Japanese items made using traditional methods, from tatami matting and basket weaving to green tea and miso, are enjoying a revival on the southern island of Kyushu thanks to the work of a nonprofit group known as the Beppu Project.
What began as an art-focused initiative in Kyushu by the group is now helping to preserve traditional artisan skills acquired over generations by promoting the products to other parts of Japan. This creates awareness of traditional skills as well as additional income for farmers, fishermen, and others practising these crafts as an aging society and rural depopulation puts this way of life at risk.
“If the number of small, local producers falls then the charms of the local area decrease,” says Shuzo Kumagai, a member of the Beppu Project based in rural Oita Prefecture on the island “It’s important to encourage craftsmanship, not only to support the small producers economically, but also to protect and introduce the local way of life.”
It was this idea that drove the Beppu Project to create the “Oita Made” brand in October 2013, which is now an integral part of the Beppu Project’s mission to fuse local communities and art. Oita Made comprises more than fifty small, independent artisans. It works from kitchen and workshop to point of sale, developing and promoting the products to a wider audience.
“When we did art events, we saw that local artisans are connected to the area through culture and the products they make,” says Kumagai. For many artisans their forte was production rather than marketing and sales, so Oita Made stepped in to improve product packaging as well as develop new products through partnerships.
All the handmade products are made from local materials. Food and drinks range from Oita specialties, such as seaweed, mushrooms, and dried fruits to more unusual items: sunflower tea, wild boar meat, and Jerusalem artichoke cookies.
Passed down the generations
Craft products include pens and pencils made from bamboo, traditional dolls, aromatic water, and woven reed baskets. As many of the artisans are families, production focuses on local methods that have been passed down from previous generations.
This month, Oita Made celebrates two years since it began sales, using a website, a shop in the prefecture, and via department stores and hotels in Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka. While the ratio varies, roughly 70% of profits go to producers, with the remainder to Oita Made.
One artisan in Oita Made reported a 100-fold increase in sales of his pear jams (plain; cinnamon and walnut; and black pepper).
With success in Japan setting the stage, Kumagai is setting his sights on the international market. “We are going to translate our website to promote sales overseas,” he says, adding that the goods will also be available as souvenirs for tourists.
By tapping into global demand for products with a local story, Kumagai hopes to increase sales, providing income for artisans to ensure the success of Oita Made and preserve traditional crafts.