing and gathering with various food networks, we developed a map with 1000+ locations depicting food practices that exist outside of the conventional supermarket model (see figure 1). The following food practices are featured in this mapping project: unattended farm stands, direct sales markets, community children canteens (Kodomo Shokudo), community gardens, beekeeping sites and seed sharing locations.
Figure 1. Map of 1000+ locations of food practices outside of the agro-industrial food system in Kyoto Region.
In order to analyze how these food practices, relate to one another, we defined the following categories: local, alternative, informal, and wild(*1). We define local as food reflected in short food supply chains rooted in place-based activities. In Japan, local food is embodied through various mediums including the government led initiative of the chisan-chisho (local production/local consumption) movement. Under the chisan-chisho initiative, many rural regions organized their own direct market shops (chokubaijyo) where residents and farmers could sell their harvests. Here, the focus on place-based is often apolitical and instead emphasizes the embeddedness of producers, consumers, and other actors and their relationship to a particular place (Nishiyama et al. 2005; McGreevy and Akitsu 2016). While local does not connotate political motives or dimensions, the category of alternative best describes food practices that are rooted in a set of agreed upon values. These values often carry social, environmental, and sometimes political orientations (Jarosz 2008). Informal food refers to food practices where individuals or participants can construct their own relationships where the main objective focuses on social aspects of connecting with people through self-produced, wild foraged, and convivially prepared local food (Jelička/Danek 2017). Lastly, Japan carries a long and unique history in relation to food that is associated with the wild. For instance, entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, holds historical significance as it served a critical nutritional role for inland rural areas where at least 117 species of edible insects have been consumed (Payne 2014; Mitsuhashi 2008). A further example is the tradition of mushroom hunting which gained international fame via its marketing and the socio-cultural values associated with Matsutake (Tsing 2015).
In order to assess how these food practices relate to one another, we evaluated each practice in accordance to how local, wild, alternative, or informal each practice is. This was based on a literature review and several informal interviews conducted with people engaged in related activities. For instance, interviews were conducted with farmers who sell to direct markets, unattended farm stalls, and online platforms in addition to distributors and retailers who engage with activities such as supporting community gardens and or seed sharing. Based on defined characteristics each practice is situated on a spectrum showing the potential and ultimately how resilient a specific geographic location’s food access and distribution can be without depending on conventional food chains. The 3 figures below visualize the complexities that exist in order to show where practices can embrace a number of different categories and exist outside of the dichotomies such as alternative vs. mainstream, local vs global, informal vs. formal, and wild vs. cultivated (see figure 2,3, and 4). Often these food practices hold variations within their practice based on ownership and how the food practice is carried out. For instance, there are direct market shops that are operated by producers or an informal collective of farmers and others that are operated by well-organized agricultural cooperatives and therefore their transactions can be much more formal versus informal (i.e. bartering, sharing, etc.). Such discrepancies therefore blur the distinctions and create entanglements.
*1 For the purposes of this paper, we begin our investigation into what food practices exist within Kyoto, rather than starting from theoretical concepts such as AFNs, Food Democracy and Quiet Sustainability because the associated literature and empirical evidence often centers western contexts. However, these frameworks help to inform our thinking and influence our structure in choosing the following categories: local, alternative, informal, and wild.
