don’t speak Japanese, but I understand the first
thing Toki Kuroiwa says to me: “You’re so tall!”
I am big, but then she is positively elfin: maybe 5 feet
tall, the daintiness accentuated by her white sun hat and
flowered pants and apron. Her tiny hands hide inside pink
latex gloves, as if she were ready to do the dishes.
We have driven small, mountain roads to reach her in the
fields of Tsumagoi, up mile after mile of incline, through
feathery pines still asleep from winter. When we finally pulled
in, there she was: by herself, bent over the dirt about three-fourths
of a mile above sea level, a constant wind blowing down her
back. No dishes here; she was—and, after introductions,
is again—harvesting what carrots survived winter in
the Japan Alps.
She kneels in
the dirt as if in casual prayer, and her 66-year-old hands
dig without tools: scratch on either side of the carrot
top, then wiggle, slide, and toss into the small pile on
her way to the next one.
On April 24 the snow is only two weeks gone from this ground,
but in some places the harvest is already too late: hungry
rats have found her quarter-acre cache. But up here there’s
no time to waste, and one must simply accept such a loss.
So she kneels in the dirt as if in casual prayer, and her
66-year-old hands dig without tools: scratch on either side
of the carrot top, then wiggle, slide, and toss into the small
pile on her way to the next one.
This is perhaps the loneliest farm I’ve ever seen.
Pan outward, and the landscape’s only familiar character
is 8,720-foot Mt. Asama, which today stands stoically under
heavy clouds. Its higher slopes are a vision of how all of
Tsumagoi used to look: furry with evergreens, too high to
touch. But pan down and the perfection ends sharply; the eye
crosses over a line from white, snow-dusted trees to black,
bare soil. I imagine a mighty hand reaching down from the
nearby heavens, perforating the edges of the land and just
peeling it back in strips.
The truth is not too far off. In 1961, the Japanese government
declared an agricultural revolution aimed at national self-sufficiency.
In 1966, it was declared that this land at the base of Mt.
Asama, being one of the few areas in Japan that’s never
hotter than 80°F, would be responsible for cabbage.
Farmers obediently converted their existing acreage while
the government razed the forests for the rich volcanic soil
beneath them. By 1975, over 2,000 acres had been converted.
That year, a total of 5,000 acres pumped out 130,000 tons
The farmers switched to cabbage because of direct incentives—the
government was handing out land and subsidies—but also
for the benefit of conformity, such as the established marketing
channels and government-sponsored technical support. Their
complicity made the system so successful that a second phase
of land “reclamation” ran from 1990-2001, converting
another 1,000 acres.
Today, the fields blanketing this valley move in a synchronized
pattern to which you could set your watch. On April 24, Kuroiwa’s
top field is one of hundreds in a miles-long patchwork of
black: all tilled, none yet planted. Down in town, the fields
have faint stripes of gray-green, all just plugged yesterday.
I’m told Japanese high school tests ask what the national
cabbage region is. If a student answers the larger prefecture
name, “Gunma,” she’s wrong. The answer is
Tsumagoi, and Tsumagoi only.
Cabbage here has become not just a crop but the crop, the
livelihood—the identity. In the modest, mountain villages,
manhole covers are decorated with a raised steel rendering
of the perfect pastoral landscape. In the picture’s
foreground sit two cabbage heads—leafy, round, and proud.
There’s not a person in sight.
* * *
Predictably, repeated monocropping
of this heavy-feeding crop quickly left even the rich volcanic
soil sapped. The government answered early on by introducing
farmers to chemical fertilizers. It would have been bad enough
alone, but it’s said that some shipments of the American-made
NPKs also carried the komaga, or cabbage worm. Until then,
local insects had picked at the outer leaves, a nuisance for
the farmers but not a liability. The komaga, on the other
hand, not only drilled to the cabbage’s core, it flourished
in this landscape composed entirely of its favorite food.
And so came the insecticides—lots of them.
If you can find locals willing to talk about the problem,
they will begin by warning you to stay inside as much as possible
during summertime, when the air reeks of chemicals. Tsumagoi’s
short growing season doesn’t allow for mistakes, which
means farmers regularly spray insecticides five times over
two months. All that spraying on the loose, eroding soil of
a former forest means major local water contamination. Further,
the Tone River carries both the fertilizers and pesticides
downstream, where it serves as a major water source for the
Kanto (metropolitanTokyo) area.
For both the contamination of the water supply and the destruction
of the mountain habitat, the Japanese press has decried the
cabbage farms of Tsumagoi. And yet nothing has changed, many
say because in the past three decades, three prime ministers
(Fukuda, Nakasone, and Obuchi) have come from Gunma prefecture.
Their concern is pleasing a constituency of farmers whose
hands are tied: Cabbage is their livelihood. They don’t
like the chemicals necessary for growing it, but they don’t
see an alternative. In fact, many of them believe that those
farmers who don’t use chemicals hurt the community by
For a long time Toki Kuroiwa felt the same. Like the rest,
she followed the mandates handed to her from above. Her only
son, on the other hand, had a mind of his own. He reasoned
that while losing pesticides might be a threat to their livelihoods,
continuing to use them was a threat to their lives.
The evidence was undeniable. At my lunch with some local
farmers, the talk always came back to mysterious black spots
on the skin and black growths underneath, to stomach cancer
and nerve damage. Everyone is Tsumagoi knows at least one
person who has is believed to have died from pesticide use,
most know more. And so in 1991, despite his parents’
disapproval, the youngest Kuroiwa began Natural Agriculture
Ten years later, at age 37, he died of cancer.
