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.

Our Vietnamese community, circa 2007


An essay I wrote soon after the storm about the amazing NO East Vietnamese community.

Turn off Grande Route St. John on to Gentilly Boulevard. Pass the Fairgrounds, the Bike Plus place on Paris, the Gentilly Terrace area with so many beautiful arts and crafts homes of upper middle class Creoles, then quiet Dillard University on the left, empty strip malls galore, (basically you follow old 90 the way your grandparents would when going to the North Shore and Biloxi) and then you pass under I-10 and you are really on Chef Menteur Highway.
Chef (as we call it, not really affectionately, more as an affectation of our parents word for it), is a mix of auto repair shops, small bedroom communities and as you near the Michoud plant, the Vietnamese community.

Have you been to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans east? Haven’t been? Not surprising, most have not, and asking them to get in the car at 6:00 am to go is too bizarre to even suggest. So, some never experience it.

Amazing. I started venturing out 4 years ago, when my work at the farmers market coincided with seeing it. Actually, Robert and Elizabeth of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse took me there first, and like so many New Orleanians-by – choice (aka not born here); they know the city very well. They explore every corner and have done so since the late 60s.
They drove me out there one morning about 6 a.m. and showed me the gardens that ring the canals, the houses with elaborate statuary in front and sports cars for the children in the driveway. We had Vietnamese coffee, wonderful. Strong and sweet. They explained the history of this settlement that has been built by the Catholic Church since the fall of Saigon, with a larger Buddhist community on the West Bank.

For me, the open market was the most fascinating part. Set up alongside storefronts on Alcee Fortier Boulevard (not much of a boulevard, and not sure anyone out here knows this historian from the early 20th century), it is a walk through another country.
Farmers and fishers stand or squat in front of their products that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Once in a while, you spot cilantro or water spinach or something else appetizing and fragrant, and then point and ask for a price. Everything is between 1.00 and 2.00. You walk slowly into the interior courtyard, looking at every display and listening to the life around you that could be 300 years past. At 7:00 a.m. the market kicks into overdrive with the mass attendees mingling with the less devout.

The nearby storefronts also need time from you; the mangoes, noodles, dried mushrooms are there alongside of sweets and unfamiliar sauces on the crowded shelves. My friend, Veda loves all grocery stores since her early years in her family corner stores; she can be here for hours and when they talk to her, it’s clear that they see a kindred food soul and give her incredible discounts. We always stop at the storefront with no signs or ambience in the middle of the market for the Vietnamese “poboy”; their sandwich that is a taste and texture treat, with pork, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, peppers, sauce. We buy 5-10 sandwiches to bring back and share with anyone we think deserves one. They always are amazed and delighted after eating the half or quarter we share with each.

Most outsiders and locals that venture here go to the bakery, Dong Phuong. Pork and water chestnut pastries, glorious bread (baked hourly), cinnamon rolls to take home. I have a calendar on my wall from there that I look at when at the computer; always makes me think of the homemade egg breads.

The levee breaks did their damage out there. But, true to their immigrant attitudes, they have begun rebuilding at an astounding rate. Their dynamic Catholic priest, Father Vien travels to Houston often to see his parishioners that have not shown up yet at Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church. He has big plans for Viet Town, and will take the time to tell anyone who can possibly help. We were invited for lunch with the staff at the church to talk; the priest has an energetic, can-do presence that one can believe in. He is ready to create this beacon of light for the region to see and draw from.
We’re there that day because my boss is a true believer in the power of markets and local economies to rebuild a world. He has been interested in making a bridge between our Italian, Croatian, French, Southern farmers world and this one for some time. He also understands that it is a genuinely exciting time to live in New Orleans, in between the heartbreak and exhaustion, if one can make things happen.
It occurs to me while listening to them that these two could end up being the fulcrum in lives of hundreds of families in the next 5 years.
They talk of small and big ideas, but mostly they talk about helping small entrepreneurs get back in first gear. They agree on sensible methods and partners and take their leave as if they were two musicians that have finished rehearsing for their big break. Understand each other’s rhythm and syncopation. Got it. Turns out funders are liking what they hear from these two, and are almost ready to put up. Big money to leverage small communities. Big ideas to let farmers get back to bringing that bitter melon to Alcee Fortier. Rebuild without city, state or (cough) federal help or awareness for the most part. We’ll be back out here many times.

All because of food.

( Vietnamese patriarch Father Vien shared a history in a video that I did for MarketUmbrella in 2009):

Wholesale Produce Houses

Recently, a FQ neighbor shared with me that Tyler’s Pride Produce had closed at # 67 French Market Place and that the location is now in use by El Gato Negro restaurant. Although not surprising news, I felt it deserved a post here because Tyler’s Pride was the last produce house operating at the French Market.


Even so the list of produce houses that still operate in the city is impressive. Unfortunately, not one of these companies has their family/company history on their site, but I found some data on the state’s website, and will continue to update.

A.J.’s: 3162 Chartres (owned by Benandi family, formerly Minnie and Papa’s)

Bubba’s: 400 Marigny (which has an instantly recognizable French Quarter/produce family last name at president, C.J. Marcello)

George’s Produce: Westbank (George Sr. had worked at F&M Produce at French Market, picture on Page 5

Mistretta’s: NO East

Louisiana Fresh (aka as Cusimano Produce): South Dupre Street

Matrana’s Produce: Westbank

Tyler’s Pride Produce: Kenner