Essay: Honest-box Vegetables in Tokyo

I was planning a month-long trip to Japan from mid-March of this year, but decided to postpone it because of the powerful earthquake/tsunami that struck there and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant explosions that followed.  I delayed my trip because significant aftershocks were continuing, and I was concerned about the possibility of radiation contamination extending far beyond Fukushima itself.  I also had no idea how and when the explosions in the nuclear reactors would finally be brought under control.  A serious power shortage predicted in summer over the whole of Japan was another worry.  So I waited till October to go home, the month when no air-conditioning or heating would be needed.

Before I set off, the shelves at the Geneva store, where I normally buy imported Japanese food items, were getting bare.  According to the shop owner, European governments had imposed a ban on the import of food items from Japan after the Fukushima disaster in order to prevent any contaminated goods from entering their countries.  Nevertheless, he sounded optimistic and believed the ban would soon be lifted once the safety of Japanese food was proven.  Against this background I flew back home and was greatly relieved to find the large Tokyo supermarket near my apartment abundantly stocked with as many varieties of food items and other goods as ever.

What also pleased me greatly was confirmation that unmanned vegetable stalls still exist there.  My apartment is in a residential area in Tokyo, about 25 minutes by train from Shinjuku, which is considered the busiest area in Japan because so many train and subway lines crisscross there.  When my sister and her family bought their first house and moved to that area 40 years ago, there were lots of vegetable farms around.  Gradually, however, new houses and apartment buildings were built and farm land slowly disappeared.  Nevertheless, while strolling around my neighborhood, I can still see some plots where vegetable farmers painstakingly grow different kinds of vegetables, depending on the season.

Farmers erect unmanned vegetable stalls facing the road and place different vegetables freshly harvested each morning on them.  Passers-by wishing to buy can pick their selection and pay for them by dropping coins into a piggy-bank-like box on the stall.  To make payment easier and to avoid having to pay back change, the stall owners pack the produce into bags with a uniform price of 100 yen.  For example, a cabbage sold for about 196 yen at the nearby supermarket was being on sale for 100 yen.  Two such stalls that had been near my apartment were still there when I returned this time.

Having lived outside Japan for many years, I have become concerned about the security of such stalls.  Would there be heartless people who carry away vegetables the stall owner has so lovingly grown without paying for them?  Worse, would there be anyone daring enough to grab the money box and run off with it?  In fact, it can be done so easily if anyone were so tempted.  I longed to ask stall owners if they had had such experiences, but I never saw them there, only the shoppers, so could not ask.  Even if they had had bitter experiences, they must still find cultivating vegetables enjoyable and worth doing.  While taking some risk, they must still consider selling their produce at unattended stalls profitable enough to continue.

Immediately after the catastrophe of March this year, nearly half a million people were housed in temporary shelters set up in the Tohoku region.  Although they were suffering from bitter cold and hunger, the TV news showed them standing in line at distribution centers, orderly and patiently waiting their turn to receive water, food, clothes and blankets, without fighting among themselves to receive assistance ahead of others.  When they finally moved up in line and received what was being distributed, they politely bowed to the people providing what was being offered to express their appreciation.  Whenever the Western media reported and commented on the good behaviour and self-discipline of the disaster-stricken people in temporary shelters, I felt proud to be Japanese.

This time, having confirmed that unmanned vegetable stalls were still there, I was once again happy to be Japanese.  Of course, people commit crimes in Japan, as happens in all countries, and, in fact, crime is reported to be on the rise.  But, still, my home country boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the OECD countries. (  Are there any large cities in the world today, aside from Tokyo, where a farmer can leave his/her produce and a money box unattended on a stall?  I do not think so.  I cannot help wishing that Tokyo, and the whole of Japan, would stay that way for ever.

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