Shumei Natural Agriculture:

Farming to create heaven on earth

Post-war period brings industrialization, rapid change and organics to Japan
Part II: In Part 1of this three-part series, Lisa M. Hamilton introduced the concepts of Shumei Natural Agriculture. She sketched the history and culture of farming changes in Japan through the centuries, and invited readers to develop a different yardstick to evaluate this Eastern farming practice. In this story, she outlines the agricultural impact of the U.S. occupation, industrialization and the rise of the organic movement in the 20th Century.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted September 5, 2003

Why this series about Shumei Natural Agriculture on NewFarm.org?

Another period of drastic change came following World War II. During the war, agricultural production had declined by half and the people were left to starve. Imperative in the post-war period was to help the country’s farms back up; beyond feeding the hungry, their food would fuel the rest of the nation to raise the GNP.

Reluctant government leaders began reforming the predominant system of tenant farming, but occupying forces found their changes unsatisfactory. In 1946, the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, enacted a reform bill that forced landlords to sell to their renters all the property they couldn’t farm themselves—anything over approximately 7 acres.

For all its social value, the act did nothing to increase the number of farmers or the acreage in production. The country was still starving. The government tried clearing land and selling it with incentives to encourage new farmers. But with land so dear to begin with, the new cultivation happened in places like far-off Hokkaido and so didn’t entice newcomers. The government encouraged the incorporation of animal power, but still, land was too dear to grow feed or serve as pasture. They fixed rice prices, but because there were still shortages farmers turned and sold their crops on the black market.

What did galvanize farmers to produce more was the new sense of ownership that came with the end of the tenant system. Now that they could make their own decisions, income beyond wages became a possibility. But while the landlords had enough land and money to grow with respect for the future using practices like fallow periods and non-yielding cover cropping, the independent farmers used the land to its full immediate capacity.

Anyone reading NewFarm.org knows the perils of this approach. Further, they know what serendipitous timing this must have been for the introduction of agricultural chemicals. Fertilizers took the place of cover crops, allowing another harvest to come off the ground each year. Herbicides eliminated time-consuming weed control, and pesticides took care of the bugs that flourished in the newly disrupted environment. Thus began the rapid depletion of what little workable soil Japan had to begin with, a catastrophe that today is only beginning to be remedied.

1950 — Present

In the post-War period Japan learned that it is one thing to celebrate austerity behind closed doors, but another entirely when participating in the world market. Becoming part of the international community allowed the country to import what it had once supplied for itself and to export desire for all the world’s offerings.

In 1951, with economy and agriculture still damaged, the nation signed the United States-Japan Security Treaty. The greatest civil objection was over the indefinite presence of American military bases, which would essentially replace Japan’s own self-defense. But the treaty was also significant agriculturally. As part of the exchange Japan agreed to discontinue its campaign to increase farm production and instead import the difference from the Midwest. It would in turn be rewarded with a reliable market for its manufactured goods.

By 1985, Japan was still largely self-sufficient in rice and produce, though it relied almost entirely on the United States for wheat and animal feed. After signing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in 1993, the country lost its final protection against a world whose land is cheaper and more plentiful. It has officially entered into the tricky world of subsidizing grain production and defending their tariffs before world agencies, all just to keep their farmers from drowning in the flood of imported food.

Meanwhile, the move from country to city has beset Japan like so many other developed countries. While farmers in the United States responded to urbanization by pushing farther afield, Japan’s limited land made it a decision of either/or. And farming has largely lost, either by disappearing altogether, moving to the most marginal lands, or filling in the spaces where nothing has been built—yet.

This infatuation with aesthetics not only requires pesticides,
it condones them by default

The country’s agricultural roots are still apparent even within urbanity, whether in the ubiquitous gardens fresh with pea vines in April or in the odd rice fields that pop up inside Osaka city limits. Further, mechanization has allowed for a rise in part-time farming. Now every May, on the biggest holiday weekend of the year, the fields around Kyoto buzz with secretaries and factory workers seizing the break time to plant that year’s rice seedlings.

But the reality is that growing food is a part of fewer and fewer people’s lives. Each new generation loses touch with the origins of what it eats—again, common in many developed countries, but the effect has been profound within Japan’s particular culinary culture. What began as a celebration of nature’s bounty has been abstracted, sometimes to the point of fetish.

