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 of cabbage.
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
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 encouraging pests.
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 farming.
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 way.
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
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 Daihatsu truck.
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
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
* * *
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 wasn’t.
“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
Sprinkled upon this world--
Tiny rains of spring.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94)