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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

‘Johnny Appleseed’ Ing brings seeds to Japan


In my last column, I commented upon harvest time in Japan, specifically the cultivation of rice. In this piece I will continue along that same thread, except I will focus upon the cultivation of apples.

Apples were first introduced to Japan in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). The prefecture where I live, Aomori, is by far the largest and most famous apple-producing area in all of Japan. Along with rice fields, apple orchards are sprinkled throughout the countryside and on the cities’ edges.

The first apple seeds to find their way to this area were brought by a missionary teacher named John Ing. He was affiliated with the same Methodist group that started the university where I teach. Ing came from central Indiana and was affiliated with Asbury University in Greencastle, now called DePauw University. He is known in these parts as the “Johnny Appleseed of Japan” because of his contribution to the apple industry.

Little did he know then what a huge impact his little gift would have upon the agricultural and economic stability of this region some 120 years later.

Although I technically live in the city, within a five-minute bicycle ride from my home, I am deep in apple country with orchards lining both sides of the road. Please remember, when I say “orchards,” I am not talking about a 500-acre spread of perfectly lined trees with wide avenues between them; instead, Japanese orchards tend to be very compact, with the trees so close together that a small vehicle is sometimes unable to drive between them.

In early spring, once the buds have come and gone, each apple is hand-wrapped with a paper bag to insure that it is not weather-damaged or preyed upon by insects. Pesticides also are used to fight pestilential predators. Apple farmers regularly attend to the trees throughout the summer until harvest time.

Once it is nearing the time for harvest, the bags used to wrap the apples are individually removed from each one, and large metallic sheets are gingerly placed under the trees to reflect the sun. The reflective sheets help to insure that the color of each apple is uniform. No one would want an apple that is red on top and a different color on the bottom.

Apple farming is somewhat of a cottage industry in this area, with many rice farmers dabbling with apples in addition to cultivating their rice crops. Many small orchards are basically in the backyards of farmers’ homes, utilizing every available inch of space for their crops.

Of course, there are bigger operations that have a significant number of trees within a particular orchard, but the majority tends to be smaller “Mom and Pop” affairs that depend upon the nuclear and extended family to do the bulk of the work.

Every spring, a goodly portion of my students return home on the weekends to assist their families with rice planting, and then in the fall, the same students return home to assist with the harvest and to help pick the apples for market.

Each year, students bring me bags upon bags of wonderful apples from their farms, which I appreciate greatly. People in Tokyo and beyond have to pay dearly for the same apples I enjoy on a daily basis.

Picking the apples especially takes a lot of time. Unlike rice harvesting, which is mostly mechanized today, apple farming utilizes a distinctly human touch. In fact, nearly all of the work in the apple industry here is done by hand, and even if the farmers wanted to use heavy machinery to cultivate the apples, it would be next to impossible to get the machines into the orchards.

The apple trees are pruned to remain small in circumference and short in height, so ordinary stepladders can be used to attend to the branches, buds and eventually to pick the apples.

As expected, the trees are planted very close together in order to save valuable space, but there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to how they are planted, meaning there are no straight rows of trees usually. They are planted in the available space, in any way they can be, utilizing every bit of accessible land. Also, there is only a small window of opportunity after the apples have ripened at the end of October and early November to get the apples picked before it begins to snow.

Once, I had an opportunity to help pick apples. It is backbreaking work, because each apple must be removed carefully so as not to bruise or mar it in any way. The idea is to keep the apples as perfect as possible in order to fetch the highest price possible. Apples are graded and selected, with the lowest quality apples used as juice and the highest quality ones being sold individually in gift sets.

A commercial company will sometimes hire an apple farmer to maintain specific trees for its clients. During the ripening stage, a stencil is put on the apple, and as it ripens, the company’s logo becomes visible. These make for a unique calling card when an employee meets a customer.

Also, a person’s image can even be emblazoned on an apple by the use of a stencil. As a special gift, a person can be given an apple with their likeness and name on the skin of the fruit.

Other popular slogans on apples feature the Japanese characters for “good luck” or “congratulations.” These are given as gifts to students who are trying to pass the entrance exam into university or to a couple who are about to be married.

There is one sinister side to apple farming that makes farmers hold their breath every year around this time: typhoons. A typhoon can literally decimate an entire season’s crop in one day if the winds knock the apples to the ground, making them unsuitable for human consumption. During my third year in Japan, a catastrophic typhoon hit this area, and Hirosaki was at ground zero.

The damage was tremendous, with hundreds of thousands of apples littering the ground around the trees. As many as possible were made into juice, but the amount was so overwhelming that the companies that produced the juice could not keep up with the demand. The result: Apples were left rotting on the ground.

Eventually, the apples were gathered and buried, but the devastation was too much for some farmers. The psychological toll was too great, prompting a number of farmers to commit suicide, knowing that they would not be able to recover from the great economic loss. Perhaps insurance money was the only way they could hope to recover, leaving their families to pick up the pieces.



Monday, October 24, 2005

The paper covers have been removed from the apples in the foreground so the sun can do its part in deepening the apples’ color. The apples in the back still have their covers intact. Submitted photos