Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Farming measured by a different yardstick altogether
How did an agricultural movement develop in Japan that is defined less by commercial success than by close harmony with nature? To tell that story, you have to understand the history of farming in Japan. In this first installment of a three-part series, Lisa Hamilton describes the geographic and religious realities that first shaped farming in Japan.

By Lisa M. Hamilton


“The idea that our health could possibly be related to the soil is an extremely radical one. It hasn't been discussed much in medical literature. It isn't recognized as important by your family physician. It isn't taught in high schools or colleges. If you would ask the Department of Agriculture--Is our health related to the soil? It would answer--Yes--but from that point on they and I ride on different trains. They actually believe that to obtain health from food, you have to use chemical fertilizers to build up the soil's fertility. I shall try to show how ridiculous that attitude is.”

— J.I. Rodale, The Organic Front (1948)

In retrospect they are called pioneers, but in the actual moments that the world’s innovators seize history in their hands, the titles are less glamorous: loon, fool, heretic. Yet both sets of names grow from the same idea, that the person in question has proposed a reality different from what we find familiar and comfortable. When J.I. Rodale introduced non-chemical agriculture into North America’s burgeoning agribusiness system, there simply was no room for it. The prevailing definition of what was true—that agricultural wealth requires chemical additives—by default made organic methods false.

What I would have given for this insight on my first day in Japan. I was visiting farms that practice Natural Agriculture (N.A.), a nascent movement promoted by the Shumei faith, mainly in Asia. I was sent there to unravel the mystery of how it works, meant to return home with practicable techniques and hard facts and numbers. But after hours of dead-end questions and answers as solid as smoke, I sat down and wrote this: “Maybe it is because I am a foreigner and they don’t want to get that personal. Maybe it’s because I’m not asking the right questions, either because I don’t understand the culture or because I don’t understand N.A. But here is what I really think: I think N.A. doesn’t work that well.”

In a way, I was correct. When evaluated using conventional Western definitions of what farming is and does, Natural Agriculture doesn’t score very high. But it doesn’t try to. That’s because it’s not simply a different method of organic cultivation, like dry-farming or Grow Bio-intensive. In fact, its proponents will plead with you to understand that it’s not a method at all; it’s a philosophy

In abstract it sounds like organics in this country: no chemicals; reliance on the strength of plant and soil; working with nature, not against it. Yet the guiding principle behind these tangible directives is more slippery. The ultimate goal is to create a heaven on earth, and so Natural Agriculture aims to create systems as close as possible to what nature would make on its own.

As practiced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture Network, this means no additives, not even plant-based sprays or fertilizer. The only thing laid on the soil is plant matter, and that only to regulate soil temperature and moisture; manure is verboten. Each farmer takes stock of the tools available to him naturally—be they insects, rainfall, tractors, soil fluffy or dense. Playing the role of steward/facilitator, the farmer configures those tools into the system that produces as much food as possible without causing damage that nature can’t easily repair itself.

Each farmer’s technique is vastly different, but one thing is the same: yields are equal to or -- more often -- lower than those on organic or chemical farms. One could close the book there, pronounce the concept a bust, and move on. But remember the lesson of J.I. Rodale: Natural Agriculture doesn’t make sense when judged by our priorities, but does that make it wrong?

What if the thing that’s wrong is the questions we are asking of it?

The Western perspective on what makes good farming is rooted in the age-old tradition of trade. As devoted and conscious as we might be, our definition assumes farming to be a commerce-based activity: grow food, exchange it for money. Natural Agriculture, on the other hand, grew out of the teachings of Mokichi Okada, a mid-20th-century spiritual leader and pioneer of Japanese organic farming. He redefined agriculture as a faith-based pursuit, in which the philosophy is the motivation, the technique, and the measure of success.

It follows that Western farming and Natural Agriculture have different definitions of success. In simple terms, our minds judge an agriculture by its ability to make money. Those with ecological consciousness judge it equally by its respect for the Earth. We evaluate a technique in terms of productivity, resultant fertility, and its product’s quality; the pinnacle marked by deep color, fine texture, complex flavor, and optimal size—usually the bigger the better.

Measured with this ruler, Natural Agriculture comes up lacking. Its independent farmers are not competitive in an anonymous marketplace, their production is generally less, and, by our definitions, their soil fertility and crop quality are generally lower.

A different yardstick

But what if the goal of quantity were replaced with the goal of building a system close to nature? What if financial gain took a back seat while we concentrated on increasing harmony among the natural elements of the world? What if ultimate success were defined as the creation of an agriculture closer to heaven on earth? What if the goal were to concoct not the most complexly mediated production techniques, but rather the most simple and minimal interventions? Natural Agriculture would be the most effective approach, and organics just a step along the way. (In a fitting twist, chemical agriculture would simply not be an option.)

"The Japanese foothills amble toward all coastlines, leaving cities and people and farms to perch on the edge of the water. It is an undeniable geography, one that resists manipulation and instead insists that you play by its rules."

It’s easy to respond that redefining success in these ways is unrealistic. Heaven on earth is inherently intangible, and what’s more, farmers need and deserve to make a living. It’s all true. Nobody said Natural Agriculture could work within the familiar structure of Money for Food. But then, Shumei is defining its own structures to replace convention. This radical moving of goalposts resembles the new economics of the local food and organic food movements in the U.S. It’s just that Natural Agriculture takes its quest to the next level.

Instead of working within the existing food production system, its proponents aim to create an entirely new system in which spirit is the priority—and finance as much of an afterthought as possible.

In this material world, there is one big difference that makes it possible: Japan’s 1,290 practicing Natural Agriculture farmers are rarely alone at the market or in the field. That’s because the consumers are also members of Shumei; equally devoted to agriculture as a spiritual pursuit, they break out of their ordinary vocational roles to practice their version of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Being a customer means not just buying the food, but organizing a CSA, helping to weed the rice paddies, and sometimes becoming farmers themselves.

