Based on extended talks and stays with Okitsu Kazuaki and Kita Osamu in Shikoku, Japan
In the Summer of 2013, I spent a week with a quirky, energetic Japanese farmer and his family. Days started before the sun — which comes up pretty early in Summer Japan — with a sickle in hand, picking slowly through a thick forest of weeds and vegetables covered in dew. A far cry from my days of picking at a keyboard in Silicon Valley, the time here provided myriad ways to rethink the habits of working, consuming, and living which I had previously grown so accustomed to.
Okitsu saw that the way his country was going about growing food was ultimately counterproductive to human health, happiness, and well being.
Okitsu himself came from a politically-charged farming family in Saitama, Japan; his mother was a farmer and his father was an influential local politician. It was an upbringing which encouraged him on a path to the policy-making side of agriculture. Leaving his home town to study, he graduated from Tokyo Agriculture University and then quickly found employment with Japan Agriculture (JA), a government entity which more or less controls the Japanese farming landscape.
An exuberant yet decidedly stubborn character, Okitsu’s work at JA saw his energies funneled into a worthy yet difficult goal: changing the face of agriculture for the betterment of the Japanese people and their environment.
In his work, Okitsu was driven. “He thought about the future of agriculture in Japan and about the future of the Japanese people very deeply” tells Kita Osamu, a farmer and long-time friend of Okitsu’s. This exuberance and drive would lead Okitsu down a challenging path, one which would soon have him re-thinking the very foundations of what it meant to grow food.
A Curious Discovery
On top of his workload at JA, Okitsu was also a regular at “Kinokuniya,” a mega-sized bookstore in Tokyo, where he steadily emptied the shelves of agricultural titles, often reading more than 10 books on farming and food systems each week.
During these visits, he noticed a curious — and rather expensive — book on the shelf. Thinking it too expensive, he just put it back. Yet, on each visit, the book somehow presented itself to him again and again. He continued to refuse it again and again. After several such visits, and perhaps because he had already purchased and read nearly everything else, he decided finally to give the book a chance. Then a curious thing happened with this curious book; Okitsu could not put it down once he began reading.
He also couldn’t sleep after he finished it. “He sat awake all night… thinking about the implications [of the book] both to farming, and to his job.”
The book “Standing on the Miraculous Field” was impressive for Okitsu; it offered a simple and genuine way of thinking about both growing food and living, a way of thinking which was not a part of his studies at the agricultural university or his job at JA. For Okitsu it was not only an honest book, but its words began to unravel in his mind, many of the issues which he was seeing in his job and in the farming fields throughout Japan.
The book also helped him see more clearly than ever, that the way his country was going about growing food was ultimately counterproductive to human health, happiness, and to the well being of the greater environment.
The morning after reading the book, Okitsu made a phone call to the author, Yoshikazu Kawaguchi.
Kawaguchi in turn invited Okitsu to visit his “Akame Farm School,” an open community school which regularly attracted hundreds of students from around Japan. After the first meeting, Okitsu was convinced that the book — and Kawaguchi — were right. From then on, he continued visiting the farm, making the several-hour trip from Tokyo to Sakurai multiple times each month.
Working for Japan Agriculture
Okitsu understood that Kawaguchi’s “natural farming” could revolutionize the farming industry, but implementing this way of thinking within agriculture policy was another issue.
Do I grow plants to make money? he says with raised eyebrows. The first thing, the most important thing for a farmer is to make healthy plants and healthy people… that is the only way.
To understand what Okitsu was up against, we should understand that JA is an extraordinarily large and powerful organization with aims that have changed in recent years. Although it has traditionally taken on the role of protecting the country’s small farmers, it has also built upon itself an extraordinary onus of economic interests. The organization’s banking arm is one of Japan’s largest, with deposits of nearly ¥100 trillion ($800 billion USD) and to most observers, it would seem as though JA itself is more focused on maintaining profits than growing food.
Perhaps the biggest issue for Okitsu in all of this, was the fact that the nationwide agriculture entity which he worked for — and which controlled when, where, and how farmers grew food in Japan — was largely supported by selling chemicals, fertilizers, and machinery to farmers.
An unfortunate conflict of interest, because Kawaguchi had just demonstrated to Okitsu something extraordinary: Japan’s farmers had no need for buying herbicide, pesticide, machines, or fertilizers.
Kawaguchi, along with his predecessor the late Masanobu Fukuoka who penned the influential book One Straw Revolution, and the thousands of farmers who worked in the way of natural farming in Japan at the time, all of them were in fact working against JA recommendations. These farmers were all showing that agriculture can be both productive and regenerative for the environment, and that without today’s most common farming mainstays — tilling, industrial machines, externally mined or petroleum based inputs — the natural field can provide plentiful food and increase ecosystem health, year after year.
The way of farming which was — and still is — being pursued by most of the industrialized world shows just the opposite; degrading land, harming the ecosystems surrounding it, and constantly increasing the need for more pesticides and chemicals. It’s a model that Okitsu increasingly came to know, was generally good for JA’s business, but decidedly bad for people and the environment.
“Even if they wanted to stop, they couldn’t!” tells Osamu “They (JA) know that natural farming is right … but how can you justify supporting a way of farming that doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides or machines, when your entire business model is based on selling chemicals and pesticides and machines?”
