In recent years, movements to return to lifestyles that are more
and in harmony with nature have been spreading worldwide. In Japan,
message "the food we eat is the environmental issue closest
to our lives,"
ILFA (the International Life and Food Association) views food as
a matter of
environmental concern directly affecting our bodies, and advocates
grains as the staple food for individuals and society.
Life expectancy in Japan at birth is currently
81.4 years, the longest in
the world. The available data indicate, however, that this longevity
is due to the people born in the Meiji and early Taisho periods
to about 1920) who have maintained their traditional diet. Ironically,
people on nutritionally "improved" diets, half have lifestyle-related
diseases, a third suffer allergic reactions such as atopic dermatitis,
fifth are obese. While no one starving in Japan today, one cannot
people are getting healthier.
ILFA was established in 1982 by its founder, Yumiko
Otani, when she was 30
years old. In her earlier career Ms. Otani was active in the business
planning various fancy products. When she ate millet for the first
was surprised to find it tasty, despite its image as an ancient,
unpalatable, nutritionless food for the poor.
Contrary to what many people may think, millet
and other "miscellaneous"
grains were the staple food for the Japanese across the country
times until 30 or 40 years ago. These grains are known to contain
nutrients in balanced proportions that are good for the human body.
past, people ate whole (unrefined) grains, sea salt and wild vegetables.
Surprised by this fact, Ms. Otani and her family switched to a diet
consisting of grains, vegetables, and seaweeds cooked with salt,
paste (miso) and soy sauce.
After her revelation, Ms. Otani launched ILFA to
promote millet-based foods.
Since that day, she has been developing and introducing simple and
ways to prepare millet dishes as well as recipes that suit modern
Currently, ILFA's research division, called "Future
promotes millet-based foods by creating new recipes (now exceeding
number), holding seminars and cooking classes, and putting out publications.
To provide opportunities for people to become familiar
with these recipes
and millets, ILFA operates the "Tsubu Tsubu Cafe" offering
a menu of related
foods and the "Tsubu Tsubu Shop" selling these grains
and cooking tools.
("tsubu tsubu" is a Japanese expression to describe something
also makes an effort to nurture millet producers by conducting a
Campaign" every spring since 1997, where pesticide- and chemical
fertilizer-free millet seeds and millet growing manuals are sold.
organization, currently with 16 full-time and part-time staff, is
financially independent and does not rely on any particular corporations
"There are several dozen kinds of grains in
the world," says Ms. Otani, "but
what we see now are mostly rice, wheat and corn. It is other types
'miscellaneous' grains that people used to produce and eat traditionally
For example, among native peoples of North America
there is an old
expression of the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash).
include quinoa in the Andes of South America, and teff, pearl millet
amaranthus in Africa. In Japan, we have barnyardgrass, foxtail millet,
sorghum, and buckwheat. Ms. Otani gave the nickname "tsubu
tsubu" to these
kinds of colorful and "unique" grains.
But why do we now have to pay attention to these
"miscellaneous" grains? Ms.
Otani enumerates the following reasons:
- Expansion and stabilization of the food supply:
Miscellaneous grains can
grow in poorer soil or colder areas compared to rice and wheat,
resistant to aridity and climate change. They do not require irrigation
- Human health and nutrition: Miscellaneous grains contain dietary
minerals in great quantity, as well as high quality protein and
fat, and they are nutritionally well-balanced. The millet diet may
malnutrition due to the widespread diets based on polished rice
(highly processed grains can cause "hidden starvation"
because they lose
many of their nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals).
- Safety and sustainability: Miscellaneous grains are resistant
and pests, and therefore easily grown without pesticides. They can
for a longer period of time after harvest. Their germinating capacity
for many years.
- No-meat diet: Miscellaneous grains can be used as main dishes.
Miscellaneous grains are ideally suited for our staple food, since
contain protein, fat and starch in balanced proportions. Being fiber-rich,
they require a lot of chewing, and they are tasty and rich in flavor,
it easier to switch to no-meat diets.
Are such grain diets widely supported in Japanese
society now? Ms. Otani
says, "Currently the graduates from our seminars operate some
10 Tsubu Tsubu
Cafes across the country, and there are increasing numbers of restaurants
that have introduced millet dishes based on our books. Most people
even heard of "miscellaneous grains" 20 years ago. But
now everyone is
familiar with them and knows that they are good for health. Especially
artists, a millet diet has become something of a status symbol."
What's behind all this attention to millet food?
Amid growing interest in
the "slow food" movement (in contrast to "fast food"),
more and more people
think of millet food as "the" slow food of Japan. Some
people also relate
its popularity with a concern for the international food security
"Our customer base for the Tsubu Tsubu Cafe
has changed in the past 20
years. We used to have customers eating alone quietly, but now we
variety of visitors enjoying meals with friends and family members
in a more
friendly atmosphere, just like any other restaurant," says
Ms. Otani. She
also mentions that a wider range of people are now participating
In March 2004, ILFA launched a magazine (three
issues per year) featuring
millet food recipes and related lifestyles. While natural food books
sell only 3,000 to 5,000 copies at most, ILFA's magazine has achieved
circulation of 10,000 copies to deliver unbiased information on
and without corporate advertisements.
Where is ILFA headed? "To those wishing to
change themselves, I have taught
techniques to nurture their sprit and body with millet food. However,
of them were unable to continue due to social pressure. From now
on, I want
to promote millet as the food of the future, that can eventually
more recognized by society as the stable food rich in nutrition,"
Otani. She now proposes a "correlative" food study that
dietetics. In this study, relationships between food and cooking,
as well as
between mind and body, are approached through broadly-defined natural
sciences including dietetics, physiology, and the art of divination.
Her strong desire to deliver "real food"
that is good for both the inner
workings of the body and those of the earth is described in simple
in the Tsubu Tsubu magazine as follows:
What does it mean to eat? What is food?
We are what we eat.
So eating is vital to our lives.
And yet, food has become like an industrial product.
It is no longer blessed by nature and the land.
Food at supermarkets has no sign of life.
It's convenient, fast, and appeals to the palate of many,
but lacks something important..
It's not something complex like calorie calculations
or nutritional balance.
You know it when you eat "real food."
Fresh food grown on the land energizes your mind
When you feel energized,
you have a peaceful mind filled with joy.
You then want to cherish the land, food, water and people.
And in the end your mind is refreshed and your life becomes simpler
even before you know it..