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Tea refreshes Meiji-era 'relief center'

French missionary's project gets new lease of life

Tea refreshes Meiji-era 'relief center'
Harvesting tea in field originally owned by Father Marc Marie De Rotz, a French missionary to Japan in the late 19th Century (Photo: Archdiocese of Nagasaki) special correspondent, Nagasaki

May 16, 2011

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According to Japanese tradition, tea harvested on the 88th day of spring is supposed to be exceptionally fine. The lunar calendar places the beginning of spring on or about February 4, which means that every year, people throughout Japan take to the fields for a first harvest of tea around May 2. This year, at one tea farm in the Odaira area of Nagasaki City, 103 people went to work on May 4 and 5 to gather the first crop of the season. What separates this farm from all the rest is its connection to a French missionary of the Meiji era, Father Marc Marie De Rotz (1840-1914). Father De Rotz was assigned as pastor to the area in 1879. He used his extensive knowledge of farming, construction and other matters to help desperately poor people there, and founded a workers’ assistance institution which they called a “relief center” to offer guidance in matters related to agriculture. As part of this institution, Father De Rotz established a factory making bread and macaroni to sell to foreigners in Nagasaki, which provided a source of income. Later, he added Japanese somen noodles, made from wheat flour and peanut oil, to the center’s repertoire. This type of noodle became known as “De Rotz Somen” and is still made to this day, although not at the center. More importantly, he created jobs for local workers, including widows, and taught them the skills they needed to establish a self-supporting livelihood. Its role as an employment relief center faded over the years, but that now seems to be changing. In 2003, the relief center complex was designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. At present, a plan is afoot to turn the clock back and reopen the site as a relief center next year. To that end, people in the region have formed a number of organizations to carry out related activities such as the use of the tea farm, which was first cultivated by the missionary. The organization behind the tea harvest earlier this month recruited workers, including 38 local people. They are “people who feel we should be grateful to Father De Rotz,” said Sister Yuko Tsujihara of the Sisters of the Annunciation of Our Lady, which owns the buildings. The second tea harvest at Father De Rotz’s farm is scheduled for May 28. Translated by Dominic Pease JA14208
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