Now Toki Kuroiwa is not a rebel by nature. She grew up in
a Tsumagoi farm family and has lived here all her life; never
ran off with a cowboy or hopped a freighter for Los Angeles.
But when her son died, she felt it her duty to keep his dream
alive no matter what lines she had to cross. She took over
his 10 acres and continued farming in the Natural Agriculture
And here she is today, three
years later, pulling carrots from the cold ground like business
as usual . . .
It’s enough to be an independent farmer in this bandwagon
community, and on top of that an independent woman in this
male-dominated culture. But to then farm 10 acres alone in
the conditions of Tsumagoi—with run-off that brings
in pesticides and takes away soil, temperatures that can vary
25 F between noon and midnight, insane numbers of pests—and
without any crop protection materials, chemical or organic?
Initially Kuroiwa thought that the only thing to replace
the chemical tools was her own labor; an impossible feat.
Then the volunteers started showing up.
As Kuroiwa greeted me at the field, the rest of my van’s
passengers exploded onto the dark field. In sweatpants and
rain gear, these denizens of Tokyo transformed into farm workers:
three digging carrots here, two over there, one fetching the
wheelbarrow to cart the orange gold to Kuroiwa’s tiny
They have been helping ever since they heard through the
Shumei grapevine that Kuroiwa was carrying on her son’s
work. The first time they arrived out of the blue, just showing
up at the field and offering help. Coming from the conventional
world of Tsumagoi farming, Kuroiwa was first flummoxed, then
delighted. They have returned throughout subsequent seasons,
to help weed, pick off insects, or whatever else the day’s
hand labor is. They never get paid, and if there’s food
to harvest, they take only what Kuroiwa is selling to the
CSA and transport it to the Tokyo distribution site.
This community of customers provides Kuroiwa not just a labor
force but a ready-made market. Further, her place in a CSA
consortium of many farmers means she can sell smaller amounts
and thus diversify. She now grows not just cabbage but also
carrots, daikon (radishes), and soybeans. This past winter,
she experimented growing enoki mushrooms in rice bran hulls
donated by her customers, a venture that was possible because
she knew even a meager trial crop would sell.
It isn’t a one-sided equation; frankly, it wouldn’t
work if it were. The helpers’ work is rewarded with
the guarantee that their food is safe, nutritious, and in
line with their spiritual philosophy. They also get to learn
about their food—where it comes from, how it grows—and
feel some hand in making it. Coming from Tokyo’s concrete
and neon sprawl, those experiences are priceless.
* * *
The Shumei community has allowed
Kuroiwa to survive against the odds, but it has been in looking
beyond Shumei that she has thrived. Rather than let her methods
isolate her from fellow farmers, she has found common goals
by which she bonds with them.
Recently she and four friends came together over their concern
for local children: the school lunches include tofu and natto,
both made from soybeans imported from the U.S. and therefore
probably contaminated with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
The five women pooled resources to convert a local building
into a tiny soy-foods factory. They process their beans separately
and maintain individual accounts, but all five split the work
for each batch of food, no matter whose it is. This year they’ll
supply the school with a good portion of its tofu and natto,
and make some extra money off the farm in the process.
As my interpreter, Alice, and I talk with Kuroiwa in the
factory, one of her partners smiles from the room where a
case of natto is being labeled. We find out later that the
beginning wasn’t quite so rosy, as Kuroiwa was at first
excluded because of her Natural Agriculture farming methods.
Since then the partners have slowly accepted them. For one
thing, their impromptu taste tests in the factory have proven
Kuroiwa’s tofu the best of the bunch. (A finding confirmed
by a device they own, which measures sweetness.)
After the factory tour Alice and I are strolling through
the village’s lonely lanes, watching farmers on their
tiny tractors planting identical cabbage plugs. Cody Deguchi,
our official Shumei representative, walks up and, with a song
in his voice (I can recognize it even in Japanese), he tells
Alice the latest news. It seems the ladies of Kuroiwa’s
factory had already been considering switching to Natural
Agriculture, but feared the risk. This afternoon, after Alice
and I left, they announced to Kuroiwa that they were ready.
Maybe the timing is a coincidence, but Alice speculates it
“Seeing someone come all the way from America to talk
to Mrs. Kuroiwa says a lot,” she ventures.
On one hand, it’s true. The visit demonstrated that
there is life beyond Tsumagoi—that somewhere there are
people who have found a way out of the chemical trap, and
that Kuroiwa’s struggle is supported by people from
far beyond Tokyo. Still, anything that happens in this tight
community ultimately comes from within. The world is a big
and exciting place, but in some ways life here ranges only
so far as there are manhole covers bearing cabbages.
Either way, we are delighted with the news as we walk up
the road. Alice and Cody stop in front of the town cemetery
and speak softly in Japanese. It is a garden of sharp black
obelisks, commanding on its own, but breathtaking after Alice
explains that every one of these graves is marked with the
same name: Kuroiwa.
The metaphor could be read as vastly different things, either
a dark common fortune or the proliferation of hope as a means
of survival. Writing this at my desk in California, I vacillate
between the two, always landing on the positive but nagged
by the negative. And then I realize what matters is not what
I divine here, a million miles away, but how it is read by
all of them: Kuroiwa—Toki and the rest—, the ladies
at the tofu factory, and the man on his little tractor, planting
rows of cabbage almost automatically.
Maybe this year something new will spring up there, in the
ghostly wells of last year’s crop, in the soil that
is tired but still alive.
Sprinkled upon this world--
Tiny rains of spring.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94)