The Ancient Japanese View of Nature

I recently completed my third visit to India. Every time I go to India I am surprised at the number of people I see there. Even more than feeling the subcontinent’s heat, I sense in the air the invisible and powerful energy of a great mass of humanity.

In the so–called developed nations, a very small number of industrial scale farmers now support the vast majority of consumers that make up the population. As is obvious from the term Natural Agriculture, Natural Agriculture is an agricultural method. Properly understood though, it is also a lifestyle that includes both farmers and consumers. This lifestyle is one that strives toward balance and harmony with nature. I believe this philosophy of horticulture offers us strong hints as to how we might direct our efforts to recover from the earthquake and tsunami that took place two and half years ago in north–eastern Japan.

The term organic agriculture is well known today. However, when we mention Natural Agriculture it might not mean anything to most people. In fact, to people unfamiliar with its meaning, the term may give the impression of something that is somehow inferior to organic agriculture, perhaps a term used because of a farmer’s inability to become certified as organic.

Alan India 11.2013.001You may be familiar with a book called “One Straw Revolution.” Fukuoka Masanobu, a Japanese farmer who practiced a form of Natural Agriculture, wrote it. Perhaps this book, translated into many languages, came closest to putting Natural Agriculture onto the world stage. Yet, still, in comparison with the press that today’s organic movement gets, Masanobu’s book was read by relatively few people.

So what is the difference between organic and Natural Agriculture farming? Both organic and Natural Agriculture share many common principles, values, and practices. For example, both practices advocate environmentally friendly methods of food production that are healthier alternatives to conventional agriculture, which depends on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Both seek environmental and economic justice as well as a more sustainable alternative to the extreme of genetically engineered seeds found in conventional farming, seeds that would never be used in the natural environment.

To understand the difference between organic and Natural Agriculture, I will focus on their origins rather than their methodologies.

In conventional agriculture, synthetic materials are used as fertilizer and to control pests, weeds, and diseases. Over time these practices have been found to cause various environmental and health problems. Organic agriculture was born as an alternative, using organic materials instead of synthetic ones as fertilizer and to control pests, weeds, and diseases.

By contrast, Natural Agriculture’s premise is that nature in itself is complete and unspoiled. Rather than the idea that nature needs human assistance, or that man can improve upon nature, Natural Agriculture holds that nature is perfect to begin with. This is easily be seen in the way a huge tree grows in the forest for thousands of years without fertilizer, pesticides, or any assistance or interference by man. The fundamental difference between organic and Natural Agriculture exists in these different perspectives. Each perspective has its own origin.

The founder of Shumei Natural Agriculture, Mokichi Okada, said, “The principle of Natural Agriculture is an overriding respect and concern for nature. Nature can teach us everything.”

Alan India 11.2013.002The concept of Natural Agriculture was born in Japan. When discussing the origins of Natural Agriculture, we must take into account the nature of Japan, as well as how the people who have lived there for millennia have viewed and related to nature. In Japan, even today you do not have to travel far outside of urban areas to reach the forest. Even though environmental destruction is certainly a problem in Japan, 70 percent of the country is still covered with forest, much of which is still in a relatively natural state. When you come across a large old tree in the forest, you will often find a sacred straw festoon hanging from its branches. When Japanese people look at an old tree they see the divine being in the tree and will instinctually create a boundary between the area where humans can touch and the sacred area that humans should not go beyond. This Japanese view of nature and this sacred sense of the connection between human life and all life lives on deep in their hearts.

To give you more perspective, I will share three examples that illustrate the Japanese people’s view of nature and spirituality. The first examples are the perspectives of two emeritus professors of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, Takeshi Umehara and Tetsuo Yamaori, which will provide some historical and religious background. The third example concerns one of the most beloved literary figures in Japan, the educator, poet, and children’s storywriter, Kenji Miyazawa. He was born in Iwate prefecture, where the last major earthquake in Japan occurred.

We begin with Tetsuo Yamaori, a scholar of religion and Emeritus Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Professor Yamaori visited Israel where he had a profound realization about monotheism while traveling through the desert. While in Israel, Professor Yamaori traced much of the route that Jesus had traveled in his lifetime. From Nazareth he travelled past the Sea of Galilee to reach Jerusalem. As he viewed the scenery, he felt a kind of nostalgia toward religion, nature, and the inner workings of human beings. Though he knew of the scenery and the natural features of Israel from books, actually being there and viewing it through his own eyes provided an experience far different from what he had imagined.