Shumei consumers could be seen as a captive market, but really it’s the very concept of a market turned on its head; the lines that traditionally separate consumer from producer all but dissolve.

What happens when modern food production becomes a community-wide effort? This series of profiles explains how it actually works. But first, to understand the paradigm shift behind Natural Agriculture, one must understand the world in which it exists, the world it intends to create, and how it aims to do so.

The Land

“The essence of Japan’s culture is its closeness to nature. Cooking … is simply the result of an acute awareness of the seasons.”

—Shizuo Tsuji, Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art (1980)

There has been no greater influence on Japanese food and agriculture than the land itself. This chain of islands stretches 2,000 miles between north and south tips. Like a zipper up the center lie unbudging mountains, some capped with icy peaks, others spreading into rolling plains just below the tree line. Their foothills amble toward all coastlines, leaving cities and people and farms to perch on the edge of the water. It is an undeniable geography, one that resists manipulation and instead insists that you play by its rules.

The first settlers arrived in Japan from the harsh, dry steppes of Northern Asia. This temperate climate’s lush hills were abundant by comparison, a change that inspired gratefulness that later formalized to become the Shinto religion. This worship of nature laid the groundwork for the profound reverence of food that defines traditional Japanese cuisine.

"In food and beyond, Buddhism’s
values of purity and austerity became part of
the national identity."
Yet as the people multiplied, the limitation of the land showed itself. Because of the mountains only 29 percent of the tiny island nation is inhabitable, only about 16 percent arable. Further, that 16 percent seldom occurs in the stretches we know in California and the Midwest. In the beginning there were more wide open spaces, but increasingly land was tilled up the sides of hills and finite valleys—wherever possible. Instead of our flat fields stretching to the horizon, the Japanese vision of a farm starts with plots of roughly one-quarter acre. Even today, a full-time farmer might have only 3 acres total, and those split among various properties perhaps miles apart.

From these small plots of land grew a distinctive kind of agriculture that continues today. Labor is done largely by the proprietor and often by hand and small machinery—if not the weeding itself, then the spraying of herbicides. Animals have never made much sense, either as laborers or meat, since land is too precious to grow the grains to feed them. The nation’s diet was built on rice, which produces the most food energy per acre of any grain. (Some attribute Japan’s group-oriented culture to the predominance of rice: early on, its labor-intensive cultivation required that communities work together to raise the crop on which all life depended; an individual would not survive alone.)

Insularity over imports

In climates where weather allows, Japan’s precious fields might have to support two or three crops a year without rest. And yet they have never produced a surplus of food. Other countries in similar circumstances have traditionally relied on imports, but Japan’s island culture chose insularity over other nations’ goods.

It’s hard for Americans to understand what happens in the inherent absence of plenty. As MFK Fisher wrote in the introduction to Shizuo Tsjui’s book, “We have never been taught to make a little look like much, make much out of little, in a mystical combination of ascetic and aesthetic as well as animal satisfaction.”

But in Japan, food has always been truly precious. “Even noblemen were expected to leave their bowls and plates absolutely clean,” Rafael Steinberg wrote in The Cooking of Japan, “to the extent of tucking fruit pits and fish bones into the sleeves of their kimono.” That scarcity has translated into a deep, sensual appreciation of food. The Japanese diet is light and simple, with the spotlight on individual ingredients rather than complex concoctions made from them. In fact, a complete dish in a traditional meal might be no more than two black beans and a sliver of radish, or a bowl of broth with one tiny potato afloat.

This natural proclivity for simplicity was enhanced by Buddhism, which arrived from China in the Sixth Century. Its vegetarianism stripped rich animal fat from the diet, but temperate Japan could not replace it with what Shizuo Tsjui calls the “tropical largesse” from the countries where Buddhism originated. In food and beyond, its values of purity and austerity became part of the national identity.

The Formative Periods

Buddhism was only one of the lasting influences of Japan’s early relationship with its powerful neighbor. Culinarily, the most obvious were tea and soybeans, but perhaps more influential was China’s cultural sophistication. When the T’ang dynasty collapsed and the age of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) rose, Japan shut itself off from the world. Behind closed doors for centuries, this adopted refinement was the guiding principle of cultural development.

It translated into food in the forms of decoration and elegance. Kyoto court cuisine’s ingredients were still simple and largely the same as that of the peasant’s larder, but presentation became paramount. Here came the snow-white octopus sliced to accentuate its smoky purple edges, the garnish of three delicate radish threads or the curl of a fiddlehead presented like sculpture. For four hundred years, these aesthetics were fashioned into an art.

Eventually the Kyoto Empire was usurped by the samurai, but that only served to proliferate the sensual worship of food. Because samurai armies were comprised of both noblemen and commoners, the ideal moved across ranks and then to the masses.

European traders and missionaries arrived in the mid-16th Century, and their ways were (not surprisingly) interpreted as barbaric. But it wasn’t sloppy eating that had them ejected less than a century later, it was their politics. They were seen as a threat to the feudal system, which had harnessed the country’s agricultural wealth and was the key to the ruling class’s power. With their deportation the doors to Japan were closed again in 1638. This time not only could foreigners not enter, but the citizens could rarely leave.

When Emperor Meiji came to power in 1868, he opened the country’s doors to a world that was vastly different from what they had left two centuries earlier. Whereas the tide of international influence had elsewhere been gradual, here it swept in like a wave. For the first time in Japan’s history, red meat became a status symbol. Western clothes, Western food, Western thought—it was the beginning of the process that many now credit with the increasingly rapid death of the sophisticated but delicate indigenous culture.