The practice of Natural Agriculture
follows the teachings of Mokichi Okada (1882-1955), a Japanese
jeweler who became at once a spiritual leader and a farming
pioneer. His basic philosophy took shape between world wars
and was a sign of the terrifying times. The goal was to create
a new civilization rooted in the health, safety, and fulfillment
of all people—a heaven on earth. Achieving this would
result from cultivating three basic priorities: spirit, beauty,
Today Shumei has 300,000 members worldwide, mainly in Japan
but also sprinkled throughout Asia and North America. They
are organized into local centers, whose members fit into a
complex hierarchy that binds the faith as it moves around
the world. As it has grown, Shumei has accepted as part of
its pursuit the duality of purity and compromise.
Shumei means “divine light,” which is synonymous
with the goodness that is the truth behind all life. That
which obscures this light is a “spiritual cloud.”
Put simply, the ultimate goal is to dissipate these clouds
and thus purify the relationship between yourself and this
And yet throughout my interactions with Shumei members I
was struck by signs of impurity that seemed contradictory.
A farming sensai (revered teacher) talked deeply about ecology
then smoked cigarettes and drank coffee with creamer from
a tube. A grower referred to the soil as a person with a heart
while standing next to rows of lettuce mulched with black
plastic. It didn’t feel like a scam, but the contrast
between elements seemed irreconcilable to my logical, linear
Clashing paradigms and compromises
Some people explained my confusion as a matter of theological
difference. They said that having come from the European tradition
of monotheism, I was trained to see things in black and white.
On the other hand, Shintoism’s pantheistic approach
had bred a view of reality that works on a grayscale, embracing
the coexistence of various, even disparate truths. But my
brilliant Japanese American interpreter, Alice Cunningham,
explained it otherwise. “In Shumei it doesn’t
matter where you are on the path,” she said, “it
only matters that you are on it and moving forward.”
“We have one huge
goal: the continued creation of heaven on earth.
We don’t know when that will happen.”
This concept of compromise is essential in a religious philosophy
with such enormous goals. Really. I asked the 10 members of
the official Shumei Natural Agriculture department what their
short- and long-term objectives are, and their interpreter
replied: “We have one huge goal: the continued creation
of heaven on earth. We don’t know when that will happen.”
Natural Agriculture is meant as a means toward that end.
Of Shumei’s main goals it falls obviously into the nature
category, though its place there represents a difficult immediate
task: reconciling our idealization of the wild world with
our survivalistic need to tame it. What results is a vague
and interpretable directive: Create a growing system as close
as possible to what nature would do on its own. Within that,
make it as productive as you can without incurring damage
that nature can’t easily repair itself.
The first step is obvious: use no additives. Outsiders argue
that manure occurs in the wild, but Shumei counters that nowhere
does it exist naturally in such concentrations as farmers
apply. Likewise, Bacillus thuringiensis, sulfur, even vinegar.
To Natural Agriculture farmers, introducing a shipment of
beneficial insects to a field is unthinkable.
The premise is that nature already has everything it needs
to thrive. The farmer’s only job is to optimize the
conditions for it to do so. To that end, the farmer fashions
the most effective system from the tools that are available
to him naturally.
Note, though, that here “tools available naturally”
doesn’t mean native, or even natural. For one farmer
in Fukuoka this means an exotic, weed-eating snail that escaped
from a defunct local aquaculture factory in the 1970s and
now plagues non-organic rice farmers. For another in Hiroshima
it is the pollinating blossoms from her family’s chemical
Commitment trumps practice
Naturally, the available tools are different in every region,
and on every farm. That is the crux of why most Westerners
haven’t been able to fully grasp Natural Agriculture.
It is not a method of farming, and there is no such thing
as a standard technique. While a farmer in Chiba considers
it unnatural to start rice in a cold frame, 250 miles north
in Iwate it is an essential approach. Compost is always seen
as a soil protector rather than a fertilizer, but how it’s
made and when it’s applied is an entirely personal decision.
There are no Natural Agriculture research centers or schools,
no books about the practice. As Koichi Deguchi explains, “The
only thing in common is the shared philosophy — commitment
to realize Mokichi Okada’s vision.”
Agriculture] eschews the use of all chemicals and pesticides
and relies instead on the natural resources of pure soil
and seed to produce health crops. The guiding principle
is an overriding respect and consideration for nature, and
an understanding of the intricate relationship between the
natural elements—the condition of the soil, the light
of the sun, rain, wind, etc.—and the individuals growing
the food. Much depends on the attitude of the farmer, of
working with nature, not against it.”
