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Fukushima’s Rehabilitated Cotton Fields are Reviving a Fallow Japanese Industry

Seven years after an earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, causing three nuclear reactors in Fukushima to melt down, the prefecture remains synonymous with tragedy and devastation. Entire towns and villages remained abandoned despite the lifting of evacuation orders in certain areas. Rampaging packs of wild, radioactive boars roam the deserted streets. And swaths of farmland, mostly gone to seed, are now saturated with salt from the seawater surge, making the production of traditional food crop next to impossible.

But Iwaki Otento Sun Enterprise Cooperative, a local agricultural group, refused to give up. Cotton, it figured, could grow even under conditions of high salinity.

In 2012, the organization started the Fukushima Organic Cotton Project, a mission to rehabilitate the area’s fallow fields and provide returning residents with a source of income. This, it was determined to do even though cotton hasn’t been been cultivated at scale in Japan for about a century. Though cotton agriculture paved the way for the industrialization of the country during the Meiji Era from 1862 to 1912, according to the Japan Cotton Traders Association, modern-day Japan imports 80 percent of its cotton from overseas.

The Fukushima farmers decided to plant Bicchu Brown cotton, a native, tawny-colored variety that requires skilled labor to spin its shorter-staple fibers into yarn and then weave into fabric.

Through volunteer efforts, the project has increased the amount of cotton it harvests by tenfold in the past six years. To guarantee the safety of its harvest, the cooperative arranges for the soil and crops to be tested for radiation twice a year.

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In 2014, the project created Fukushima Siome, a branded line of products that ended up supplying cosmetics company Lush with “knot wraps,” square pieces of cloth, known as furoshiki, that are traditionally used to wrap gifts in Japan. Siome, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK, means a “junction of sea currents” in Japanese.

“The members gave this name in reference to the meeting of tides off the coast of Fukushima, and to symbolize the meeting of people through cotton and a change in the consciousness toward environment,” NHK wrote earlier this month. “The brand is now used in products sold across Japan.”

This past July, Lush in the United Kingdom launched a Japanese-style washcloth as part of the lineup.

“The decision serves as a recognition of our careful work and the superior functionality of our Japanese-style washcloth, and of Japanese culture,” Yuta Sakai, director of the organic cotton division at Iwaki Otento Sun Enterprise Cooperative, said in a statement. “It brings us joy just imagining our products being used by many people around the world.”

Recently, NHK reported, the Fukushima Organic Cotton Project convened a meeting of cotton companies from across Japan. Participants agreed organic goods like Fukushima Siome could not only help bolster Fukushima’s reputation and regenerate livelihoods but also draw attention to Japanese cotton and its domestic cotton industry at large.

“We can’t stay disaster victims forever now that more than seven years have passed since the disaster,” one Fukushima farmer told NHK. “It is about time we should remove ‘charity’ from our project and stop depending on pity. We should restart as professionals that deal with good quality cotton products.”