#01 Kyrgyz: Nature and History
Are you familiar with the Kyrgyz Republic? Last year in this country, a joint undertaking by JICA (*1) and MUJI began. Through the coming serialization, we would like to introduce you to the Kyrgyz Republic, its local producers, members of JICA Kyrgyz and the JICA x MUJI project.
The Kyrgyz Republic is a small country between China and Kazakhstan with a population of 5,400,000. This project is being carried out with those producers living around Lake Issyk-Kul and JICA Kyrgyz members. Here, we would like to introduce the Kyrgyz Republic and the catalyst for starting the project.
Along the way towards India on the Silk Road traveled by Genjo Sanzo is Lake Issyk-Kul, in what is now the Kyrgyz Republic. Lake Issyk-Kul, the name of which means "hot lake", does not freeze over even when the outside air temperature drops below minus 20 degrees; it is a mysterious lake that has a surface area 9 times that of Lake Biwa, and while more than 100 rivers flow into it, not even one flows out.
The Kyrgyz Republic is not well known in Japan, but to the people of CIS (*2) countries it has been quite a popular resort area since the days of the former Soviet Union. In the summer, lakeside vacations as well as light trekking and authentic mountain climbing in the surrounding mountains, which are 4000m higher and more, can be enjoyed, while in the winter, the area is crowded with ski tourists. Since fruit cultivation flourishes, in the spring, the lake's environs are full of apricot and apple trees in full bloom.
The JICA One Village One Product Project
The JICA One Village One Product project is being carried out against this background in the environs of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyz. It has been 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet Kyrgyz is still greatly influenced by it. The involvement of local residents in the tourism industry is sparse, and with stagnant agriculture, the result has been the generation of a great number of migrant workers. The collapse of the community is also serious; almost no sharing of information or cooperative work is being carried out by local residents, there are few regional festivals or events, and the framework of the area is such that it is inefficient in terms of promoting the local economy. And so this project, which works to revitalize the local economy while strengthening the community through the development and sale of One Village One Product goods that use local materials characteristic of mountainous countries having high potential such as herbs, honey, wool, fruit and wild berries, began.
With the JICA Kyrgyz project, while disseminating the way of thinking behind the One Village One Product movement, whereby the concept is to create products utilizing local materials, people with ambition are brought together, a cooperative is formed, and efforts are made toward information sharing within the region and towards constructing an efficient production system. However, there are many local residents who cannot rid themselves of the way of thinking that prevailed when they were still part of the Soviet Union, and they reject information sharing, so communication with neighboring residents moves sluggishly. It seems that here and there around the place, ideas such as "We need large machinery" and "Not building one village, one product, but one village, one factory!" were cropping up.
The Impetus for the JICA x MUJI Project
MUJI, together with JICA Kyrgyz project members who want to break down the situation of the locale, met through felt products created in Kyrgyz. At that time, we were making inquiries with JICA's private cooperative room to see whether we couldn't make products that tied in with producer support, products to be used as gifts over the Christmas season. From amongst a pile of handicrafts from all over the world, we were attracted to the warm atmosphere imbued in these felt products, and looking at the high level of quality and technology, felt the possibility that we could go forward with their commercialization; in 2011 the JICA x MUJI initiative began.
JICA Kyrgyz members provided technical training for the handicraft producers through the cooperative that had only just been formed in the first year for those producers we had commissioned to make products for us.
However, when production actually began, it seems that the difficulties faced surpassed what they had imagined. Everything was a new experience, from the procurement of the raw materials to shipping. The days went by with each problem being cleared one by one. The most difficult thing was production control, owing to the fact that 29 groups spread over a 700km area around the lake needed to be controlled, no mean feat; while gaining the support of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV), the JICA project staff monitored the situation - the days prior to the products being shipped were sleepless ones.
In 2011, some 13,000 products were manufactured. This was over a period of approximately four and a half months. This experience, accomplished by some 250 people, had a more than ample effect in changing the way of thinking of the local residents. Many things were learned, from the stringency of the quality standards to be able to sell products through general retailing businesses to the merits of cooperative work, and it seems that more than anything, the feeling of accomplishment gained from conducting every process manually linked to confidence and a positive attitude.
The challenge to move forward even just a little while thinking and working with people living with this historical background and facing regional problems continues. We at MUJI empathize with the endeavors of Kyrgyz producers and the JICA Kyrgyz project members, and will be carrying out the creation of things this year too.
This column has been written by a MUJI project member with the cooperation of JICA Kyrgyz.
*1 JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) An independent administrative agency that operates through contributing to the development or restoration of the economies and societies of developing countries and to economic stability to promote international cooperation and to contribute to the sound development of the international economic community and of Japan also.
*2 CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) A relaxed confederation of nations formed in 1991 and made up of 12 (officially 10) out of the 15 countries that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) at the time of the Soviet collapse.