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With the announcement of a new variety of top-tier rice, Fukushima hopes to further unravel the unfair stigma of the 2011 tsunami.

 

On Monday, Fukushima Prefectural Governor Uchibori Masao stood before the gathered press and held aloft an indigo-blue print. The painterly, dark-blue brushstrokes depicted rice fields, mountains, and farmers planting and harvesting grains. Below, in the same vibrant indigo, were the words 「福、笑い」: Fuku, Warai, or “Luck, Laugh.” This was the just-announced official design for Fukushima Prefecture’s new high-quality rice cultivar. Fittingly for Fukushima (福島, literally “Lucky Island”), the brand would bear that same “lucky” kanji in its name.

The global image of Fukushima, of course, is not one most would describe as “lucky.” Indeed, the vast prefecture – Japan’s third-largest by area – is often intrinsically associated with the 3/11/2011 nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Infamously, the disaster resulted in a zone of exclusion which forced 165,000 residents from their homes. Early government mismanagement of the crisis resulted in a Japanese populace who often distrusted official statements about local food safety. With the name “Fukushima” appended to the plant, the reputation of the entire prefecture and its people suffered.

This was doubly true for those who worked in Fukushima’s vaunted agricultural sector.

A Prefecture Recovering, an Industry Besmirched

Nearly a decade on from the disaster, the zone of exclusion has shrunk dramatically. Villages, once ghost towns, are reopening. Less than 3% of the prefecture remains off-limits. (In fact, at its greatest extent, the ZOE covered less than 6% of the prefecture.) Years of stringent testing have long proven Fukushima-grown produce to be safe. Yet, still, the stigma lingers. The South Korea Olympic Committee announced last year that it planned to bring radiation detectors and Korean-produced food to the (now-postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They aimed to avoid athletes consuming any Fukushima products.

Such fear-mongering has been especially difficult for farmers in Fukushima. This is in part because the prefecture was actually famous for its high-quality produce previous to the disaster, Fukushima produced 20.6% of the country’s peaches and 8.7% of its cucumbers. The prefecture’s real agricultural showstopper, however, is its rice.

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Lucky Island, Lucky Rice

Fukushima is a mountainous land. In particular, parts of the western Aizu region have nary a flat plain in sight. Here, snowmelt from the mountain peaks runs down into regional rice paddies. This pure water helps to give Fukushima rice its high-quality flavor.

The soil, too, assists in producing good rice, as do the prefecture’s hot days and cold nights. Popular rice cultivars like Koshihikari and Hitomebore are grown, as well as numerous sake rice varieties. Fukushima rice is of such high-quality that it famously trades off taking first place with neighboring Niigata in national rice flavor competitions most years. Recently, Fukushima rice was honored three years running. The Japan Grain Inspection Association Rice Taste Rankings awarded multiple Fukushima rice brands its “Special A-Class,” leading the prefecture to take first place in 2017 through 2019.

The high-grade rice also yields high-quality sake (日本酒; nihonshu). The perfect combination of rice and water, paired with breweries with long years of experience, has resulted in some of the country’s best rice wines. Subterranean rivers flowing from Mt. Bandai; water sourced from the Abukuma-do cave; Aizu snowmelt; all these waters serve to help make Fukushima’s sake special. In 2018, Fukushima sake won the coveted National Research Institute of Brewing title for an unprecedented sixth year in a row. Breweries like Suehiro, Okunomatsu, and Kokken are just a few of its renowned sake producers.

Yet the perception of Fukushima rice – even that produced in Aizu, more distant from the nuclear disaster than parts of other prefectures – as being potentially contaminated continues to damage the Fukushima agricultural industry. Governor Uchibori almost certainly had this in mind as he sought to create excitement around Fukushima products with the announcement of the prefecture’s new cultivar.

The Birth of Fuku, Warai

Despite the timeliness of its announcement, the prefecture in fact first began designing this new rice strain 16 years ago. According to the rice brand’s official website, “Niigata no.88, descendant of Koshihikari, is its mother; prefectural cultivation-type Gunkei 627, descendant of Hitomebore, is its father.” Quality and taste-testing repeated since 2006. In 2019, the prefecture official decided to promote the rice. After the rice was announced, 6,234 Fuksuhimans submitted possible names for the cultivar; the government chose “Fuku, Warai” so that it might “bring a smile to the faces of those who produce it, those who eat it, and make them all happy.”

More than that, the prefecture announced an even loftier accomplishment. “Through these 14 months and years, we’ve put our all into creating the ideal rice. We’ve arrived at a new rice, brimming with “Fukushima Pride.”

In a promotional video produced by the prefecture, Sakuma Hideaki, head of the horticulture department of the Fukushima Agricultural Research Center, had the following to say regarding the new rice strain:

In terms of its flavor, the grain is quite large and possesses a sweet quality. It has a distinct aroma. You could say it has a soft texture as well. These are special qualities that distinguish this rice from previous Fukushima Prefecture original products up until now.

Ritzy Rice

Picture: freeangle / PIXTA

The new cultivar is being produced as a premium rice, meant to compete with the most luxurious rice strains in Japan. The aim is to have the rice on specialty store shelfs by next fall, following a special preview harvest conducted on 6/6 hectares by 13 specially-picked rice producers.

With any luck, Fuku, Warai will help with the continued rehabilitation of Fukushima’s impressive agricultural industries. Better yet, it may indeed serve as yet another point of pride for the people of Fukushima.

Source: unseenjapan.com