This week we received news that Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, our sensei and the star of our 2015 documentary, Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness, has passed. As Kawaguchi moves on, into whatever comes after this life, he also leaves an inspiring, sprouting, evolving body of work that has touched millions of people. As a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, his work work shifted the way we see the world and our place in it, especially, demonstrating how we can bring about positive change with our own life.
Many in my generation—and even more in younger generations—grew up with a somewhat critical eye to our society’s beliefs and practices. For myself, these critiques came in the form of questions like: are we Humans really supposed to be so aloof to this Earth and this Nature? Why are we growing food in ways that turn wild life and wild plants in to enemies? Why do my vegetables taste like cardboard? Why is my life filled with so much stuff I do not need?
I am sure that you too, have similar questions of your own.
One corner of Yoshikazu Kawaguchi’s garden. There’s a buffet in there, not only for people, but for other lifeforms too.
We humans respond to these kinds of thoughts in different ways. Many of us though, in one way or another, feel forced to ignore or subdue these thoughts. There is a strange narrative floating around that tells us “no, you are wrong, industrial food is the future, this is how it is supposed to be, just accept it and stop complaining.”
Kawaguchi stood up to this narrative. Once he knew the truth and the scale of what was happening to food, agriculture, and nature in his part of the world, he felt there was no choice.
To those of us who are deeply depressed in these days, know that Kawaguchi was, too. In his 30s, the weight of what was happening in his world was in such deep conflict with the beauty that he believed in, he lost the energy to do anything. He became very ill. During this time, he looked deeply inside. He asked himself—regardless of what society was doing, or what other farmers were doing, or what the media or religions or political leaders were saying—what did his own truth tell him, about how he should proceed?
He knew the world as it was. But what did Nature tell him, about how things might become, instead?
LEARNING NATURE’S WAY OF “PROGRESS”
One of Kawaguchi’s answers was to take what he had known—he had grown up in a farming family—and start doing it in a way that cultivated a respectful relationship with nature and the living beings in and around his farm. He did it partly because he knew that the only thing that he, as an individual, had the power to change was how he conducted his own life.
Kawaguchi saw clearly in his lifetime, the results of a society that was gradually eliminating respect, reverence, and care for Nature. He saw it on his family farm, with the heavy machinery which deeply tilled the soils, rendering what used to be a thriving habitat for trillions of living beings into literal fields of death.* He saw it with the resulting chemicals, fertilizers, bug killers and weed killers, the need for which was a direct result of tilling the soil in the first place. At the time that all of these changes were happening however, Kawaguchi did not see them as ‘bad’ things. It was just what everyone took to be progress in those days.
In time, his conscience told him that there was some conflict between what he knew was right, and what he was actually doing. Kawaguchi knew the conflict was there, but like most of us, he did not know exactly how to fix it.
Through the inspiration of the natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, and many other thinkers and practitioners, as well as through his personal relationship with nature herself, Kawaguchi slowly shifted his own practices to ways that felt better. He began to find ways in his work as a farmer, to value and respect his relationship with nature. He returned to using a hoe, sickle, and tools that would allow him to directly interact with the life in his field. For the most part he never looked back, and almost always progressed in his thinking and in the ways he could apply the fruits of this relationship.
Kawaguchi’s version of progress took place on a different trajectory than the dream-tech, highly-industrialized, highly-monetized versions of progress that we hear so much about today. Yet somehow, his version of progress also worked demonstrably better in almost every measurable way — and in the myriad incalculable ways, too.
Kawaguchi speaking to students at the Akame Natural Farm school in 2012.
Kawaguchi’s Akame Natural Farm school [ 赤目自然農塾 ], a tuition-free, volunteer-run organization in Nara prefecture has trained thousands of farmers, and is still thriving. It has branched out into numerous other independent locations over the years, creating a network of training, of ideas, and of dialogues on how to cultivate better relationships with nature in the field. His work, his books, and the film, have also inspired similar community-driven projects around the world.
HUMANS, RESPECTING THE NEEDS OF OTHER LIFEFORMS
The last time we visited him, Kawaguchi sensei had branched out yet again, conducting a course on traditional herbs, and to a completely filled lecture hall. His dedication, not only to doing what he thought was right, but to sharing and collaborating with others so that we might walk a slightly more beautiful path in our own lives, was inspiring.
I also dug that, even at his age, he rode a bike. A blue hot rod.
Most of all though, I remember being in his fields. I remember sitting there with Kawaguchi and the herbs and vegetables and wild plants and bees and butterflies and spiders and frogs all going about their business, and this was really one of the first times I think I got it — Ah. This is what it feels like, to have a farm that is a beneficial part of the web of life. This is what it feels like, to be a part of nature. This is what is possible, if we shift our mindsets, even just a little bit, letting go of some of our ego and being more attuned to the needs of the environment that we are a part of.
A way of living that respects the needs of other living beings while allowing humans to live happily and fully is not only beautiful, but possible and practical. Kawaguchi proved it. Many thousands of others have, too.
Now, it is our turn to continue that work, together, not blindly following, but inspired by each other, while also working each in our own ways.
We need not be farmers to do it. We just need to slow down, and like Kawaguchi san, stand in the Nature, and remember who we are.
Yoshikazu Kawaguchi (1939-2023)
* Ten grams of healthy soil holds more lifeforms than there are humans on earth. These lifeforms are the reason why soil can grow plants. They fix carbon and nitrogen from the air, help decompose organic matter into nutrients, and then help plants uptake those nutrients. When the soil is tilled, the homes and intricate networks that these lifeforms depend on are destroyed and exposed to sunlight. Much of that life dies instantly. Much of it is washed away with the rains. Although both Kawaguchi and Fukuoka were routinely dismissed by mainstream agricultural science for decades, today’s research largely now confirms the benefits of what they practiced — that sowing cover crops, allowing a diversity of plantlife, and not tilling are the foundations of building healthy, fertile soils. Of course, there is more to it than that. See also: