Summer 2003

Satomaya region
In early May, the paddies are ready for rice planting in a satoyama region of Chita Peninsula. Photo by Kato Sadamichi.

By Kato Sadamichi and Allison Wallace

Imagine for a moment that the Europeans never arrived in the Americas – that the Vikings never stumbled upon the Atlantic’s western shore, and those three little ships sailing out of Portugal never happened upon any Caribbean islands. Imagine that whatever agriculture had been in practice in various parts of North America for millennia never experienced any serious, sudden disruption, such as the widespread loss of native farmers to foreign diseases.

If you can picture the centuries-old Native American forms of cultivation lasting to the present day, then it shouldn’t be a big leap to picture as well the continued existence of a mosaic of wildlife species thriving alongside their human neighbors – pretty much the same species as the ones that coexisted with those earlier agricultural natives. Perhaps some of the tribes more given to hunting than to farming were occasionally guilty of driving a species to or over the brink of extinction – the woolly mammoths, for example – but among peoples who had settled into agriculture, most birds, insects, fish and amphibians found a pretty good deal. The humans and nonhumans just had to adjust to one another’s presence, sharing the same habitat, occasionally competing for some of the same resources and thereby keeping each other on their toes, so to speak.

Now add one more layer to the picture: Imagine that the spiritual connections between people and their ancestral lands – between people and the animals whose images graced their rock paintings and filled their stories – were never broken, that a sense of wholeness inherent to the nature of things filled the human mind. Imagine, in other words, a sustainable world, rich with human and nonhuman flourishing.

All of this is, of course, merely a thought experiment. Columbus and his countrymen did find those islands, word of the New World went back to the Old, et cetera. Within fairly short order, agriculture on this continent was profoundly altered, and the new, industrial methods spread across much of the planet. Wherever they went, wildlife had little choice but to get out of the way, even if that meant disappearing entirely. And for a long time earth-centered spirituality had to go, well, underground.

Sacred Farms

Far from our shores, however, one modern, industrialized country still retains numerous chunks of farmland that have been cultivated by relatively unchanging methods for centuries, and by virtue of that fact, many of Japan’s wild species have retained title to their original, natural habitats. They have done so in the same way anything in nature ever manages to hold on to its niche over long stretches of time: They have adapted to local conditions, even those shaped by human farmers. In various corners of the country, many fish, bird and insect species have evolved to match their own activities with the recurring cycles of traditional agriculture, particularly the cultivation of paddy rice. Although the Green Revolution swept rapidly across Japan during the post-war years, a few farm communities held fast to the old ways, and thus to their wildlife. In these places, too, the earth-centered dimensions of both Shintoism and Buddhism, Japan’s two most significant religious traditions, still thrive.

These special places warrant a special name: satoyama. The word itself combines “sato,” meaning home or native place, and “yama,” meaning mountain or woodland; this latter term can also imply a sacred zone where one goes after death. So “satoyama” designates something like “sacred home woodland.” To a westerner, such a definition does not immediately suggest “farm,” but to the Japanese it does, because until recent times most Japanese “native woodlands” comprised small, field-paddy-woodlot-home settlements arranged in villages. In other words, though the term itself has been around only since the early 1960s, “satoyama” refers to the traditional rural landscape that once typified most of Japan.

In such places the rice, vegetables, nuts, fruits and even some of the fish that have sustained a people for centuries have been raised by methods in continuous use throughout that long history. This measured, timeless way of life among rural Japanese has made coexistence with many wildlife species not just possible but customary, allowing the creatures to fit their own life cycles into the agricultural year.

Take, for example, rice paddies and freshwater catfish. Each spring village farmers in the vicinity of Lake Biwa, in central Japan, remove the straw bales that have temporarily dammed the mountain streams and handmade irrigation channels, allowing the snowmelt to flow down to and among the terraced paddies rimming the mountainsides. Upon reaching the lake lying well below the paddies, this influx of fresh, cold water – combined with the seasonal rainfall – stirs the adult catfish that have wintered there to head up those flowing streams, up into the paddies themselves, where the shallow, muddy water lends itself to spawning. Days and weeks later, while the freshly planted rice seedlings grow and the season advances, fingerling catfish fatten on the various insects that have likewise taken advantage of the flooded paddies to hatch their own young. By autumn the fish are big enough to swim down the irrigation channels connecting the mountain to the lake below, where they will overwinter just as their parents did before them. Besides catfish and insects, numerous turtles, frogs, newts, and wading birds have also learned, over the centuries, to synchronize their activities with those of the villagers working the paddies and surrounding vegetable fields, orchards, and woodlots.

