Never before in its three thousand year history has Japan’s agriculture been so politicized. Since the watershed events of the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima in 2011, the average citizen has grown quite savvy in their knowledge about where their food comes from, and in which types of food present higher health risks. The Japanese government’s recent announcement to join the TPP trade talks have further politicized those at the heart of Japan’s food production – the farmers themselves. Agriculture is one of the primary industries of Japan’s economy, but even so accounts for a mere 1.3% of GNP. Were Japan to join TPP, it would open the door to foreign exports (not to mention bioengineering) that would not only push this number down even further, but threatens to change the nature of life in Japan altogether.
One result is the increase in the number of individuals who have taken responsibility for their own food production. A ‘back to the land’ movement, burgeoning since the late 1990s, has exploded since Fukushima. Though not always political per se, driven by both environmental and economic concerns, many young Japanese are shunning a life in the cities for one in the soil.
The idea of returning to the countryside is hardly a new one. For nearly 40 years Masanobu Fukuoka’s classic work, The One-Straw Revolution has lured people back to a traditional life of farming. As a previous generation considered Fukuoka’s book an influential resource, many of these current farmers have found inspiration in the ideals and methods of Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, considered the leading proponent of Natural Farming in Japan.
Based in Sakurai, not far from the ancient capital of Nara, Kawaguchi too began his approach to farming by adapting Fukuoka’s method of forgoing plowing, fertilizers, weeding, and chemicals. But he diverges from his predecessor’s more theoretic approach, and opts instead for the intuitive. Like Fukuoka, he began by doing very little and allowing the land to grow wild, but came to realize that what was required was a return to cultivation as it was performed in the earliest days of Japanese farming. As result, his methods are more flexible, and truer to his background as an artist, relying more on the conditions of the individual environment rather than on a series of rules.
Kawaguchi came to these conclusions later in life. He was born in 1939, into a family that had been farmers since the Edo period (1600-1868). His memories of the war years are memories of darkness, a time when fourteen people lived together in the house where he was born and still lives. As the eldest son, Kawaguchi inherited the farm when his father passed away five years after the war. Kawaguchi labored on the farm so that his younger siblings could receive an education, but his own education didn’t go further than the middle school level. Later, while in his twenties, he began to attend night school in order to receive a high school education, but accompanied as this was with the demands of farming, his physical and mental health began to fail.
He then began commuting to the Tennoji Art Institute in nearby Osaka. Later, he tried to make his living as an artist, wandering the country and visiting museums and temples. He felt that to be an artist, one needed a sharp eye to discern good from bad. In between these journeys, he would continue to return home for the planting and harvest periods. During one trip, he noticed a rice field through the window of the train, and saw there a beauty of fathomless depth. This convinced him that the inner journey is far more important than the outer, since real beauty is determined within each of us. He decided not to make art his occupation, but rather to make his life his art. From that moment on, he practiced farming full-time.
After23 years of farming with chemicals, his health began to decline, peaking in severe liver damage when Kawaguchi was 36. At about this time he came across a book about the influence of chemicals on the body, which changed his thinking about agriculture. He officially stopped using chemicals two years later.
That same year, a large tumor was found in his wife’s womb while she was pregnant with their first child. Most allopathic doctors recommended invasive surgery in order to remove the tumor, but Kawaguchi found a 90-year old midwife who performed the cure. This experience, and the subsequent birth of a healthy daughter, pointed Kawaguchi toward his parallel path of traditional Chinese medicine.
As his own health began to improve, Kawaguchi accepted his physical weaknesses and realized that one needs do relatively little to care and help one’s body, and that the life force of the body and the earth will do the rest. Likewise with his farming, all that needs to be done is supporting the crops with what they need to grow while they are in their vulnerable infant stage, then later, the life force of Nature will do the rest.
The most important factor is intuition. Kawaguchi feels that in general, technique isn’t as important. You simply avoid doing what you don’t have to. He has a similar outlook on life. If you are not clear about how you want to live, you can’t clearly see what you have to do.
One of the first things you notice about Kawaguchi’s rice fields is the space between the rows. He leaves this extra space for all of the organisms living in the soil. These organisms create the perfect growing conditions for the rice, and add extra nutrients.
