Ueda Yuki is building and practicing sustainable systems in various projects to solve the problems that stem from agriculture, forestry, neglect, aging agricultural fields, and a lack of new interest in farm work.
We interviewed Ueda Yuki about the future plans and current situation of JAFREC (NPO Japanese Agricultural Regeneration Center).
Why did you start this activity?
At first, it began with a problem in a bamboo field. I was born in southern Kyoto and I, along with five middle school friends, spent a lot of time taking care of bamboo fields.
After graduating from middle school, despite our lives taking different paths, we kept in contact. However, the bamboo fields were left untouched. Because the field owners were getting older and the price of bamboo shoots dropped, many bamboo fields were abandoned. However, I didn’t want to see them like this.
When I failed the college entrance exam, I wanted to get a job and get some practical experience of business rather than retake my university exams. My parents had solid jobs as civil servants and they fiercely opposed me giving up the university exam.
However, I still chose to take a risk and I got a job in a telecommunications company in Osaka and became independent. I fulfilled my determination to create my own future. After working in the company for about two years and learning about the industry, and after saving some money, I opened a company by myself.
I wasn’t sure what the business was going to be in the beginning but I decided to blend into the local area. At the time, businesses creating or reconstructing villages were popular. Perhaps this has some effect on my success.
I was not interested in the area where I was living because my house was not in a farmhouse. However, I realized that there was a future for regional assets, and there was a future for culture. So I wanted to try to get into that area with the management of the company that I started.
However, when I started the business, there were lots of obstacles.
For example, when you set up a business in a new region, you don’t know what it will be like and how people will react. And remember, this is only two years after I graduated from high school. I was only 20 years old!
I talked to many people as I was setting up my business. One of these people was involved in the village administration. Typically, the administration don’t really want to deal with a person that is so young and who is giving them more work. Luckily for me, though, they introduced me to some of the local people in the area.
One of these people worked for the local community and he taught me what I should do when trying to set up a business in the area. However, this didn’t stop there being a small backlash from some people when I introduced my ideas. Instead of giving up, though, I listened and I learned a lot.
Your businesses activities are frequently seen in the press.What triggered it? What kind of special concept did you have?
While setting up the business, I realized that we needed some publicity to attract people’s attention.
What we came up with was the Nagashi Somen bamboo and noodle dish. In order to attract attention, we made an event that got our Nagashi Somen into the Guinness Book of Records.
Nagashi Somen was a symbolic representation of our activities in relation to Japan’s food culture and Japanese agriculture. It acts as a way to get people interested in bamboo and bamboo fields. When they actually experience it they become curious of the meaning of the culture.
While we started with the goal of the conservation and preservation of the original bamboo fields, our aim has been greatly expanded. As a result, we changed the name of the group to signify a shift in the focus to the revitalization of the agriculture industry.
At first, we worked with venture companies, but since the fourth four-year term, the company is working almost independently. Since there was a lot of media coverage after the breakout ceremony, there were lots of interviews and broadcasts by the mass media, so we weren’t concerned about promotion. We have become well known not only in this region but also throughout Japan.
What activities do you do now?
In particular, we are running our Nagashi Somen business and farm products and farms. Our first store is in southern Kyoto. Right now, we have also branched out to the Eastern areas. We have several groups involved in moving animal hospitals, and this idea is still fairly unique in Japan. As well as this, there is a caravan event in Saitama tomorrow.
Tell me about your future plans.
Nagashi Somen started off with an iconic event which is still highly praised. It is popular among foreigners, especially in Kyoto stores. Furthermore, since we have organized the World Nagashi Somen Association, we seem to be responsible for its expansion to the world.
There’s already some sort of business model being deployed but we need to build a more sustainable model while keeping it in the future. For example, we have already started selling our agricultural products.
Moving forward, we will start to sell our products on the internet too. We have two to three residential staff and 20 to 30 supporters who help us out during events.
There are no plans to increase staff. The venture companies I started have experienced a lot of pain so I am avoiding the risk of growing this business too quickly.
What is particularly worrisome is that we are no longer expanding our membership in the activities related to villages and bamboo fields. It’s a problem as it is the main body of our business.
I was so happy to hear your soul-stirring dream. I was impressed with the idea of your promotional plans, and creativity. In addition, I was inspired by your ability to translate the concept into a reality. I’ll support you as well as I can.
I look forward to you being a role model for young people who seem to have lost hope. Let’s not forget our original intentions, but let’s see how we’re going to go through unconventional ideas instead of being bound by the original.