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Learning about Sustainable Living (Past Programme Foci)
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How to love our home town from the bottom of our heart?

By Wang Xiaobo (Programme Consultant, Yunnan Office of PCD)

Before I went on the trip to Japan, I had always felt that Japan was an economically developed country and that the quality of life of its people was very high. I thought its rural areas must be like those of Europe, and the villagers were all living a happy and quiet life. I thought Japan's agriculture must be dominated by organic agriculture and there would not be many problems in agriculture. I later found that even though Japan was economically developed, many young people from the rural areas leave home to study in the cities and then choose to stay on in big cities. Because of this, the rural areas of Japan are withering. Only elderly people and middle-aged women remain. However they have organised themselves, on their own initiative, and have discovered the value of their home villages. They have done a lot to protect their villages in the hope of attracting young people to return. Even though Japan's agriculture is not dominated by organic or natural agriculture, a lot of people are still trying to develop organic agriculture so that the soil and humans can enjoy good health.

The new rice of Hareyaka Farm

The first gift we received in Japan was a kilogram of new rice. It was given to each of us by Mr Maori of Hareyaka Farm. When I received the rice solemnly from the hands of Mr Maori, I felt I was also receiving his love for the land beneath his feet. Mr Maori had been in the clothing industry, producing jeans. If it weren't for his daughter's food allergy, he might never have become concerned with the issue of food safety. In the rural areas of Japan, unless you have relatives or know someone, it is difficult to rent a piece of land even it's lying idle and deserted. Mr Maori befriended local farmers and got a piece of land. He then opened a free school for more people to learn about organic farming. He said he can still remember vividly the first time he ate the vegetables he grew himself. Since he started farming, the pace of his life has slowed down and he is now able to appreciate the changes of the four seasons. He admitted that, as an urban dweller, he had to face difficulties such as balancing his family life and farming. What is most important is that he has been able to persist.

Aging—a serious problem

The problem of aging in rural areas of Japan is very serious. Apart from urging their own young people to come home, some villages have also opened themselves up to other urban young people. Take Mount Ibuki's Kozuhara for example: half its population is aged 65 or above. Some social roles, such as fire-fighting and temple administration, require young people's participation. That is why they now accept outsiders to settle in the village. They hope the arrival of outsiders will inspire young people in the village to recognise and rethink the value of rural areas, and be proud of their villages. However, in many villages, it takes a long time for the villagers to accept outsiders. Most of them want to pass their land and houses onto their children and descendents rather than selling them to outsiders. They are afraid their villages will disintegrate as the borders between them become blurred.

Teaching house-building and the cultivation of land

Young people in the countryside leave their villages, while young urban dwellers come to the rural areas. Doppo is a village established under the initiative of Mr Shimizu, an architect, and Mr Miyamoto, a farmer. They teach young people to build houses and cultivate the land. According to Mr Shimizu, except for modern humans, all animals on Earth build their own home. He believes that house building and land farming are skills everyone should have. He hopes young Japanese return to and keep their roots in the countryside, whether by means of building a house or cultivating the land. That is why they provide free lessons to young people to build houses and farms. However the age of the students is restricted to between 25 and 30 years old. Hearing this, all participants on our trip sighed because most of us were over 30. I think it's a very attractive plan for young people in the cities, who are losing many basic skills. We buy most of the things we have and we have become dependent. What can we do by ourselves? When I think of this, I feel I'm almost like an invalid. The elderly and the middle-aged people have lived in different times. They have many life skills, whose transmission has been interrupted because of today's economic development and uniform lifestyle.

Where is my home village?

We had a debriefing session until late at night in the hall where we were staying, with Mr Ueda who coordinated the first part of our trip. He sang a Japanese folk song for us. It was about a person of the Meiji period who moved to the city and how he longed for his home village. Mr Ueda did not have the voice of a famous singer and I did not understand Japanese, but for some reasons tears flowed from my eyes. I think it was because his love of his home village, conveyed in his singing, had moved me. As a person who's been moving around, and who left his home town many years ago, I wonder where my home is. All of a sudden this question came up in my mind. Where is the place I want to devote my life to, and for which I want to strive? In all the villages I've been, I can always feel the love villagers have for their village. Compared with them, I don't feel there is a place I love from the bottom of my heart. Though I like Kunming, and consider myself to belong to the new generation of Kunming people, how much do I really know about this place? How deep is the love I have for it? If my home is not here in Kunming, will I move to another place? I kept asking myself these questions without getting an answer. Perhaps I'll find the answer one day in my life.

Natural Farming that appeals to young people

When we met Mr Kawaguchi Yoshikazu, the disciple of Mr Fukuoka Masanobu, author of The One Straw Revolution, he was standing at the side of a rice field he had cultivated for 33 years. He was dressed in blue clothes. He stuck a bamboo pole into the field and managed to push it in about a metre. From this we can grasp the meaning of the last 33 years to this piece of land. In this long period of time, Mr Kawaguchi has never tilled the land. However, for Mr Kawaguchi it is not only a method. It is also a means of becoming part of this land, to understand it and to be grateful for the food it provides. For someone growing up in a traditional village, it might be difficult to accept this method, but for me who has never done farming, and being a lazy person at the same time, it's easy to accept the method of Natural Farming. However, when you try to practise Natural Farming, you have to know that you're not the master of this land. You should only take what you need and not demand too much from it. Nature has its own laws. It is fine so long as you follow these laws.

