Kamikatsu is a small village in the middle of a mountainous area in the Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island in Western Japan. As of 2018, it was home to only 1,552 people, of whom 51.8% were older than 65. It was a typical rural town with no competitive industries, hard hit by the emergence of the efficiency-first global economy over the last couple of decades. Faced with severe declines in traditional revenue sources such as agriculture and forestry, the town kept losing its younger workforce who couldn’t find local jobs. Only mountains and old people were left behind. At least that’s what people thought.
As was the case with many rural municipalities that suffer from a declining economy, Kamikatsu had tried various revitalizing projects and attempted to invite outside investments. But it was not until one man single-handedly started a completely new, peculiar endeavor to sell “leaves” leveraging the power of the elderly. The community not only started to revitalize, but also thrived in a totally unexpected way. The endeavor is called “Irodori,” a local-government affiliated enterprise that brings in about $2.6 million a year for a village with only 1.5K residents.
But what is the “leaf business?” If you have been to an authentic, high-end Japanese restaurant, you might have noticed that it uses a variety of plants for decoration and dish presentation. Those leaves are called “tsuma,” a subtle niche market in restaurant industry no one had paid much attention before the Irodori. Only Tomoji Yokoishi (in the left picture), the founder of Irodori, who started his career at Kamitatsu as an agricultural business advisor, saw it as a golden opportunity. “Tsuma” are delicate, often seasonal, small-sized leaves that add aesthetic value to traditional Japanese dishes. Kamikatsu is rich in nature, enjoys a mild climate and is home to many old people who know how to take good care of it. Yokoishi believed that his town already had all the assets to become a quality supplier of “tsuma.” No additional unfit or doomed-to-fail investments would be needed.
However, it was not an easy path. When Yokoishi floated the idea in the end of the 80’s, almost everyone’s reaction was: “who would buy random leaves from your garden?” Worse, people at restaurants weren’t receptive to a newcomer like him. But he was undaunted because he was proud and certain about the assets his town possessed. So he kept working to make his project come true, and at some point, his efforts started to bear fruit. Irodori picked up momentum.
The miracle behind the rapid sales growth was the old people who grew “tsuma” plants, many of whom were grandmas in their 70’s and 80’s.
As they quickly realized that they needed to be flexible, agile and reliable to respond to customers’ varying orders – leaves needed to be the right kind (seasonality is a big element in Japanese cuisine), and look good at the right size – they started paying great attention to every detail of the trees they planted so that they could supply the right products at the right time in the right quantity. Soon, they were offering more than 300 different items and competing with each other (in a healthy way) to become the best supplier and top seller. They unleashed all knowledge and skill accumulated in their decades-long hard work in the heart of nature, and each came up with a unique strategy for success. Some would plant a small tree next to a tall one to produce uniquely shaped leaves. Others knew how to work with the soil conditions to make leaves vividly red in the fall. Yet another would plant trees in certain formations to minimize damage from storms. No one taught or trained them. They naturally became strategic and entrepreneurial. Once they got a good grasp of what they were doing and how they could improve their results, they didn’t even mind learning to use computers and tablets to manage inventory and orders.
The results were nothing but impressive. No one would have imagined that old women who’d never left a small, rural town, and might never have filled in a resume in their lives, would start earning six figures in their 70’s or 80’s. But that’s what happened. Those grandmas now financially support their children and grandchildren, instead of being taken care of by them and eating up their salaries. And since they are so proud of their work, they no longer waste time complaining about aching bones or their in-laws. “At 80 years old, they look much younger than when they were 60,” Yokoishi says about them. “They want to contribute to the community. Waking up with an agenda for the day (they do everything from planting, taking care of trees, picking leaves and packaging them) energizes and rejuvenates. It’s so important to be able to feel that others appreciate the services they designed and produced.”
By reminding society of how wisdom and skills of the elderly are unique and competitive, Yokoishi turned them from “inefficient burden” in society to a revenue-generating, self-supported and proud group of professionals. At the end of the day, it was only the efficiency-first economy that believed that this knowledge to live in harmony with nature was obsolete and inefficient. Yokoishi proved that the economy was utterly wrong – there could be no better way to “celebrate the potential we already have” for mutually beneficial exchanges than to leverage old people’s abundant experience. Imagine how high the ROI for this project was! Not only Irodori is adding fresh job opportunities and additional revenue to the local community, but proud grandmas are making their family relationships much healthier, reducing medical costs (they no longer go to see doctors so often), inviting visitors, interns and inspired people who want to move into Kamikatsu.
Irodori didn’t rely on things like the latest marketing strategies, substantial capital investment or state-of-the-art technology to become competitive in the modern market. Instead, they leveraged what already existed, which was so fundamental and basic to humans. Old was their new black. And it was very powerful. It turns out that what you already possess is your most competitive asset, which can stand our and make others inspired and happy. Real things are strong and resilient.