Photo/IllutrationMembers of the “Okinawa Coffee Project” attend a news conference in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on April 17: From left, Nago Vice Mayor Hidero Kinjo, Okinawa SV head Naohiro Takahara, Nestle Japan Ltd. President Kohzoh Takaoka and Koji Wada, head of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of the Ryukyus (Toshiyuki Shimizu)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Naohiro Takahara's fame as a striker for the national soccer squad is now behind him as he pursues a new goal: growing coffee in Okinawa Prefecture.

In his heyday, Takahara, 39, was known in Germany as the "Sushi Bomber" for his impressive feats on the pitch.

His “Okinawa Coffee Project” aims to restore fields left barren to create a new local specialty from the southernmost prefecture known for a bitter gourd called "goya," a strong rice-based drink called "awamori," pork dishes and the longevity of its residents.

“If all goes well, we hope to solve some local problems and make the venture a profitable one,” Takahara said. “Other than soccer, I have never experienced this much fun with something.”

At a news conference held in Tokyo on April 17, Takahara said he had approached coffee giant Nestle Japan Ltd. about assisting in the project.

INSPIRATION FROM GERMANY

Takahara made his professional debut when he joined Jubilo Iwata in 1998. The club went on to win the J1 League the following year, and in 2002, Takahara became the top scorer and earned MVP status.

He moved to Germany to play for Hamburger SV and Eintracht Frankfurt and quickly won acclaim on the European football circuit for his double-digit scores in one season in the first division.

His experience in Germany proved to be a game-changer. Takahara was much taken by the close connection that football teams had with their communities. Split into groups of several players, the team would visit local areas, and even suburban towns, to mingle with residents and share their love of the sport.

“It was something that had never occurred to me when I was in Japan,” Takahara said, adding that he quickly realized the low-key efforts pulled in the crowds at soccer venues.

In 2015, Takahara founded Okinawa Sport-Verein (Okinawa SV), a sports club based around soccer.

The former Japan NT member moved to Okinawa, serving as manager-player and CEO with the aim of elevating his team to the J.League.

In light of his experiences in Germany, Takahara brought what he learned to Japan to form a strong bond with the local community after the club's founding. Members have produced polo shirts using traditional local arts and crafts, jointly developed a beverage made with locally produced “moromi” vinegar and even cultivated farmland that lay uncultivated.

OKINAWA EYE-OPENER

Takahara came face-to-face with the problems plaguing agriculture in Okinawa Prefecture, partly due to a shortage of labor brought on by the rapid aging of the population.

Besides, the cultivation of goya, once Okinawa’s signature agricultural product, along with other vegetables, suddenly faced stiff competition from farmers in the main Honshu island due to advances in technology, causing prices to drop significantly. Annual typhoons also made younger people shy about taking up farming as a way of life.

In 2017, Takahara learned that a nearby farmer had begun cultivating coffee on a small scale.

This was when Takahara had his eureka moment: Sensing a good thing, he wondered whether Nestle Japan, Jubilo Iwata's main sponsor when the striker played for the J1 team, would provide its expertise and help fund the coffee project.

“I spontaneously felt a connection,” Takahara recalled. “I made contact and said that I wanted to talk about what was on my mind.”

Nestle Japan agreed to provide coffee seeds. Takahara's task was to cultivate them until their seedlings were sufficiently big to be transplanted, a project that would require his teammates to volunteer their time.

The Okinawa SV president also searched for a plot suitable for growing coffee, and found an abandoned field outside the city of Nago.

Even though an estimated 50 billions of cups of coffee are consumed in Japan each year, the country relies almost entirely on coffee bean imports.

Given that coffee consumption is projected to increase in developing countries in the future, Japan may eventually have difficulty procuring coffee beans on a stable basis.

With that in mind, Nestle Japan decided to support large-scale cultivation of coffee, a risky move as Japan is considered to have an unsuitable climate for the endeavor.

The soccer team cultivated 240 coffee seedlings, which were transplanted in the plot Takahara found on April 23.

If the plants flourish, the first harvest is expected between 2022 and 2023, with an expectation of reaping 200 kilograms of coffee beans, equivalent to about 10,000 cups of coffee.

The team members plan to transplant an additional 10,000 seedlings in the field next year in the hope of producing beans for up to 400,000 cups of the brew.

Most of the Okinawa SV players are amateur athletes who also have day jobs.

If the coffee project takes off, at least some of them will receive an income taking care of coffee plants.

“We want to make it work as a business without falling into the trap of becoming self-satisfied,” Takahara said.

Eventually, Takahara envisions building a soccer ground equipped with a coffee farm.

“There will be a cafe that I hope will serve as a forum for people to get together and chat, whether or not a game is going on.”

(This article was written by Toshiyuki Shimizu and Yuki Kubota.)