Book review: Kuni: A Japanese Vision and Practice for Urban-Rural Connection

Over the weekend, I cracked open the just published “Kuni: A Japanese Vision and Practice for Urban-Rural Connection” authored by Tsuyoshi Sekihara and Richard McCarthy.

Sekihara is the founder and leader of the RMO (Regional Management Organization) Kamiechigo Yamagata Fan Club. This entity is tasked with creating kuni (community) in an estimated 25 villages in rural Japan.

McCarthy was the founder of the regional organization Market Umbrella which is headquartered in New Orleans LA, and (while he and I worked there) had set its farmers market region as “Gator Alley” or “Gumbo Nation” along the Gulf Coast, a name that came to us via our brilliant pal Poppy Tooker and her cohort of 1990/2000 RAFT leaders. In true U.S. fashion, neither description were precise to the entire region where our organization worked (as McCarthy describes it, it was “light and loose as compared to Sekihara’s grounded region”) but even so those food based regional descriptions came close enough for us to not be typecast as urban or rural or some other designation that didn’t fit at all.

Sekihara’s RMO is tasked with creating Kuni’s preconditions and is partially funded by overseeing government projects as well as creating products that can be exported (although the raw materials must originate from within the RMO.) There are other RMOs in Japan, but none with the depth of the KYFC. (It may also be helpful to share that fan clubs like KYFC are common in Japanese society for all types of organizations including corporations, many with their own mascots.)

By having McCarthy as the co-author, the application of Sekihara’s ideas can be illustrated in the hundreds of communities that McCarthy has worked or visited via his work with Market Umbrella, Slow Food US, Slow Food International, or his own current global Think Like Pirates firm. Kuni approach allows for true resource sharing because there there are rules to how you apply it.

A Kuni must:

Be compact but contain all of the elements needed for human life

Have the right scale

Balance between bridging and bonding activities

Choose pluralism over tribalism

Be close to nature

If one applies this set of rules to American organizing, say in the “local” food system where I work, one can see how quickly we’d not meet them. For example, the food system work rarely thinks about energy use; scale is another problem, in that our partners we work with think our scale isn’t “large enough” which we just shrug away rather than challenging it.

Based on that, there are those that will say this idea could only work in Japan which may very well be true, but like any visionary idea it may still be worth the try.

What if we did organize food systems in collaboration with climate scientists and reparation efforts and universal health care work, utility reformers and literacy activists?

What if we drew the radius of food systems around the elements needed and near wildlife?

What if we bridged urban with rural with benefits in all directions?

What if we found multiple ways to bond with those that we don’t have family ties or cultural history?

What if we accepted that we could call more than one place home?

What if we didn’t expect Government to be the only one to answer for our infrastructure needs?

The book is rich with lists of lessons and examples for any organizer including the brilliant Rice Covenant (which is more complex than you’d think), place polygamy, the concept of equilibrium, circularity, and spirals, the 2 Loops theory, Richard’s pirate ship metaphor, examples of Kuni-style organizing from around the world, and (a personal favorite of mine), explanations from both leaders as to why holding onto single proxies such as “local” or relying on national or global certifications can be entirely too limiting.

It’s available everywhere.

Author: DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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