Photo/Illutration Young people at Ibaraki Nogei Gakuin build grape trellises in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kiyotaka Sato)

USHIKU, Ibaraki Prefecture--Could winemaking be the key to helping delinquents find jobs when they get out of a reformatory? The mayor here thinks so.

Ushiku Chateau, the nation’s first full-scale winery, has engaged a juvenile training school to grow grapes to revive home brewing and train young offenders as technicians.

“I can hardly wait for the day when I enjoy the completed wine with young people who have become technicians,” said Ushiku Mayor Yoji Nemoto, who came up with the project, the first of its kind among 48 reformatories in Japan.

Several teenagers were seen working up a sweat in July on farmland owned by Ibaraki Nogei Gakuin, an agricultural reform school. They quietly set up poles for grape trellises onto which 1-meter-tall grapevines of Merlot, Muscat Bailey A and other varieties could intertwine.

Under the plan, about 60 people between the ages 16 and 20 will grow 50 grapevines in open fields and greenhouses.

After harvesting, grapes will be fermented at Ushiku Chateau, designated by the government as an important cultural property.

The facility, built by industrialist Denbe Kamiya (1856-1922) in 1903, is now owned by Tokyo-based Oenon Holdings Inc. The company’s operations include sake brewing, but it suspended wine production in 2018 due to poor business performance.

In January, the Ushiku city government founded a company with private partners to help revive the winery.

The facility was also included in the Japan Heritage list under an Agency for Cultural Affairs program to promote historical and cultural resources in local areas in June.

Nemoto said softball games between city officials and young people at Ibaraki Nogei Gakuin inspired him to set up the grape-growing project. The mayor, who played baseball in high school, began holding the games three years ago.

When he approached the reform school with the project, school officials were only too willing to sign on.

Those leaving juvenile training schools face high barriers to secure employment.

Only 780, or less than 40 percent, of 2,156 people who got out of reformatories around the nation in 2018 found jobs before they left, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Ministry.

Ushiku city officials hope young offenders can acquire skills at Ibaraki Nogei Gakuin and work as technicians at the semi-public company that operates Ushiku Chateau and elsewhere.

The operating company reopened a restaurant and other facilities at the winery in June.

It plans to obtain an alcohol license and produce wine with grapes grown in the winery's vineyard and those cultivated and harvested by Ibaraki Nogei Gakuin on a full-scale basis.

“We’d be happy if they can nurture healthy minds and contribute to the local community through grape cultivation,” said Kazuhiko Higasa, 54, head of the reformatory.