TOMODACHI FIRST DINNER 2016 Japanese from iLEAP on Vimeo.

The iLEAP Food Innovation for Regional Sustainability in Tohoku (FIRST) is an investment in the future of food and farming innovation in Japan, with a particular focus on the Tohoku region. This program grows the leadership and cross-cultural skills within the next generation of Japanese (ages 35 and younger) who are committed to social innovation in the production, processing, distribution, and/or consumption of food in Japan.

For many years, like in many parts of the world, Japan has been struggling with questions related to food security, food safety, profitability, and an aged (average age of 65) population in agriculture. Yet the events of 3.11 amplified these and other challenges and created an opportunity for the younger generation to step forward with their new ideas about how to best revitalize the domestic food system. Our experience working with young leaders in Japan has shown us that there are a number of people who are committed to transforming the way that Japanese relate to their food. In fact, Japan has always been considered one of the global leaders and innovators within the sustainable/organic farming movement.

The FIRST program provides these young Japanese with the opportunity to share with a broader, global audience about what they are doing in Japan, as well as learn new ideas and innovation from he Pacific Northwest, one of the hubs for innovation in food and organic farming, as well as sharing some geographic similarities to Japan.

At the same time, we believe that it is not sufficient to simply expose them to new ideas overseas—they must also be supported in how to integrate these experiences into their work and apply them as a leader of social change. In order to do this, we feel that it is critical that these young Japanese involved in food and farming innovation see themselves as leaders. This is why the iLEAP training, with a curriculum that balances specific content with experiential learning and personal leadership development is uniquely suited to empower Japan’s next generation of thinkers, leaders, and entrepreneurs in the food system.

Working to innovate within the food system—especially in Tohoku—is an all-consuming endeavor. It is poorly compensated (if at all), requires long days and often hard physical labor, and largely goes unrecognized despite its great importance for the future of humanity. The FIRST rogram was created for these special individuals who are committed to this challenging pursuit. We believe that these people (farmers, food processors, NGO leaders, et al) are not the typical target for such prestigious, international programs. Furthermore, for someone in Japan younger than 35 to choose to pursue this professional path, means that they have stepped outside of the mainstream and all of the conventional opportunities that it offers. The FIRST program recognizes and honors their courage of commitment to transforming the food system in Tohoku and bring greater opportunity for them and the communities they serve. Our hope is that, by calling attention to this important work, it may inspire more young people to get involved with the future of food production in Japan.

We created this program because we believe that these aforementioned young leaders are the future of Japan. Their work impacts thousands of lives in both Tohoku and throughout the country. Innovation in the food system has been needed for decades in Japan and there exists a great need for more bright and capable young people to be invested in this cause. In the United States, more and more young people are working to change the food system and this groundswell is something that could also take root in Japan. This program will ensure that these FIRST Delegates are recognized for their work and commitment and, hopefully, this can help to bring more momentum to their efforts in Japan.

Also, specific to Tohoku, is the continued need to lift the stigmatization of those regional foods tarnished by the nuclear disaster. In addition to being one of the main rice producing areas in Japan, the Tohoku economy relies heavily on the seafood industry. Since 3/11, many involved in the seafood industry have lost their livelihoods and the need for innovation—social and economic—remains high. This program addresses a vital issue in the long-term recovery of Tohoku and its success can also benefit the rest of Japan.

To learn more about our graduates, click here.