Why Unshu Mikan Is Japan's Most Beloved Citrus Fruit

Let’s peel back the history of this ubiquitous fruit.

Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

If you asked the average Japanese person what the most familiar fruit was to them, they would undoubtably immediately think of the mikan (mandarin orange). A family sits around a kotatsu (a traditional Japanese table with an electric heater attached to the underside), watching TV and eating mikan — the traditional picture of a harmonious family scene in the wintertime. In this feature, let’s peel back the history of this ubiquitous fruit.

Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The fruit of the masses

Ehime Prefecture, on Shikoku Island, is Japan’s number one citrus producer. The chief representative of this prefecture that proudly calls itself the ‘Citrus Kingdom’ is the unshu mikan. Of the many varieties of mandarin oranges grown in Japan, it is the unshu that first comes to mind when Japanese people hear the word ‘mikan’.

The unshu mikan’s small size makes it simple to peel and it has very few seeds, making it easy to eat. The popular fruit is also relatively inexpensive and known for its long season, being available from autumn (October) until early spring (March). The wase (early maturing) unshu mikan that can be eaten in autumn has a refreshing sweetness; the okute (late-season) variety that comes at the end of the growing season, on the other hand, has a richer, sweet flavor.

Mikan Flowers (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The story of the Unshu Mikan*
(*not actually from Unshu!)

The unshu mikan gained its appellation from the Japanese reading of the city of Wenzhou in China’s Zhejiang Province, an area known for its citrus production. However, it has been found that the unshu mikan’s origin is not actually China: it is native to Japan! It is said that it is the result of a fortuitous mutation that occurred some 1400 years ago in what later became the Satsuma Domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture) during the Edo Period (1603-1868). This is how the unshu mikan came to be known as a ‘satsuma’ in the West. Japanese call it by a Chinese geographical name; overseas, it is commonly named after a Japanese place name — a unique quirk for a humble fruit.

Cultivation of the unshu mikan in Ehime began in 1789. It said that in that year, a gentleman named Heijiro Kagayama, denizen of what is now Uwajima City, brought a single sapling back from Tosa (now Kochi Prefecture) and planted it in his garden. At that time, fruit was largely a rarity and considered a luxury item. It was not until after the Second World War, during the post-war economic boom, that fruit became the widely available commodity it is today in Japan.

View of Maana (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Taizo Nonomiya, head of the Institute for Citrus Fruits at the Ehime Research Institute of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, explains that the true origins of the unshu mikan have been revealed only relatively recently.

“The unshu mikan goes back a long way and it’s perhaps the most well-loved citrus in Japan. It accounts for almost 70% of all citrus fruits sold here. With that said, it was only in 2016 that we found out who its parents were. DNA testing by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) found it was a cross between the kishu mikan (cherry orange) and a kunenbo mandarin orange, thought to have originated in Indochina. With this revelation in mind, here in Ehime we are building on the research done so far and continue to discover mutant varieties, and we are committed to the quest to produce even more delicious mikan.”

Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Melt-in-your-mouth Maana Mikan

Overlooking the Uwa Sea off along Ehime’s western coastline is the Maana District. From long ago, this area has been renowned for its mikan and it lies within the Nanyo Region (southern part of Ehime Prefecture), recognized as a Japanese Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems site by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Of the some 500 households in Maana, around 170 are engaged in mikan growing. The ‘Maana mikan’ brand name is famous around Japan and it was the first citrus fruit to receive the coveted Emperor’s Cup, the highest agricultural award in Japan.

“Take a look at this cross-section of the mikan. See just how thin the peel is?” remarks Katsuo Ohshita, deputy head of the sorting cooperative at the JA Nishiuwa Branch, as he slices open one of the fruit.

“I am originally from Niigata up north and I remember being astonished the first time I had a Maana mikan. The quality of the texture comes from the thinness of the skin and the fact that you can hardly detect the presence of a segment wall (the thin membrane that the pulp is enclosed in). I’d describe the flesh as having a melty texture and a rich sweetness — it’s very full-flavored. ‘How delicious is this thing?!’ I recall thinking.”