Figure 2. Food Practices related to Distribution
Figure 3. Food Practices related to prosumption
Figure 4. Food Practices with a strong Community Orientation
We map these complexities in order to better understand what benefits and disadvantages can emerge from such entanglements. While the mainstream food system is focused on streamlining and prioritizes efficiencies to promote growth, this heightens the risk for system failures particularly when a disaster occurs and stability cannot be maintained. However, these hidden food practices provide evidence as to how decentralized, diverse, and small-scale practices are serving as important informal food hubs that can offer flexibility, communal connections, and redundancy. Although these practices are not coordinated in relation to one another, their redundancy and the interconnections of local, alternative, informal, and wild activities illustrate the foundations for designing improved safety nets for food access. These practices also raise important theoretical questions as to what extent concepts such as ‘alternative food networks’, ‘food democracy’, or ‘quiet sustainability’ can fully conceptualize the unconventional foodscape of Japan. Given that much of these concepts display examples from Europe, North America, and Australia, we find that food practices observed in Japan do not explicitly carry a strong focus on democratic decision making and social justice focuses in their organizing efforts. The notions of vivid and active participation in public spaces is not readily witnessed in Japan as described by Booth/Coveney (2015) and Hassanein (2003). While AFNs can stress the importance of intentional and political purpose in defining an alternative practice, their measurement of success is often defined by the formal economy. Smith and Jehlička (2013) coined the concept of quiet sustainability in order to highlight food practices that were not directly related to market transactions and were not explicitly related to environmental or sustainability goals. Their novel concept brings to light the important role that social connections in food self-provisioning and sharing has in relation to sustainability without explicitly saying so (Jehlička et al. 2020; Jehlička et al. 2013; Smith/Jehlička 2013). While, quiet sustainability aligns with some of our findings, the wide diversity of both food practices and diversity within a given food practice documented indicates that there are varying degrees of motives and awareness according to why such food practices exist. As Japan’s rural areas continue to face decline both in terms of its aging population and reduced capacity to maintain its infrastructure (schools, hospitals, local businesses, etc.), many rural communities are faced with difficult dilemmas such as the increase rise of wild animals harming farm production and the closures of regional wholesale markets and local businesses to provide farmers a stable supply within their communities.
Given the struggles that occur in one’s daily existence, many of these food practices documented are quietly addressing the issues practitioners experience. For example, Kodomo Shokudo are self-organized with the intent to give children a space to eat a nourishing meal or the activity of hunting serves to not only protect farmland but also preserve and maintain traditions and celebrate food culture related to eating wild boar or deer. We make use of the term “quiet” as Japanese culture, particularly in rural areas tends to strongly uphold tenets of collectivism where minority voices or activities are not made to attract any unwanted attention that may disrupt the status quo or impact those who hold vested interest. In addition, some food practices occur seasonally such as practices like bamboo digging and Enkomai(*2) where practitioners and participants engage once a year or a few times a year. In our collection of food practices that exist outside of consumers purchasing food from the conventional food system/traditional grocery store model, we found that existing literature did not adequately describe the food practices we documented. Instead we argue that these minority activities and the complexity in their relationship to local, alternative, wild, and informal should be acknowledged as they collectively serve the purpose of creating a food safety net. We therefore introduce Minnanoshoku (Everyone’s Food) to recognize the range and variation of depth for which these food practices exist alongside the conventional food system (see figure 5).
Figure 5. Minnanoshoku relation to other food practice theoretical concepts
While some may directly challenge aspects of the conventional system or actively participate in sustainability related measures, such food practices make up the messiness that is associated with Minnanoshoku.
*2 Enkomai is the practice of consumers supporting the rice producer by
This paper investigated the current foodscape of the Kyoto region of Japan in order to assess how diverse array of food practices exist outside of the mainstream grocery model. Based on our findings, we argue that these lesser known food practices go beyond the binary notion of the commodified formal food system where consumers are on the one side and producers on the other. Based on the existing scholarship concerning food systems analysis outside of the agro-industrialized food system, we find that the current literature fails to explain and incorporate the many other hidden food practices that exist within the same landscape. Instead, we introduce Japan’s diverse array of alternative, informal, local, and wild food practices and schemes under the term Minnanoshoku (Everyone’s Food). By comparing the existing definitions regarding alternative, local, informal, and wild, we provide a more inclusive framework to reflect the different activities that exist in various forms within a specified region. By making lesser known food practices more visible, a more holistic understanding of Japan’s local food system can better create further opportunities for engagement in building resilience and sustainability within a food system. We show that these food practices can exist without political or sustainability-oriented motives and operate in decentralized manners due to the ways in which such food practices foster community building and connection.
This research was supported by the FEAST Project (14200116).
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