Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Natural Agriculture springs in 20th Century from Mokichi Okada’s blending of ideals
Part III: In Part 1 and Part 2 of this three-part series, Lisa M. Hamilton introduced the unorthodox concepts of Shumei Natural Agriculture. She sketched the history and culture of farming changes in Japan through the 1980s, and invited Western readers to develop a fresh foundation from which to evaluate this Eastern farming practice. In this story, she explains how the Shumei practice of Natural Agriculture grew from the group’s founder.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted September 12, 2003

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, and nature.

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 supreme goodness.

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 Western mind.

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 pear farm.

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.”

“[Natural 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.