Too often now appreciation of food’s beauty has been separated from the reverence it once represented. The new ideal is cosmetic perfection. It is the delicate, hundred-dollar melons wrapped in mesh foam and perched in a locked and softly lit store window as if they were gems. But it is also every piece of fruit in the supermarket, each one polished and laid on a perfect diagonal axis. Today, even rice is priced in part by its appearance. Of course this infatuation with aesthetics not only requires pesticides, it condones them by default. As the abstract sensual experience of food becomes top priority, the process of growing it becomes a means rather than an end.

Organic Farming

And so the farmers pour it on—literally, in some cases. Japan has 0.3 percent of the world’s farmland, and uses 12 percent of its agricultural chemicals, a grand total six times heavier than in the United States. Because farms are mostly small and operated by their owner’s own hands, the farmers are the ones spraying the average 70 pounds per acre, and dying at a shocking rate of cancer and other pesticide-related illnesses. Looking on the bright side, it is a situation ripe for organic farming.

Actually, the idea of farming without pesticides had germinated before chemical use was rampant in Japan. Innovators such as Mokichi Okada and Masanobu Fukuoka were developing methods in the 1930s and ‘40s. But as in the U.S., organic food didn’t surface as a product until the 1970s. The course it took from there, quite opposite from in America, has handicapped its development.

The hippies in California were cultivating their food movement so far on the fringe that nobody even knew about it, but in Japan organic food appeared on the scene as a popular, even mainstream trend. Though the American way seemed like a curse at the time, those farmers had the slow growth that allowed them to define their mission. Their product was never more powerful than the movement itself. But in Japan “organic” was a label before it was a clear-cut method. Wooed by packaging that promised the ever-ambiguous “natural” life, consumers bought an abstract idea of health rather than a specific means of production.

Wooed by packaging that promised the ever-ambiguous “natural” life, consumers bought an abstract idea of health rather than a
specific means of production.

Popularity and profit naturally garnered influence, but that was seized by the distributors, manufacturers, and their marketing agents—not the farmers who had incubated the vision. The research scientists were predictably swayed to the most powerful side, the one that wanted more “organic” products by any means. Before long the definition of organic agriculture had been drastically compromised. Studies showing the achievements of organics were coming from the United States and elsewhere, but the researchers translated them with a twist: California, for instance, is a dry land. They might be able to farm without chemicals there, but in Japan’s wet climate, low levels of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary even for organic farming.

As non-organic farmers saw that they didn’t actually have to give up their chemicals to get the label, they went “organic” too. So when the purists made the argument that this method should by definition mean free of chemicals, everyone, including their fellow growers, told them they were flat out wrong.

Salvation came in oddly apocalyptic clothes. There was the Sarin attack in 1995, then the reality behind the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, then the Tokaimura uranium plant accident in 1999. Tokyo, the country’s biggest consumer base, had reality driven home with several local chemical-related disasters, and suddenly environmental health became a major concern throughout the country. After two decades of buying organic products in the supermarket, concerned consumers finally realized the danger of agricultural chemicals.

Japan now has national standards for organic certification, but the system remains plagued by its past. Vestiges of the industry from 20 years ago now promote “low-input” food, and many consumers feel safe enough knowing their food has just less and fewer pesticides. Even those who do buy certified organic food can’t be sure of its purity, as the national standards are filled with loopholes that allow for pesticides and the transfer of GE-products and pharmaceuticals into the food stream.

While the paths have been different, even opposite, the forefront of Japan’s organic movement now parallels that in America. Rather than look to large certification agencies to legitimize their practice, farmers and consumers are building relationships of trust that come from personal interaction. The method of choice is the CSA program, and many are not even certified organic—they don’t need to be. After years of ambiguity and deception, consumers are recognizing that the most reliable seal is that of a handshake.

Go to an organic farm in Japan and it will probably be similar to its parallel in the States. Maybe the place will be smaller (and tidier), but they will follow the same methods of cover cropping and composting, and strive for food that looks, tastes, and feels the best it can.

Call a Natural Agriculture farm “organic” and you’ll quickly be corrected. To the farmer, it’s as inaccurate as calling his land conventional. They might look similar in using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or in promoting the health of the whole farm rather than cranking out a product, but the motivation and the technique are fundamentally different.

Next: Farming to create heaven on earth, Intro Part 3 Natural Agriculture springs in 20th Century from Mokichi Okada's blending of ideals. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE

Farming to create heaven on earth, Introduction:
Farming measured by a different yardstick altogether