Photo/IllutrationCrown Prince Fumihito inspects gourd products in Kitajima, Tokushima Prefecture, on June 14. (Ritsu Nakamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

In his youth, the brother of Emperor Naruhito was playfully dubbed "Prince Catfish" by acquaintances because of his interest in the species.

These days, "Prince of Gourds" might be a more apt monicker for Crown Prince Fumihito, given his deep knowledge of the pot-shaped fruit that has been grown in Japan since ancient times.

Fumihito, the president or honorary president of 14 organizations, likes nothing better than to visit exhibitions of gourd products.

He is also keen to create bigger gourds and pass on growing techniques to future generations as those who have expertise in the field are dwindling fast.

Last month, Fumihito, 53, attended an exhibition held by the Association For All Nippon Gourd Fanciers in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, where a wide variety of gourd works were on display.

They included one that was 2 meters long and another in the shape of an eight whose surface bore intricate engraved patterns.

During the June 13 visit, he noted the 420 or so items on display came in all sizes and were grown by members of the association or elementary school pupils across the country.

Fumihito first encountered gourds about 30 years ago.

Hiroshi Yuasa, who heads the Research Institute of Evolutionary Biology and is a gourd collector of international renown, presented Fumihito with gourd seeds from Madagascar.

The crown prince had been deeply interested in Madagascar and its plants and animals since he was in elementary school.

Back at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, he planted the seeds and eventually reaped fruit.

Gourds are known to have been used around the world as water containers or to fashion eating utensils for the past 10,000 years.

In Japan, urn-shaped gourds were used as early as the Jomon Pottery Culture period (c. 8000 B.C.-300 B.C.).

The warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was fascinated by gourds in the shape of an eight.

“Crown Prince Fumihito is clearly interested in the diversity of the plant as well as breed improvement techniques and its connection with culture,” said Yuasa, 79.

Fumihito has attended the association's annual exhibition events almost every year since around 1998 to meet with its members and talk about gourds. He was named honorary president in 2004.

“Why don’t we create bigger gourds?” he suggested to Yoshio Mori, who is now 92 years old and lives in Fukui Prefecture and had developed new breeds of tomato.

Mori recalled that Fumihito showed him a book with a picture of a large gourd produced overseas to encourage Mori in the quest.

“I realized that Prince Fumihito was serious, so I worked really hard on ways to improve cultivation," he said.

By interbreeding big spherical shaped gourds from Africa with Japanese ones in the shape of eight, Mori created a new type of gourd that can hold 100 liters of liquid.

Prior to that, the capacity of Japanese gourds was 30 liters at most. Mori’s success meant that humongous gourds can be grown around Japan.

Fumihito is committed to preserving gourd techniques, given that the association's members have dwindled from more than 1,300 to around 800 today. Many of them are in their 70s and 80s.

“Why don’t we record the techniques related to growing gourds so they can be passed down to future generations?” he suggested on one occasion.

Tsutomu Tokita, the chairman of the association, compiled a book on techniques to grow gourds, improve strains and craftwork on it based on information provided by members nationwide 2018.

“Prince Fumihito simply enjoys (being around gourds)," said Tokita, 84. "His enthusiasm is infectious and it encourages us.”

OTHER INTERESTS

It's not just gourds that capture Fumihito's interest.

Fumihito was often called “Prince Catfish” when he was young.

The crown prince earned a doctorate for his research in the history of humans raising chickens and has been interested in the relationship between people and animals and plants, and even fictitious creatures.

He is also involved in a wide variety of fields with related organizations.

One of them is the Society of Biosophia Studies, which was organized in 2003. Fumihito serves as an executive of the society.

Prior to that, he was part of research team, the predecessor of the society, to visit remote areas around Japan to study the relationship local people had with plants and animals.

The society, with about 900 members currently registered, provides numerous opportunities for them to make presentations on a wide variety of topics.

Members enthusiastically talked at one event about catfish or gourds, both of which Fumihito has studied since his youth.

On another occasion, the members discussed folklore creatures such as river imps.

“We get opportunities where experts, researchers and ordinary people can get together and talks about mutual matters of interest," said one society member.

Fumihito serves as president of the Japanese Association of Zoos And Aquariums and honorary president of the World Wide Fund for Nature. He is also president or honorary president of 12 other organizations.