A Japanese Winery Helping Students with Special Needs

On a golden afternoon this past fall at Coco Farm & Winery in Ashikaga, Japan, picnickers and revelers gathered among the vines to celebrate the 31st annual harvest festival. The wine flowed, the sun shone, and live jazz echoed across the small valley, resplendent in fall colors. The sheer number of people there for the event—around 8,500—reflects how far the winery has come since its rather audacious beginning several decades ago.

The winery began as the dream of Noboru Kawata, a local teacher of students with special needs. Frustrated with conventional ways of treating people who didn’t fit into traditional roles in society, Kawata envisioned a residential and working facility for students with mental or physical disabilities. He was convinced that working in nature was a better alternative to a life in institutionalized care.

In 1958, Kawata and his students got to work, clearing 7.5 acres of land on a steep hillside in Tochigi prefecture, about 50 miles north of Tokyo. Over the decades, the community, Kokoromi Gakuen (kokoromi means “challenge,” or “to try something new”; gakuen means “academy”), slowly grew alongside the grapes. In 1980, Kawata established an official farm and winery with seed money from residents’ families; in 1984, the winery received a government permit to produce wine.

A Japanese Winery Helping Students with Special Needs

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