Local Branding in Rural Japan: Justin Potts

Society Culture

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

International 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.

Collaborating at the Local Level

Local dishes and scenery combine to make a unique experience during a Nippon Travel Restaurant excursion to Niigata. (Photo courtesy of Umari Inc.)

Potts also builds grassroots connections by highlighting regional food cultures. One important venue for this is the International Terakoya. Recent courses at the venue, which shares space with Roppongi Nōen, on sake, green tea, and dashi (Japanese-style broth) looked at new approaches to traditional food products. Another program is Nippon Travel Restaurant. These two-day outings to rural communities give participants firsthand experiences of local history and cuisine as they join local growers and artisans in one-time-only dining experiences designed to express the region's unique food culture and local resources. On a recent NTR trip to Niigata Prefecture, participants met local artisans, enjoyed regionally brewed sake, and took walks through snow-covered mountains with equipment provided by a local outdoor gear maker.

Participants and local residents come together through these events to share thoughts and ideas, and hopefully, to build long-term collaborative relationships. Potts notes: “A lot of things can resonate with people, and if it’s something people can recognize personally in their life, it tends to leave a lasting impression. They might come back to visit a friend they made, a community they’ve created. That’s the type of thing that motivates people to stay involved—a personal investment.”

The diverse background of participants is key to creating value. “We try to match local key players up with professionals from elsewhere in Japan and overseas. These are people from diverse backgrounds, like IT or media, who can share unbiased opinions and ideas. To get these people from different industries and professional backgrounds to come together and pool their resources and know-how creates something of value that is new and unique.”

Promoting Through a Wide Range of Activities

Since 2013 Potts has been involved as part of the Morning University of Marunouchi in a collaborative program with Kirin Holdings to help local areas rebuild after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Known as the Tōhoku Agricultural Training Center and Rebuilding Project, it partners professionals from diverse backgrounds with local farmers and producers affected by the disaster. Together they work to develop a stronger, more sustainable agricultural industry as a core part of the region. “It’s about getting growers, along with businesspeople and other key players, involved in not only rebuilding, but in building something new,” Potts explains. The financial backing Kirin brings to the project is important, but Potts recognizes the company’s business know-how and focus on getting people directly involved as essential to the program’s success.

Looking beyond Japan’s borders, Potts traveled to the Netherlands in 2013 with program participants to examine the nation’s approach to maximizing greenhouse productivity and the peripheral business and policies that shape the region’s unique model. In February 2014 he traveled to New Zealand to look at the country’s unique approaches to tourism and related agriculture.

Rebuilding Project participants learn about greenhouse production in the Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of Umari Inc.)

Along with his duties at Umari, Potts is active with the Japan Local Innovators Committee, an organization working to put non-Japanese professionals from different disciplines in touch with Japan’s unique cultural resources. He provides content for the JLIC website and its “Social Excursions Japan” Facebook page. He has written a short series in Japanese for the online magazine Colocal titled “Hello Hakkō Life” that introduces regional companies involved in creating such traditional fermented products as soy sauce and sake.

Perhaps the most visibly pleasing project highlighting Potts’s passion for producing Japan is the web program Local Japan, where he serves as creative director and host. In the informative and beautifully filmed episodes, Potts visits various local communities and presents customs, traditions, and food culture. Interviews with local residents give viewers a taste of Japan’s unique rural culture and allow them to hear firsthand from those involved in preserving it.

Potts happily admits he has his finger in a lot of pies, but he seems to be getting positive results. Interest is high in the Producing Japan class at the Morning University of Marunouchi, and events at Roppongi Nōen remain popular. As local food culture continues to gain attention, Potts remains determined to stay involved and find new ways to produce local products. To him, this means “bringing people together.”

Japan food culture local rural communities Justin Potts