— from the English
language pamphlet Shumei
Farmers do trade information, but often it’s not transferable.
It can be learned through informal apprenticeships. But still
the lessons are about how to think, not what to do, since
once the apprentice becomes independent his variables are
sure to change.
While some do come to Natural Agriculture from organic farming
or from no ag background at all, most are previously chemical
farmers. Many of them have been threatened by pesticides and
are thus predisposed to a non-toxic approach, others are inspired
by friends and neighbors. But all come to Natural Agriculture
after embracing Shumei as a philosophy. That agricultural
shock of quitting pesticides and fertilizers cold turkey is
predictably rough. And while some farmers weather the transition
painlessly, many endure an initial period of desperate failure.
What carries them through is their belief.
No, belief itself doesn’t pay the bills. But imagine
the power of finding a farming technique, and a faith on top
of that, that frees you from the pesticides that have given
you cancer. In some cases this scenario is driven home by
what members see as the miraculous power of Shumei’s
spiritual healing ritual, Jyorei.
Others’ belief lies in the sheer experience of eating
Natural Agriculture food. Even within this national culture
that values food so intensely, flavor has slowly been sacrificed
for cosmetic perfection. As I traveled from Morioka to Fukuoka,
over and over Shumei people credited one thing with convincing
them they are doing the correct thing: the taste. The older
people say Natural Agriculture has let them remember how food
used to taste, the younger ones say they have discovered something
altogether new. The evidence, they say, is in their bodies
and in their mouths.
Engaged consumers buffer financial shortfalls
Still, conviction doesn’t make up for the financial
failure that can come with the drastic switch to Natural Agriculture.
Nor can it buffer completely the pain of trial and error in
a culture so intolerant of failure. But Shumei has a sort
of secret weapon that trumps these earthly obstacles, and
it lies in the most unlikely of places: with the consumers.
All of Shumei, not just the farmers, commit themselves to
the teachings of Mokichi Okada. Many have gardens that follow
the fundamental principles, but most of the organization’s
300,000 members are urbanites, not farmers. Nevertheless,
many of those who aren’t primary producers themselves
are still part of Natural Agriculture. They buy the produce
and organize the distribution systems behind the local CSA
programs. They even work in the fields.
CSA members of Shumei
are all willing to help. They don’t mind sweaty, hard
work—even for free. Their acquiring a lifestyle to
follow nature weighs more.
The model is community. As Sachiyo Noshida, of Aichi prefecture
said, “In older days, all neighbors came to help in
their busiest work such as planting rice seedlings and weeding.
Everyone cooperated to farm. [Likewise,] CSA members of Shumei
are all willing to help. They don’t mind sweaty, hard
work—even for free. Their acquiring a lifestyle to follow
nature weighs more.”
The most obvious benefit for the farmer is the ready-made
market. Right now there are 1,290 Natural Agriculture farmers
in Japan, not nearly enough to supply Shumei’s demand.
Thanks to the organization’s distribution network, when
production exceeds local needs food can be sold to a group
elsewhere in the country. As long as a farmer is willing to
adopt the methods completely, his produce is assured a home.
This is significant, considering the Japanese attention to
cosmetic perfection. Consumers trained to choose the supermarket’s
high-polish beauties are unlikely to purchase the often less
attractive produce no matter how good it tastes.
Shumei members, on the other hand, come to see imperfections
as a sign that the produce was grown in line with their larger
belief system. And that’s the key: they are committed
on an ideological level that goes as deep as their spirits.
It brings them to the field as volunteers, where they learn
how much it takes to weed rice by hand or to coddle tomatoes
into ripeness. They carry this back to their kitchens, where
they reflect on how they cook and where their ingredients
come from. They carry it to the table, where they notice what
the food tastes like and how much is left on their plates.
And they carry it back into Shumei, where they encourage others
to get involved as farmers, consumers, or both.
The result is that Natural Agriculture becomes not just farming
or even a foodshed, but the very food itself, from soil to
seed to ingredient to meal. Likewise, the participants see
themselves not as independent players in a competitive market,
but as threads in a web of interdependence. It is a return
to the old ways, particularly the culture that instinctively
held such reverence for food. But it is also a modern arrangement.
Its organization is innovative and dynamic, as required by
21st-century society. Moreover, it is an active defiance of
a developed world that takes food production for granted.
At its core, Natural Agriculture is not just a way of farming.
It is a determined appreciation of the fact that, despite
all the chemicals and all the concrete, we can still farm
in a way that makes things better, not worse.