The woodlots have been especially important to this landscape and its human dwellers, for several reasons. These tracts of oak, pine, cedar, cypress and bamboo have served as temperature regulators, by virtue of their respiration, as well as water reservoirs – absorbing excess rainwater in spring, then gradually releasing it in the hot, dry months to the surrounding soils. Such woodlands have been the source of lumber for tools, charcoal, fuel and “hodagi” – oak logs for growing shiitake mushrooms. The fallen leaves in the forests have been gathered periodically for use as composted fertilizer in the fields. The woodlands have also been home to countless shrines, temples and stone images of Buddha.

Encroaching “Civilization”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, satoyama lands throughout much of Japan are under siege. The trouble began over 50 years ago, as postwar Japan adopted American-style, industrialized agriculture. But the pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers that came into wide use across the country haven’t been the only threats to satoyama; so, too, has all the bustle of modernization – the road- and railway-building, the damming of rivers to supply new factories with abundant water, the appearance of golf courses and other recreational facilities, and the sprawl of urban and suburban development. Given all of this activity, some of Japan’s traditional farmland also disappeared beneath new garbage landfills. Numerous animals that used to be common throughout Japan – such as frogs, fireflies and killifish – have become endangered by this loss of their traditional habitats.

Still another endangered creature in the wake of all of this has been the small Japanese family farmer, as the population has become increasingly urbanized. And the situation appears about to worsen. Pressure to deregulate Japanese agriculture has been mounting since the beginning of globalization; one of several targeted pieces of protectionist legislation, in place since World War II, has been the ban on absentee ownership of farms. Within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, discussion is currently underway of a new policy that would allow publicly traded corporations to own and manage farmland. Sadly ironically, some of the support for such a policy is coming from aging family farmers, who see in the prospect an opportunity to sell out and retire. Yet if this change transpires, these companies, upon discovering that agriculture is not very profitable, may eventually be tempted to recover their investment by selling farmland to the highest bidder or converting it themselves to some other use. If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because Japan has not yet finished adopting American habits, especially (it often seems) our bad ones.

And just as we sometimes see occurring in Washington, Tokyo’s several branches of government may work at cross-purposes. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is writing legislation that will redefine “noyaku” (pesticides) in such a way as to blur distinctions between those produced by agribusiness and those produced by traditional, organic methods, such as charcoal liquids. This cannot be good news for satoyama, where farmers may be tempted to take advantage of industrial pesticides to increase yields. Yet last spring Tokyo’s Environment Ministry proudly adopted the term “satoyama” to explain to the international environmental community a new biodiversity policy geared toward preserving what remnants of this special landscape can still be found.

Common Cause: Save Satoyama

In spite of the contradictions, perhaps this last is a hopeful sign. Others exist, too. For several years the national government planned an elaborate facility and surrounding infrastructure – including many new railways, roads, parking lots, condominiums and the like – in which to host the 2005 World Expo, siting it right in the middle of the Kaisho Forest, a beautiful stretch of satoyama lying an hour’s drive from the city of Nagoya. Loud protests, however, from hundreds of citizen-activist groups over the course of a decade finally resulted in the World Expo site being moved a few kilometers away from the forest, closer to an existing small town. Although these groups often begin with diverse concerns – some aim to protect wildlife, others to protect family farming, and still others to protect water quality – they tend to find common cause in the protection of satoyama. With greater frequency, even the most urban of Japanese are turning out to defend their “sacred homelands,” having re-learned in recent years how to experience them – by taking up hiking, bird-watching, wildlife photography, and even by helping farmers with their work in the fields and forests.

These concerned Japanese are no doubt doing much to protect not only the human and nonhuman life supported by these farms, but also something very special in themselves. Something our own Native American forbears may have known, that sense of wholeness inherent to the nature of things.

An English-language documentary on satoyama, called “Japan’s Secret Garden,” is available from PBS/Nova. Call WGBH Boston Video, 800-255-9424.

About the authors: Kato Sadamichi teaches courses in American Literature and American Environmental Thought in the Graduate School of Languages and Cultures, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan. He is an avid hiker, birder and fisherman as well as an activist on behalf of satoyama preservation.

Allison Wallace has a Ph.D. in American environmental writing, worked at Unity College in Unity, Maine, for nine years, and now teaches American Studies in the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas. She is a MOFGA member, an avid gardener and beekeeper. She wrote about Japan’s Seikyou Movement for the March-May 2003 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.