More than just a job: Satoyama and Japan's philosopher-farmers
October 1,2015


A typical Satoyama landscape in Noto Peninsula, Japan. Photo: H.Y. Jiang.

In my sophomore year of college I watched a documentary about Japanese agriculture. The documentary was filmed in a place called Satoyama and featured the coexistence of humans and biodiversity. I was curious about the place and the practices that went on there, so I tried to find out more about it. But as much as I looked I could not find anyplace named Satoyama, and eventually the matter faded from mind as I became busy with school chores.

After studying in America for one year and seeing large scale monocultures first hand, Satoyama came back into my mind. This time I decided to find it.

The breakthrough came when I realized that Satoyama is not the name of a place, but an idea. Sato means inside and yama means mountains. Satoyama refers to a kind of agriculture in which small, patchy fields are scattered around or inside hills and mountains, taking advantage of the biodiversity from the natural areas to satisfy daily needs such as food and fuel.

One of the most famous sites for Satoyama is on Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. It is certified as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). On a whim, I e-mailed Mr. Murakado, an official at the local agricultural department, inquiring about opportunities to visit Noto. I quickly received his reply and his suggestion to look into the Satoyama and Satoumi Meister Program at the local Kanazawa University.

I was delighted to find that the Meister Program was designed for people interested in engaging in a lifestyle of Satoyama or Satoumi (the fishery version of Satoyama). I contacted Professor Nakamura, the coordinator of the program at Kanazawa University, and he generously agreed to accept me as a short time intern. Before I knew it I was taking Japanese language courses and applying for a visa. In six months later, I was on a plane to Japan.

I stayed in Noto for about one and a half months. During that time I attended the Second Conference of the East Asia Research Association for Agricultural Heritage Systems (ERAHS) and stayed with two farmers’ families and one fisherman’s family for one week each.

The ERAHS meeting was held on Sado Island, a relic of the gold mining rush in the 16th century. Although the gold mine went bust, the miners stayed on the island and turned to agriculture. Now the island is promoting eco-tourism, and the Toki, or Japanese crested ibis, has become its symbol. The ibis, though abundant in the past, had at one point virtually disappeared. The government is working with local farmers on encouraging eco-friendly rice farming methods that conserves habitat for the wild Toki and many other rice paddy insects and animals – and it’s working. The ERAHS meeting lasted three days as representatives from Japan, Korea and China exchanged their progress on traditional agricultural studies and preservation, sharing this and other stories of success. 

My stay with the families from Noto was the part I enjoyed the most about the experience. My first host, Mr. Sesumi, works for a farm organization that manages 70 hectares of land, mostly in rice and the rest in vegetables. I became aware of Mr. Sesumi’s diligence on the very first day of my visit, when I got up at 7 o’clock and learned that he had already gone to the fields.

The first day’s work was to apply urea fertilizers to his rice fields. We drove in a small pickup truck to various small fields scattered throughout the region and every time we stopped he carried about 25 kg of urea in a spray machine, walked through the field and sprayed. There was no rest unless somebody called him and his only drink was black coffee, no sugar no milk. I tried to find out what it was that motivated him to work so hard. His only reply was, “That’s just my style. I enjoy watching the rice grow.” He simply enjoyed his work, no matter how hard it was.

Mr. Goto’s family was my next host; he is a fisherman. He lived his youth in Tokyo but became tired of city life. Unlike regular fisherman, he does not have boats,. He free dives to catch abalones and conch 15-20 meters under the sea. A typhoon was going to hit Japan that week and we decided to go fishing the day before it. The afternoon was hot, and the breeze did nothing to lighten the sticky air. Mr. Goto put on his diving suit and his 8 kg weight-belt and headed to the sea. We drove to the shore and there he put the mask on. I was able to see the sweat on his face by then. We swam a few hundred meters away from the shore and he started diving, swimming just above the rocks to search for his catch while I held his net and waited at the surface.

Coming back up for air, he blew the water out of his breathing tube and I could hear him panting. It was not an easy job. One of his catches that day was an abalone about 12 centimeters wide, well above the minimum size requirement. The price for abalone is high and that big one was worth about 20 US dollars. He looked at it and told me he wanted to throw it back. I said it is above the minimum, but he said he wanted to make sure he had plenty of abalone to catch in the future and lightly threw it back into the sea. I wondered how difficult that must have been for him.

My last host, Mr.Yamagishi, is a young farmer in his twenties. He studied economics and his wife studied English, but after getting their degrees they decided to return to their hometown and became farmers. They own 6 greenhouses where they grow vegetables, selling them in cities like Nagoya and even Tokyo. Every day they start working at 5:30 in the morning and finish after sunset, with only a small break in the early afternoon. Apart from selling to cities, they also sell at local markets, at a low price with almost no profit. I asked Ms. Yamagishi why they bother with the local market if they could make more money selling in the city. She told me that the purpose of their farm is not to make money but simply to enjoy life; she likes talking to the local people and sharing their produce.

Before I left Japan I gave a presentation at the Meister Program School. I had thought that I would learn some traditional agricultural techniques, but I realized that these people had given me a more valuable lesson: the appreciation of nature’s giving and the philosophy of a simple life.