Unless all of JA’s office workers somehow left their desks and went back to farming as their occupations, there would be little official support for “natural” farming in Japan.
A contradiction of this proportion meant the kind of farming which Okitsu saw was best for the people and environment was a way of farming that went against JA — and his own job — at the very core.
Day after day and month after month, Okitsu would hit walls in his role within the agriculture organization. His ideas on creating a truly sustainable, people-driven system of farming were too far away from the reality of the world that existed within the walls of JA’s business model. It didn’t take long for Okitsu to see that the walls were too thick to break though, and there were too many opposing forces for change to be driven from within the organization. With a plan in his mind, he made the decision to quit his job.
His family were furious.
Okitsu’s wife was not only highly against his opinion, she thought he had gone crazy. She reminded him that his job was a very good job; it provided stability, good social status, and good pay. The two also had two small children, and were ultimately concerned about having a way to support them through school and into college. Adding to his wife’s uncertainty, neither of them knew anyone in Japan who made a living doing this style of ‘natural’ farming at the time — though they would soon find that there were many.
Regardless, Okitsu had already made a firm decision in his mind to do what he thought was right.
He had seen firsthand how Kawaguchi’s farm worked, and he believed within himself something important; taking any other path would be a betrayal to what he felt so deeply was right and just. Despite the fear and doubt being directed at him by nearly everyone he knew, including those who he loved and trusted, Okitsu made the decision to jump into natural farming as way of life, even if it meant a financially poor life and neighbors who would curse his ways.
Hoe, Sickle, Hands, and Feet
It’s night time and a light rain has just finished outside, giving way to the chirping of crickets in the garden. Okitsu and I are doing our first and only ‘formal’ interview of the week, sitting on tatami-mats in a small room in his century-old traditional farmhouse.
“For more than 20 years I’ve been devoted to natural farming, I send many vegetables to my customers” Okitsu tells me, his English coming through a thick, excited Japanese accent. Excusing himself for his poor English, he switches to speaking in Japanese.
“Hoe, sickle, hands and feet. It’s enough. Do you understand?”
I nod, timidly, as he mimics the physical actions of using the tools.
“That’s all. Just hoe, sickle, hands and feet. It’s enough.”
I ask Okitsu about money. He laughs.
“Do I grow plants to make money?” he says with raised eyebrows and pursed lips, which in short time relax into a smile. “The first thing, the most important thing for a farmer is to make healthy plants and healthy people. That is the center. That is the only way.”
Of course. Why would we farm any other way? The question stands in such defiance to our current way of producing, distributing, and even preparing food. Why have we let things like GDP, industry, and corporate profits commandeer something so essential to our health as food?
Each night while I am with Okitsu and his family, we have dinner together. The first few nights I would sit in front of the low, floor-seating dinner table on my knees, somehow feeling this was more polite; it was one of the dozens of things I did that week that elicited confused looks from Okitsu’s family. Later I defaulted to a more comfortable cross-legged seating style.
On one particular night, with Okitsu’s wife and children in bed early to get sleep for the upcoming Tokushima dance festival, Okitsu and I got to talking in surprising depth — I say surprising because, although I spoke barely enough Japanese to exchange pleasantries, and he could rarely put a sentence in English together, we somehow came to understandings quite easily as our time together went on. In this particular after-dinner conversation, with a few tiny cups of beer on the table that were always being drank but never less than half full — as is the custom here — I came to understand something both simple and astounding about Okitsu’s way of thinking and living.
Okitsu believes that most people want the same thing, to be happy, and indirectly, they wish for others to be happy as well. It’s a simple enough thought, yet if we all want happiness, he contends, then it is truly pointless to spend any part of our time doing things which cause others to suffer.
Okitsu extends this idea to nature as well, to the weeds, to the bugs, and to everything in his vegetable and rice fields; this in turn forms the basis of his natural farming.
Indeed, some call his practice Buddhist farming, or Zen farming, but he brushes off such associations. It has nothing to do with orthodoxy, and everything to do with cultivating relationships. Relationships deep and meaningful enough to understand and have empathy for all things, even the bug eating your lettuce.
The important takeaway in all of this for those of us who are not farmers, likely lies in how Okitsu’s way of farming can be applied to actions in daily life, regardless of what we do for a living. For me, this meant asking if my living habits support the lives of others, or cause suffering for the lives of others, whether directly or indirectly. It’s a deep path to think about, and has lead me to personally change many of my most basic life actions, from what I buy and who I buy it from to how I engage with others.
After finally finishing the ‘endless’ miniature glasses of beer that night, the two of use came to another conclusion, this one about Japanese brewing: the cheap beers in Japan are likely just shochu (clear alcohol) with added beer coloring and bubbles.
Life is full of important lessons.
In finishing our formal interview, I suggested a name for his style of farming, which requires no money to practice — as Okitsu says, just a hoe, sickle, hands and feet.
I called it ‘no money’ farming.
“Hai. Yes.” Okitsu agreed.
“No money farming” he said with a smile and nod.
- Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness – a documentary film that features both Kazuaki Okitsu and Yoshikazu Kawaguchi
- One Straw Revolution – the best selling book about natural farming mindset of Masanobu Fukuoka
- One Straw Revolutionary – a modern day revisiting of the natural farming mindset by Larry Korn