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Local Branding in Rural Japan: Justin Potts

Japan’s rural communities today face a difficult task: they must create a local brand to get their unique products noticed. Helping them do this is American Justin Potts, an international business development director at Umari Inc. With an emphasis on connecting people and ideas, Potts works to promote the unique and abundant resources found in rural communities through a variety of innovative projects and events.

Justin Potts

Justin PottsInternational business development director at Umari Inc. Involved in events and programs at Roppongi Nōen, International Terakoya, and Nippon Travel Restaurant aimed at connecting the unique food culture and products of rural communities with residents of Tokyo. Co-runs the course “Producing Japan: Discovering and Sharing a Culture with the World” at the Morning University of Marunouchi. As part of the Tōhoku Agricultural Training Center and Rebuilding Project, is involved in restoring communities damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Has written extensively about Japanese food culture for online magazines and produces a series of short documentaries titled Local Japan.

In his role as international business development director at Umari Inc., Justin Potts could best be described as a matchmaker. His goal is to connect Japan’s abundant local resources—its farmers, artisans, history, and culture—with consumers and professionals in Tokyo and overseas. He sees the diverse wealth of food culture, educational experiences, and other opportunities slumbering in Japan’s local communities crying out to be noticed. Over the last few years the soft-spoken Seattle native has had his hand in a wide range of imaginative projects designed to tap into these regional resources, linking local key players with the vast human resources of Tokyo.

Potts first came to Japan on a study abroad program. Although he admits to not being overly invested in a long-term relationship with the country at first, connections he had made brought him back time and again. “I had small opportunities to return for short stints, and I saw the difference between what it meant to visit and to actually exist here,” Potts explains. In 2007 he returned with the goal of learning Japanese and getting a deeper understanding of the culture, or as he puts it, “digging in.”

Part of digging in meant discovering new and different eating experiences. Potts professes to falling in love with the subtle flavors of washoku (Japanese cuisine) in part through his wife’s cooking—suiton, a simple soup with wheat flour dumplings, was one of the first dishes to capture his heart. After living in both eastern and western Japan, he quickly recognized regional variances. “I had long been interested in food and health, and I felt very keenly early on there were distinct differences,” he explains. “There is this large umbrella of Japanese food, but within that there are a lot of other things unique to different areas—not just prefectures, but smaller divisions.”

Potts is a kikizakeshi, a specialist in matching sake with different dishes, and has a broad knowledge of the tradition of fermentation in Japanese food culture—a favorite book of his is Hakkōdō (The Way of Fermentation). It was in part his appreciation of Japanese food and taste for sake that led to his involvement at Umari in projects such as the Roppongi Nōen.

Bringing Farmers and Consumers Together

Located in the heart of Tokyo, Roppongi Nōen serves as a physical venue where farmers from around the country can present their products and directly interact with consumers. It regularly sponsors regionally themed dining and nōka (farmer) live house events. As Potts explains it: “It’s all about connecting consumers with growers in new ways. We think the growers are the rock stars. It gives them a place to talk about their background and what they are growing. It’s the story that helps people connect with and appreciate what they are about to enjoy.” He notes that this opportunity for face-to-face interaction is critical for farmers. “In order to resolve a lot of the issues local areas face, the people who are the actual consumers are going to be a big part of the solution.”

One recent event focusing on products from Mie Prefecture featured ama, women practicing traditional free-dive fishing, as well as local food products and artwork. For Potts, providing a platform for personal interaction gives added value to products. “During the Mie event, participants could go up and talk directly with the people who actually dive in the ocean and get the food. It demonstrated the uniqueness of that food and local food culture,” he says.

The relaxed atmosphere at one of the many events hosted at Roppongi Nōen to bring growers and consumers together in unique and entertaining ways. (Photo courtesy of Umari Inc.)

Developing a Local Brand

It is easy for regional products to go unnoticed in a country that has such a variety of them. “Wherever you go in Japan you have lots of nice things,” Potts says. “There are clean water, mountains, and oceans, which are wonderful—but other parts of the country have these too.” Having tasty sake or an interesting history is not enough to garner broad attention these days. To be noticed, residents in rural communities must work together to repackage their products into unique local brands.

To create a local brand, connecting farmers with consumers is only one part of the puzzle. Communities must make a concerted effort to first recognize the value of their products—which can be agricultural, cultural, and even historical—and package them in a way that highlights their unique appeal. This can be a daunting task for local communities with little branding experience. One project Potts is involved in that addresses this issue is the Morning University of Marunouchi.

The Morning University was established in 2009 as a way of forming new communities. The program offers a wide range of topical courses in the early morning, such as those focusing on social action, food, local tourism, as well physical and mental health. Many of the courses focus specifically on topics related to rural areas and serve as avenues of involvement for participants living in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Potts gives a presentation at the Kaiteki Cafe located in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. The cafe is part of the “campus” of the Morning University of Marunouchi.

Potts co-runs a course titled “Producing Japan: Discovering and Sharing a Culture with the World.” The course covers the whys and hows of producing local products and includes hands-on experience in the form of fieldwork and excursions to rural areas. An important aspect of the course is connecting participants—often professionals from a wide range of fields—with local producers. Many participants join the course out of a desire to become involved. “We have people with global experience who are very passionate about looking at the future of Japan socially and economically. They are looking for avenues to use their experience. It’s a huge, untapped resource.”

Participants visit Brown’s Field in Chiba Prefecture as part of the Producing Japan course. Fieldwork and excursions are important aspects of connecting participants living and working in Tokyo with rural communities.

  • [2014.06.05]
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