Seeds from Yap, Story #1 Ms. TOUME Tomoe

From Ishigaki Island to Yap Island and return to Ishigaki Island

Eco- and Human-friendly society created by Island lifestyle

It has been around 30 years since the “Yap-Japan Cultural Exchange Program” started. More than 400 participants including observers have stepped on the soil of Yap Island. Now, 30 years have passed, how do the people with a common experience in Yap Island have spent time for quarter century and what are they facing now?

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the program, we are going to start a column series “Seeds sown in Yap” . Here we are going to introduce the subsequent stories of participants, so that we can look back on the value and meaning of Yap island once again and get some hints on how we live and contribute to the creation of a sustainable society in the future.

The first storyteller is TOUME Tomoe, a participant in 1993. She was born and grew up on Ishigaki island in Okinawa prefecture and still lives on the island as a mother of five children. How has her experience in Yap affected her life? The first storyteller is TOUME Tomoe, a participant in 1993. She was born and grew up on Ishigaki island in Okinawa prefecture and still lives on the island as a mother of five children. How has her experience in Yap affected her life?

Program 1993 in Yap island. Tomoe is the third person from the middle right.

Spending time surrounded by nature, tradition and culture.

Weaving is like a meditation. There is joy in creating something by my hands. Spinning thread, tailoring and dying.. Here, we are still tailoring Kimono (a traditional Japanese attire) by ourselves for festivals, starting from growing hemp.

Online interview with Tomoe

Tomoe has been busy raising her five sons on her hometown Ishigaki Island. Besides helping her family’s pineapple farm, she enjoys weaving, supporting after school children care, nature games and starry sky guide.

From Tomoe’s words, you can feel the culture and traditions from the time of Ryukyu kingdom and the breath of nature around her. She has always loved nature since she was a small child.

I could enjoy seeing creatures, leaves, whatever in nature. I felt like there are treasures all over the place and the earth is shining. I was wondering why I had only one body.

While she grew up in affluent nature in Ishigaki island, she also had an internal struggle.

If I loved nature too much, I started hating people. I couldn’t forgive the destruction of nature and environmental problems caused by human. There was a problem with the new airport and red clay around this place. The rain flowed the red clay into the ocean and the water was colored with red which was painful as if blood was flowing.

She had a hard time when she was highschool and university student to know more and more about environmental problems. She refused the work which benefits humans such as teachers, doctors and farmers and decided to study biology at Ryukyu university. That time she came to know the Yap island programm.

From Ishigaki Island to Yap Island

I happened to see an article about the introduction of the program in the newspaper. It was a tiny article and the submit due date was a day after. That time I saved money by working part-time to go to Africa. So Micronesia was a place where I didn’t plan to visit.

Her instinct led her to make a phone call to Ecoplus even though she didn’t have clear purpose yet. I think a lot of participants of the Yap Island program are connected by chance like her.

There are a lot of similarities between Okinawa and Yap island. As you go from Ishigaki to Guam and Yap, the same plant grows bigger and bigger. Her first impression of Yap Island was to see a way bigger size of familiar leaves in Ishigaki.

The first activity was to drink coconut juice and weave mat with coconut leaves. We put the weaved mat on the ground and slept together in the same mosquito net. And we made natural flush toilets on the river. We always cooked together. But gradually we used up the food stock and at the end we ate rice with jam! Then local people felt pity for us and brought ready made food such as coconut, crab soup, giant clams and so on. It was very delicious.

She really enjoyed the life of creating their own life together in Yap island. She explained us as we can imagine the picture of 30 years ago.

Learnings from vegetable garden in Yap Island
A way of life that you can get anything you need from nature

During ten days in Yap Island, she had some experiences which influenced her life.

I strongly remember the memory of my homestay at Rosa’s family. One day she let me visit their vegetable garden. We kept walking in the jungle and suddenly she stopped and said “This is our vegetable garden”. I was surprised because it just looked as same as other parts of the jungle but when I observed it carefully, I could find beans, pumpkin, watermelon and so on. It was so shocking for me to know that they can get whatever they need from nature without deforestation. And I felt the environment is so affluent. We went back home with a weaved basket full of vegetables.

We can live if only we have coconut and fish.”  These words of local people changed Tomoe who used to hate humans. She had started to think that she could do something for them. “I want to do something for these people, I think I can do something.” “The experience was the most effective for me. If I didn’t visit Yap island, I might be a very disgusting person. I could somehow appreciate everything after coming back to Japan. The learnings from Yap island could gain little by little.

Tomoe was impressed by the way of life that does not burden the environment  and she found out the possibility of sustainable agriculture. She studied Permaculture in the United States and Australia and got the licence as an instructor. Even though she used to refuse to be a farmer, the experiences in Yap island shifted her way of thinking about agriculture as the important connection between humans and nature. Her experience shows us the strength of place based learning and the value of one’s awareness.

Everyone is different, everyone is special.

 After she went back to Ishigaki island, she got married and gave birth to 5 sons.

I wanted to try growing up our children in a natural way. So I gave birth my first son in the hospital but 4 other sons were born at home with my husband’s support. Just as Yappies 3 years old children walk with small knives, I let my children hold a knife and use a saw and screwdriver fleely before they become 1 years old. Some people around me said something to me though.