Harvest of Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

‘Three Suns’: The secret behind the flavor

Mikan cultivation in Maana commenced in 1891. Until that time, the then Maana Village was poor, the inhabitants earning a living off the growing of haze (Japanese was tree), which was used to make the wax for candles, and fishing. With little rainfall and well-draining soil, it was hardly suited to growing rice — large-scale cultivation of the staple almost impossible anyway, given the steep slopes facing the sea in the area. However, it was precisely these severe conditions that made Maana the perfect place for growing mikan. The warm climate and long hours of sunshine combined with the ability to create terraced fields with unobstructed views to the sea resulted in the production of the delicious Maana mikan enjoyed today.

Hiramasa Nakai is head of the sorting cooperative at the JA Nishiuwa Branch. “We grow the mikan here with three suns,” he curiously explains.

“Maana mikan are grown in the open on terraced fields facing the sea. The groves all face west or south, meaning they receive a full day’s sun. We have what we call the ‘Three Suns’: the sunlight directly from the sky, the sunlight reflecting off the sea, and the sunlight reflecting off the rock walls of the terraced fields. It’s these ‘suns’, along with the salty sea breeze and mineral-rich land, that makes the mikan here especially delicious.”

Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Picking up the tab, Maana-style

“There are tales people of my father’s generation proudly tell about the mikan,” begins Kimito Matsura, a mikan-grower in Maana.

“There’s one my old man would often wax lyrical about: he said that it wasn’t unusual to go down to the local drinking hole with a box-full of Maana-grown mikan to not only pay for the bill the last drinks you’d had there, but to also pick up the tab for the drinks that night, too! Must have been quite a lot of mikan if people were paying for two nights of drinking. You can’t imagine anyone doing that these days!” Matsura laughs. “It just goes to show that even back then, Maana mikan were well-regarded and considered a valuable commodity.”

Harvest of Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Traditional sounds of Maana

With the coming of November, the almost rhythmical ‘click, click’ sound of pruning shears reverberates around Maana’s hillsides. The picking process involves first cutting the mikan from the branch with a short stem still attached to the it, followed by cutting the stem itself as close as possible to the skin. This ‘double plucking’ may be time-consuming, but it is necessary to avoid damaging the beautiful fruit. Harvest time is an especially busy time of year with almost 200 seasonal workers converging on Maana from various other regions.

“The ‘family’ gets a little larger around this time of year!” smiles Oshita. “We don’t have enough people to work the harvest here in the district, so we have to put the wanted ads up. You get people from all over the country. They come via introductions from friends or they see our ads on the internet. We sometimes get people from overseas, even. Harvest time goes for about one to two months, and during that time they live with us in our houses and work with us out in the groves. They also eat with us — they basically become like family and we get along great together.”

Harvest of Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tradition and change in Maana mikan

Maana has seen other businesses spring up from its mikan industry. One is a craft gin that goes by the name ‘Pachipachi’ (from the sound the shears that cut the fruit from the trees at harvest time) which uses not only the juice and peel from the mikan, but also the blossom as its botanicals. There are also businesses that make canned mikan or juice with pulp. “You can enjoy Maana’s mikan all year round!” exclaims Ohshita.

“You couldn’t say that Maana mikan are grown in the most forgiving environment. The steep slopes make it hard to make use of the usual labor-saving machinery. Most of the work is done manually, but the upside to that is the skills have been passed down the generations and the quality is maintained. At the same time, there needs to be new things tried out so we can deliver even tastier fruit to the next generation!”

Producer of Maana Mikan (2020-07)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Emi Iida, married into a mikan farming family 23 years ago, has taken to social media to post photos that show Maana mikan and the charms of the area.

“After the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, we sent up mikan for those affected. They were well-received and in fact, I was so happy to get an unexpected thank-you letter from kids in Fukushima Prefecture. We were also able to deepen ties with farmers in other parts of the country through the experience. That was the time I started taking photos in between working in the fields — I wanted to spread the word about Maana mikan and the attraction of this part of the world. It’s scenically beautiful with the dazzling sun and sea. And, more than anything, the people here are great. I’d be happy if through the mikan, people will get some sort of idea of Maana’s charm.”

Inheritors of time-honored growing methods, the people of Maana take to the steep hillsides of this sun-kissed land. While the modern era brings many changes, the mikan from this region are grown through tried and true methods, embodying the indelible images of yesteryear and the sweetness of those memories for so many Japanese people.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
JA Nishiuwa Maana co-selection

Photos: Yuri Nanasaki
Text & Edit : Masaya Yamawaka

Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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