Though we only spent half a day with Mr Kawaguchi, hearing him talking calmly about Natural Farming, I felt he was an ascetic who practised through his farming. He never advocates his method publicly. Quietly he cultivates the land and concentrates on being a farmer. However, young people keep gathering around him and want to learn Natural Farming from him. As Mr Kawaguchi said: "Awakening is in every person's heart." When you are able to concentrate and persist in doing what you want to do and what you think is right, others will follow sooner or later. As young people, we are becoming more and more impatient and restless, just like the tempo of the urbanisation process. We can rarely calm our minds. Even when we are doing something we want to do and that we think is right, we are sometimes attracted by other things or have doubts about what we are doing. How can we be firm and resolute in what we are doing while we have our feet on the ground? This is something we as young people should learn.

Live the answer to bring about changes

The Yamagishi Association is an intentional community, whose members have lived together for over 50 years. We visited its Kasugayama Village during our trip. For me, it was like a utopia. After reading the information on the Yamagishi Association, I kept asking myself what it was that sustained such a community for so many years. I had a lot of questions and doubts because I felt it was hard for such a utopian community to exist for a long time, not to mention its scale and the size of its population. There are always a lot of problems when there are many people. During our visit, at first I asked a lot of questions about management. I wanted to find out how they operated, but their answers were very complicated and what they said was never very clear for me. I couldn't understand why it could not be conveyed by language. After we spent a few days in Kasugayama Village to experience its life, I gradually understood a bit how it worked.

They do not have any religious belief (and fortunately so) and have maintained an open attitude. Though they are not afraid of being challenged, they are firm in their beliefs. They are also concerned with social issues, such as the impact of the 3.11 earthquake, but they believe that the response to problems arising from modern life is to live the answer in their own life. Instead of just shouting slogans, they want to create an ideal community, for people in mainstream society to see with their own eyes. Believing this is the best way to bring about changes, they hope to set an example with their own life.

Kensan[1]: multi-perspective thinking

The most important activity in the Yamagishi Association is to hold study meetings (kensan). Many different subjects are studied. Any personal problem or group problem can be brought up for discussion, but sometimes finding the answer is not the most important thing. The process is sometimes considered more important. Through kensan, they sometimes want to find out the nature of a problem or an issue. I remember one evening we took part in a meeting of a group of elderly people, all aged about 60. Faced with the many questions that poured from our lips, an old man suddenly asked a question: "Who do you think the earth belongs to?" We were taken aback momentarily. One of us asked: "Has kensan started?" And yes, this is their way of studying a problem—raising questions, thinking about the problem from different perspectives, answering the question or continuing to raise questions. Sometimes they would ask questions such as "Whose clothing is it that you are wearing?"

There are many skills that cannot be nurtured through work or through education. Instead they are learnt and trained in everyday life. However education institutions nowadays believe that only school education is the best, or even the only way, of nurturing talents. We met a girl studying in the Chinese Department of Kyoto University. She is an example of what I think. She came to Kasugayama Village with her parents when she was small. She attended schools outside the village only when she attended senior high school and university. She is very cheerful all the time and makes a lot of friends in school. Many people find her different from others, in three ways. First, she is able to empathise with others. Second, she will do things of her own accord. Third, she is strong at coordination. All these are skills and capacities she acquired in the canteen of Kasugayama Village. "Aren't all these qualities that belong to a leader?" I thought. However, she hasn't acquired these talents by studying in schools. Instead she has been trained in these talents in her life in Kasugayama Village.

Staying longer to understand more

If you look at everything here with the eyes of someone from the outside world, i.e. with doubts, you might not be able to understand this community. You must take part in it with your whole body and mind by putting away your bias and experiencing it without any preconceptions. Then you will gain something that belongs to you only. If you do not change your habitual mode of thinking, you will not be able to understand what they say. They are living their ideals rather than speaking about them. The aunties in the community laundry, the grannies in the kitchen of the canteen, and three ladies who cared for us quietly made us feel warm despite being visitors in a foreign country, and there was not a bit of pretense in them. One could feel that it came from their hearts. Gradually I felt I liked the village, and would have liked to stay longer to know more people and their stories. Of course I reminded myself at the same time that I mustn't imagine and comprehend only with my brain. We have used our brains too much already. We now need to feel more with our hearts—to experience the relationship between us and nature, and between us and other people.

Even though the visit in Japan was only a week we visited many places. This was the first time I had been abroad with a group of people. I used to go around on my own, no matter where I went. I believed this was the only way to understand more about a local culture. For this trip, there was a very clear purpose and we had an excellent translator. Because of this, we were able to gain more local information. This was a unique trip. The lives of other people seemed to be a mirror of our own. No matter what we heard, saw or understood, we will have to practise it on our own land, and in our own lives.

Photo sharing:
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In Kamiyamada Kohokucho Doppo Village, young people can learn house-building knowledge and farming techniques without paying course fees.
Mr Maori had been a jeans manufacturer. Because his daughter developed a food allergy, he began organic farming.
Taking a group photo after finishing the seed-sowing.
The most important activity in the Yamagishi Association is to hold study meetings (kensan). The villagers say finding the answer is not the most important thing.
In the Yamagishi community, villagers are living their ideals rather than speaking about them. They cared for us quietly and made us feel warm, and there was not a bit of pretense in them.



  1. Translator's note: a Japanese term which means "to study in depth".