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Home-Grown Cuisine

Green Lanterns Indicate Dishes Cooked with Local Produce


The green lantern, a new culinary symbol. ©Midori Chouchin

A popular after-work destination for many people in Japan is an izakaya - a casual, relatively low-priced tavern serving an assortment of foods and drinks. Many izakaya have long identified themselves by means of a red lantern hanging outside the door. Recently, though, some taverns are displaying not red lanterns but green ones. These green lanterns show that the store is participating in a movement to promote the use of locally grown ingredients.

Freshest Food Available
Izakaya are places for people to talk about their work and personal lives with colleagues and friends in a casual, relaxed atmosphere. It is not unusual for customers to strike up a conversation with people sitting nearby. Although the emphasis is on drinking, izakaya usually also feature a full menu of food items that are shared by everyone at the table, such as yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer), edamame (boiled and salted soybean pods), deep-fried chicken, and chilled tofu with soy sauce and ginger.

Some of the red paper lanterns that hang outside izakaya are old, torn, and dusty, but this is often a sign that the store has been popular enough to be around for many, many years. The dishes served may not be fancy like those at more expensive restaurants, meanwhile, but there is plenty to eat, and the price is right.

Now some izakaya have begun displaying green lanterns instead of red ones to show that they are taking part in a drive to promote the use of locally grown produce. This movement was conceived by Maruyama Kiyoaki while he was working at a public agricultural research organization in Hokkaido - Japan's vast northern island, where a large share of the country's farm produce is grown. Visiting izakaya in various parts of the island, he was surprised by how many of the fish, vegetables, and other ingredients used by the taverns were not from local waters and farms. Maruyama was eager to eat fresh produce in the areas where it was grown, so he decided to support those establishments that served local produce.

A Growing Movement
Maruyama's idea inspired what is now referred to as the "green lantern" movement. Green was chosen because of its association with vegetables, the countryside, and environmental protection. And the reason for using lanterns was that they identify an eatery as being a cozy, welcoming izakaya.

The first shop to display the new lantern, in April 2005, was an izakaya in the picturesque city of Otaru in Hokkaido. Because it is largely a voluntary movement, the rules have been kept simple. Restaurants using domestic ingredients for over 50% of the food served (measured on a caloric basis) can identify themselves as with a one-star green lantern. Each 10-percentage-point increase in domestic content earns them another star, with the highest being five stars for restaurants where over 90% of the ingredients used are domestically grown. The number of stars thus becomes an important way for restaurants to attract diners.

The movement extends to customers as well. People who register as "green lantern supporters" pledge that, when faced with a choice between a red and a green lantern, they will always enter the tavern displaying the green lantern.


Red lanterns at an izakaya.

Green lanterns have been proliferating due to the growing number of people who are keen to eat locally grown food items. As locally grown ingredients are transported over only short distances, they boast such advantages as superior freshness and reduced greenhouse emissions from transportation. While most stores in the movement are izakaya, green lanterns have also begun to appear outside some Italian and French restaurants, as well as inns and coffee shops.

Since the launch of the movement three years ago, 1,500 establishments have registered as "green lantern" eateries. The immediate target is to expand this number to 5,000, or around 1% of the 500,000 eating and drinking establishments throughout Japan. As these stores thrive, green lanterns may become an increasingly common sight on Japanese streets. (December 2008)