Hakuhodo and Hakuhodo DY Media Partners have offered employees the chance to experience growing rice (agricultural experience) continuously since 2012. We talk to Hakuhodo DY Holdings Corporate Officer Osamu Nishimura, one of the brains behind the initiative, about the background and goals of agricultural experience, and what it gives employees.
The impetus for the initiative came out of chit-chat over a meal. Then President (now Chairman) Toda said, “It feels like employees are a bit egg-headed and ill-tempered these days.” He then asked me if there was some sort of training they could do outside, rather than just classroom learning. “In that case, how about tending a rice paddy?” I replied instantaneously. It was pretty much a reflex idea [laughs]. We decided that we’d implement it there and then, since Sei-katsu-sha Insight (understanding people—their lives, aspirations and dreams) is Hakuhodo’s philosophy and the experience of putting our feet on the ground, bending our back, lowering our eyes and planting and harvesting rice would be very Hakuhodo-like.
This conversation happened around May 2011, right after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. The whole of Japan was shrouded in a vague sense of unease. There was also an air of “let’s value the little joys to be had in our immediate environment,” too. It was that kind of time.
Since then, thanks to ties with an NPO that works to make abandoned rice paddies productive again, we have carried out the initiative continuously for seven years, since 2012. The total number of participants exceeded 1,000 last year.
Our agricultural work includes cultivating new land, planting rice, weeding, and harvesting the crop, and the location is Masutomi, in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. The Masutomi area is full of abandoned rice paddies. Abandoned paddies become so overrun by trees and weeds that you’d never know rice used to be grown there unless someone told you. When you take the bus from Tokyo with other participants, the scenery outside the windows changes quickly, and when you get there, everyone is struck dumb [laughs]. Like: “We’ll be doing agricultural work here?” But they get to work, eat lunch, do more agricultural work, have a dip in the hot spring and give a toast while eating dinner. Then the next morning, curiously, the participants have a totally different, much happier demeanor.
Participants of the agricultural experience are all from totally different divisions, roles and age groups, and would be unlikely to interact with each other in the course of their everyday work. As General Manager of the Human Resource Management Division at the time, I often talked about building vertical, horizontal and diagonal relationships within the company. Advertising work is becoming increasingly siloed and fast-moving, and it’s really difficult to build relationships where it’s possible to feel a sense of shared purpose. That’s why I was hoping that putting ourselves in a completely different situation, entirely removed from our work, and doing something together would make something happen. Even people who’d just met that day would easily work together, encourage each other, and come up with little tricks as they worked happily together. Seeing this made me realize that Hakuhodo is a teamwork company.
One other thing I really felt is that just putting yourself in a place diametrically opposite to your regular work environment is refreshing. The representative of the NPO explained it thus: “The stresses you build up over time are released through your hands in the dirt, as if you are grounding a current.” Most participants are doing agricultural work for the first time ever, and every one of them experiences new sensations and feelings they don’t get in their everyday lives.
My wild side came out, too, the first time I did paddy clearing work [laughs]. Taking in hand a hoe I’d never used before in my life, I felt a rush of adrenalin, and when planting and harvesting the rice, I felt a kind of nostalgia, despite it being my first experience of it. It must have been my roots from being born in a rice-cultivating culture, or my DNA, or something. I made many new discoveries about myself.
The advertising work cycle only keeps accelerating, but the agricultural experience involves clearing overgrown paddies, planting, weeding, harvesting the rice, drying it in the sun… It takes about a year for the rice you grow to reach your mouth, and you don’t know how much you’ll harvest or what quality it will be until right at the very end. It makes you realize again how tough farmers have it and give consideration to the issue of food waste. Looking at the state of depopulated villages that are in danger of disappearing also provides an opportunity to think about regional and urban issues. I sense that the perceptions of participating employees will gradually change.
Happily, one year we had a bumper crop. We had been bagging the harvested rice to give to clients and serving it in the company canteen, but we couldn’t consume the huge harvest with that alone. To ensure we didn’t waste our abundance, we made shochu, and called the rice spirit Hakuho.
When we gave gifts of Hakuho shochu, there was a lot of buzz about why it was called Hakuho. When we explained that is was distilled with rice grown by employees, there was a lot of curiosity and interest, with comments like “How interesting” and “You’re giving employees an opportunity to experience something wonderful.” The response from non-Japanese recipients has been terrific, too. Initially the label had Hakuho written in Japanese characters, but we totally redesigned it recently so that non-Japanese recipients, too, can understand that it is rice spirit made from rice grown by our employees. The shochu has a good reputation in terms of taste, too. The aroma opens up if you dilute it with soda water and it is absolutely delicious [laughs].
The Hakuhodo Group has many offices in Asia, a rice-cultivating region just like Japan. Most are in countries where rice is the staple food, and I would love for them to implement this agricultural experience, too. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they adopted it following in our footsteps here in Japan and we developed a Hakuhodo Group agricultural network?
The agricultural experience initiative started as a way of getting out of our heads and moving our bodies to feel something and, rather than some big plan, I hope that it continues organically, with participants telling others how much fun it is and that they should give it a go.