Besides the living, the soil also holds the remains of dead organisms from previous seasons. So important are these that Kawaguchi doesn’t refer to soil with the normal Japanese term, ‘tsuchi,’ but instead calls it the layer of death. These remains nourish the living, and allow the new organisms to grow, a cycle of life found everywhere in the natural world. Kawaguchi says that were he to plow and turn over the soil he would break that cycle, and this particular soil contains the remains of over thirty years of organisms.
It is literally history beneath our feet.
Weeds too are allowed to stay, as weeds are also living things and have a role as members of the organic world. Kawaguchi says that if we weed, the first few crops are richer, and people begin to chase after short-term gains. In weeding once, the soil softens, but over time the soil grows hard and it becomes necessary to weed again and again. There the problems compound. We need to plow the hardened soil, which causes it to lose the nutrient-bearing organisms, then chemicals are needed to assist in the growing. But Kawaguchi sees this as mistaken thinking. Things don’t grow, but are grown.
In fact, all life in the natural world is lived, as demonstrated in the interrelationship of all living things. Plants cannot exist without animals, and vice-versa. If there is good harmony between the organisms, plants, and animals, the cycle of life continues. As a farmer, Kawaguchi’s role is simply to nurture this natural order, by cutting the weeds back just enough so that new rice shoots can grow, but later her allows the weeds to grow along with the rice in harmony. This leads to wholeness, with everything living together.
The transition to Natural Farming didn’t occur so naturally. Building a layer of soil laden with dead organisms took time. Kawaguchi added weeds, and the unused rice stalks and bran leftover from the year’s harvest. Eventually, he no longer needed to add anything. At first, the yield of the crop decreased slightly, but the amount of life increased. Then the amount of rice increased over time.
It was gradual process, with the most important factor being intuition. Correct technique followed. Kawaguchi feels that in general, technique isn’t as important. You simply avoid doing what you don’t have to. He has a similar outlook on life. If you are not clear about how you want to live, you can’t clearly see what you have to do. It begins by asking yourself how you want to live.
This enables us to recognize that there are three paths: the path of life, the human path, and your own path. While he was practicing mainstream farming for those twenty-odd years, he was separated from the human path without even realizing it. When he found his own path, he realized that a farmer’s role is to nourish people, and decided to do this safely and healthily. This is the human path. Doing it naturally is the path of life. These three exist simultaneously in Natural Farming.
Finding your own path often proves to be the most difficult. If you pursue what you truly want, you will surely gain it. Otherwise, you aren’t truly seeking it. We have to rely on our own strength, and this strength includes wisdom and ability. Each of us must nourish these three for comprehensive power.
In noticing a little seed, you will see that it has life, and that something is born from it. No matter how much rice comes from that one seed, we are moved simply in the appearance of life itself. In six months, it grows into something else. This is a reflection of our destiny as humans. Once the child grows, our role as parents finishes, and new life once again comes. Living things live inside other living things. If you destroy something that has life, you can’t live within it.
Thus, everything on earth is a single life. If you chose to be a farmer, you must know you are nourishing all those who aren’t farmers. But we can’t all be farmers. Everyone has a different role. We can’t stray from the human path or the path of life. We must rely on ourselves 100% (live), and on others 100% (be lived). When we look at the path of life, we share with each other, and know what is just enough.
Within the nature that animates you, there is peace and happiness. This didn’t come easily in Kawaguchi’s own case. Even his mother was ashamed of his unorthodox practices and was afraid to show her face outside for nearly ten years. Though alone at first, he has grown so popular that hundreds of people come from across the country to take his free monthly farming classes.
In 1991, he founded the Akame Natural Farming School which has ten locations teaching farming and another five teaching traditional medicine. Former students have begun their own satellite programs, with over 1000 people having studied his method. Kawaguchi has never attached a name to his approach, nor does he take on apprentices because he feels that everyone has their own way. He believes that there are as many methods of Natural Farming as there are people practicing it, something that he encourages.
Each of our values, philosophy, consciousness, are the workings of our own wisdom. Wisdom and awareness are the eyes that can perceive the path of life. You must seek your own answer, then live that answer.
The answer is inside you. Natural Farming is one way to see this wholeness. It allows you to cultivate an eye to see what is real.