After children grow up, she has started working on star guides and nature games for children which is her lifework. The essence of nature games is not the knowledge itself but to feel nature with 5 senses.

You cannot see the real appearance of the flower once you think of the name of it. I think it is more important to feel the beauty, uniqueness and any other sense of feelings. Nowadays there are some children who have never seen frogs in Ishigaki Island. Sometimes I’m shocked to know some children experience nature itself for the very first time.”

I love the word “Everyone is different, everyone is special”. I can feel the word as the common thing when I am in nature

But once you look at the society, I wonder how many people understand the meaning of this sentence. I feel it in school especially. My children used to go to school with sandals but it was not allowed by the teacher. I felt constrained. I think it is better if we have space to think how to live and how to work. To understand the feeling of the connection of family, society and earth would lead us to gain the power of how to live.

Tomoe wants to let her children hold the island’s culture and nature inside themselves. While imagining the scene when she swam with a raft in the sea of ​​Yap at full moon night, she talks about her desire to let her children have such an experience someday.

Thinking of Post COVID-19 era from Ishigaki Island

Now the world is facing the problem of COVID-19, Ishigaki Island is not the exception. What does she think of this situation?

Now (26th May) the school is closing due to the pandemic, but some people around me are feeling it’s benefits. Children can be relaxed without being stressed with their homeworks.  Especially from March to May is a busy season for sightseeing in Ishigaki Island and parents usually leave their children alone. But this year I could see a lot of children and parents playing together. In addition, during this time, various creatures such as giant crabs holding eggs are appearing on the road, and they are run over by taxis and rental cars. It’s painful to see it, but it doesn’t happen this year and I’m feeling like the peaceful days are back here in Ishigaki Island.

She says every day on Ishigaki Island should not be a congestion but be more peaceful. COVID-19 would give us an opportunity to reconsider the way of sightseeing on the island.

We had 1,480,000 guests to the island with a population of 50,000 last year

Sightseeing is of course helpful for the economy however, tourists also consume both water and energy. It was actually out of our capacity, I guess. People were able to visit Ishigaki Islands with low cost careers before the pandemic. It causes the people to bring their everyday life to the island rather than enjoying the slow island time. They quickly go around the island and go back without knowing the reality. We want a lot of people to know the wonderful part of our island. That’s why I want to set a limitation of visitors and we want to welcome those who can respect and appreciate our island.

The impact of COVID-19 has put a heavy burden on our way of movement. Ironically it would lead us to think about comfortable life, the reason for moving and how to respect culture and nature where we visit. This may be true in Yap island too. Tomoe says that a more “friendly society” can be created by communicating, connecting, and respecting people and nature, and creatures.

Hopes to ECOPLUS

It was a really great opportunity for me to be able to look at human beings which I’ve kept hating, and to have a feeling of being grateful for everything within a week in Yap. I guess I was not a genuine participant but I think that the influence on people can be shown in not intended place and time. I think it is amazing that ECOPLUS has continued providing the real experience for a lot of people. There are also some stories that can only be understood among those who have experienced it. I hope the relationship will last forever.

Seeds is a good expression. ECPLUS is definitely sowing the seeds.

One seed that has returned to Ishigaki from Yap Island has spread its roots and made soil for new seeds.

Interview by KAWAGUCHI Daisuke, participant of 1999, Translation by NAOI Saki, participant of 2015

Seeds from Yap, Story #2, Ms. IWASAKI Mio

The story of a genetic researcher
From a closed space to an open world

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “Yap-Japan Cultural Exchange Program” we have started a column series “Seeds sown in Yap” . Here we are going to introduce the subsequent stories of participants, so that we can look back on the value and meaning of Yap island once again and get some hints on how we live and contribute to the creation of a sustainable society in the future.

Our second story teller is IWASAKI Mao who participated in 1999 and 2001 when she was a junior high school student. Now, she is a Program-Specific Assistant Professor at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University which is headed by Dr. YAMANAKA Shinya, Nobel Prize-winning stem cell biologist.

She joined the program during the midst of Adolescence. We asked her how her experiences in Yap island gave impact on her life and research work today.

Online interview with Ms. IWASAKI Mao

Attracted by the world of gene

I’m researching several types of genes. Even if the genome is the same, the appearance is completely different if the cell type is different. I feel the differences are interesting.

iPS Cell attracts attention after Dr. YAMANAKA Shinya received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012. It is expected to take a crucial role for regenerative medicine.

Ms. Iwasaki (right in picture) with her research group members.

She speaks calmly and introspectively during the interview, but once she talks about cells, she looks like a bit excited.

Mio got interested in the human body when she was in the 4th and 5th grades of elementary school. “My niece is 10 years younger than me and she was born with a disability in her eyes. I was wondering why it is happening.

After she got interested in humanities and science through her relative, the NHK documentary program she watched when she was in junior high school accelerated her interests and had a great impact on her future.

I knew about the word “Gene” in the TV program for the first time. Humans have around 30 trillion cells and each of them contains information as same as a thousand encyclopedias.  The information is properly extracted in each place, such as the brain, liver, and bone, to maintain vital functions. It was interesting to know that each cell contains enormous information. The TV program mentioned that a lot of things have not been cleared yet. That time I thought I can do something or I have to do something for this.

In this way she aspired to be a genetic researcher when she was in middle school. On the other hand, she was struggling with a lot of suffering and frustration at that time.