Japan Local Government Centre (JLGC) : London > Publications > Newsletter > Introducing Japan’s regions, Wakayama Prefecture: The Minabe-Tanabe Area



Introducing Japan’s regions, Wakayama Prefecture: The Minabe-Tanabe Area

Minabe-Tanabe ume system, Japan

Minabe-Tanabe ume system, Japan

The Minabe-Tanabe area of Wakayama Prefecture is located in the south-western part of the Kii peninsula on the Pacific Ocean-side of Japan.   This site is made up of the two towns of Minabe and Tanabe.  It has a warm climate due to the effect of warm air currents.  It is widely renowned as a beautiful landscape and the result of years of agricultural activities.  Ume (Japanese apricot) for which the area is famous is thought to have been introduced into Japan from China about 1,500 years ago as a natural medicine, known in China as ‘uu-mei’.  To overcome the hot and humid summer climate, the uniquely Japanese processed food pickled ume called umeboshi, was developed to enhance the preservation potential of the food as well as promote appetite and physical health.  Ever since then ume has been consumed on a daily basis as an indispensable Japanese side dish.  This traditional food culture has supported the spread of ume cultivation throughout Japan.  The traditional center of ume cultivation in Japan is now the Minabe-Tanabe area where ume cultivation has continued for approximately 400 years, and diverse ume genetic resources have been conserved.  Ume is claimed to contain many health improving properties, such as the prevention of stomach cancer and diabetes. Today, ume is used in a variety of products such as umeshu liqueur and is consumed all over the world.  A growing number of stakeholders believe that ume is a useful crop that can promote the health of people not only in Japan but also worldwide, and that ume are globally important as a resource in genetic variety.

“Circulation” is one simple word to describe the system of cultivation used in the area.  The concept of circulation has enabled sustainable agriculture despite fragile slopes with poor nutrients and water retention ability.  The system of circulation works in the following way.  At the top of the mountain, including the ridge line, coppice forests mainly consisting of ubame (Japanese oak) have been planted. Coppice forests function by storing rain water which flows little by little to ume orchards located on slopes underneath. These coppice forests prevent slopes collapsing. In this area, charcoal makers also make charcoal, while regenerating coppice forests.  Slopes under coppice forests are covered with ume orchards. Since these slopes are well drained, they are suitable for ume cultivation. Furthermore, the necessary nutrients are supplied little by little from the coppice forests above.  In ume orchards, grass has also been grown to prevent drying and the runoff of soil. The grasses are also cut and used as fertilizer for the ume trees.

In February when the ume trees flower, honeybees living in the coppice forests help pollinate the ume trees. Ume trees assist honeybee propagation in the early spring when few other flowers are blooming by providing them with valuable nectar. In this way, a system of coexistence with ume and honeybees has been established and local people also use the honey.  The water flowing from the top through the coppice forests and the ume orchards is stored at irrigation ponds built under the ume orchards. This water is used to irrigate a variety of agricultural products, such as rice and vegetables in the lowland known as “satoyama” in Japanese.  Proponents believe that this system can serve as a valuable model of sustainable agriculture which could be applied worldwide as the system has supported the livelihoods of local people.

Most of the local farmers grow ume and when related industries are included, 70% of local workers are engaged in ume production showing that the system contributes to securing employment.  In addition, diverse agricultural products are produced to support stable farming operations.  Maintaining the mixed coppice forests has made possible securing habitats for Japanese honeybees and helps pollinating ume tree flowers.

The site has sustained the mutual relationship of ume trees and honeybees.  Japanese advocates believe that such methods deserve to be promoted across the world.  Multiple land use and water management of ume and coppice forests have secured habitats for diverse flora and fauna, which made it possible for ume and many other agricultural crops to grow.  In ume orchards farmers have adopted farming methods utilizing the slopes including soil management. One such method is a labour-saving process in which nets are placed under the trees to automatically gather the ume by taking advantage of the slopes.  Charcoal production has prospered for centuries in this site because ubame oak, the raw materials of renowned kishubinchotan charcoal (an incredibly hard-working natural material with the superb capacity to purify water and other applications), are abundant in the forests.  Produced with advanced techniques, kishubinchotan is highly popular as a prime grade of charcoal with diverse uses.

Charcoal makers have regenerated coppice forests using a method of selective cutting. Using this method, only trees of the right thickness for kishubinchotan charcoal are cut and an appropriate amount of trees with thin trunks are left in the forests. In this way, local people have utilized coppice forests through the generations.  Through ume cultivation, people have deepened local community bonds with each other using time honoured traditions in land use and nurtured a diverse and rich culture.

In this site a variety of historical agricultural festivals and events held throughout the year continue to be held today.  The traditional ume food culture including local dishes such as ume rice has been enriched and handed down to the next generations by groups of women from ume farming families.  Land use of ume and coppice forests has contributed to the formation of unique agricultural landscapes. 4,000 hectare of ume orchards surrounded by coppice forests present a beautiful landscape.  In recent years, the ume industry has been facing the problem of sustaining the ume system, due to factors such as low ume prices and decreasing numbers of farmers as young people choose different careers.  Wakayama Prefecture will implement the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems’ (GIAHS action plan) by promoting ume and charcoal production, expanding sales channels, as well as preserving biodiversity and local landscape.  In order to achieve the five criteria more thoroughly, active efforts will be made such as promoting ume production and handing down traditional technology and culture to new generations.  In particular, nurturing young successors in charge of handing down the system is important.  Wakayama will promote the inheritance of traditional technology and culture under the cooperation of industry, academia and government.   Additionally, Wakayama Prefecture promotes farming experiences for students as well as exchanges with young people in urban areas with the aim of securing future farmers from outside the region.

Text and picture courtesy of Wakayama Prefectural Government