The most impressive and amazing scenery for him was the vast desert. It was an endless, desolate ground, where he felt as if there was nothing on earth he could look to for help. Suddenly, he could see how the only relief one might find, could be the belief in the existence of a God in some far distant heaven. Certainly in this desolate desert it was much more challenging to see God in nature, as he was accustomed to doing in Japan. He felt this experience of the desert might be the most important aspect of how monotheism came into being in the world.

When Professor Yamaori returned to Japan, he further considered the profound difference of Japanese nature compared to that he had experienced in Israel. Japan is covered with green; rivers flow, rain falls, and the world seems to be overflowing with abundant nature. From the distance of mountain peaks where ancient trees grow thickly, we can hear the voices of the gods. On the ground in many places there are signs of the gods and of the dead, and sometimes these voices in nature become the voices of our ancestors. The Japanese people have lived in this way for thousands of years. There was no need to look to a God in a far distant heaven when one is surrounded by lush nature. You can see that our Japanese ancestors lived amidst a rich abundance of nature where polytheism would very naturally come into existence. Contrast this to the people living amidst the vast deserts adjacent to ancient Palestine, and we can see how naturally one might develop faith in a monotheistic God in heaven.

Takeshi Umehara is a philosopher who, along with Professor Yamaori, is also an Emeritus Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. I want to share with you Professor Umehara’s exploration of the inextricable blend of nature and spirituality in Japan. Much of what follows is paraphrased from his writings.

It is claimed that rice cultivation was introduced to Japan about 3,000 years ago. During the 10,000 years that preceded rice cultivation, there was a hunter–gatherer era known as the Jōmon Period.1 Japan, being surrounded by ocean, developed a culture of fishing and flourished during this period.

Professor Umehara writes that all natural beings have a spiritual aspect that surrounds each of us. British anthropologist, Edward B. Tyler called this animism. Before farming and the domestication of livestock, all human beings were hunter–gatherers, and we see this animism throughout all cultures of the world during this period. They believed that every being had an inner spirit and that the gods were everywhere.

In Japan, these beliefs evolved into Shintoism, the traditional polytheistic religion of Japan. In Shintoism there is a mountain god that lives in the mountain and a sea god that lives in the sea. The god of thunder causes thunder, and animals such as wolves were believed to have power far beyond that of humans. Enshrining and worshiping all of these nature powers as gods was done to show reverence and to humbly ask these nature gods to be kind to humans. That is the fundamental principle of Shintoism.

Professor Umehara talks about—perhaps because he was born in Japan, which is blessed by abundant nature—how strongly he felt that nature is alive and attentive. Animals and plants live together with human beings, and the earth itself is alive. This is the way Professor Umehara views nature and the world. In that world there are many different kinds of plants and animals. It is a living world. It is alive! So, Professor Umehara questions how anyone could consider such a living world to be just a material world, merely following the rules of the physical sciences. He has deep doubts about any such scientific and material understanding of a living world.

Human beings cannot live without killing other living things, both plants and animals. Without food, without shelter, we cannot survive. Our lives are dependent on other life forms. However, there is a world of difference between taking a life with reverence and gratitude, recognizing our connection and interdependence with nature, and killing as if nature is a material resource whose only value is to profit human beings. In this modern age, Professor Umehara points toward the importance
of sharing the philosophy of living together in harmony with all forms of life. He believes this must become the foundation of human philosophy if we are to survive.

Alan India 11.2013.003My third and final example comes from one of Japan’s most beloved literary figures. I will share an excerpt from one of his stories. Kenji Miyazawa was an educator, poet, and children’s storywriter. He was born in 1896 in Iwate Prefecture, located in the northeast region of Japan, an area struck by the earthquake and tsunami two and a half years ago. This region was primarily an agricultural area that, during Kenji’s lifetime, was hit repeatedly by cold weather, causing a dramatic drop in harvest production. The suffering of farmers at this time surpasses what you could imagine. This humanitarian crisis is one of the primary reasons why Mokichi Okada, Shumei’s founder, who lived during this period, developed and advocated Natural Agriculture. In 1933, Kenji died of acute pneumonia. He was only 37. Based on his strong faith in Buddhism, Kenji spent most of his life devoted to and supporting poor farmers.

In the children’s stories written by Kenji, all manner of life, animals, plants—even rocks—are described as passionate, altruistic, sentient beings. Trees such as oak, willow, and ginkgo, and animals such as rats, foxes, wildcats and bears, appear as main characters in his stories. He describes a world where the soul passes from being to being and is reincarnated in life after life. It is sometimes a dog–eat–dog world where only the fittest survive. Yet at the same time it is also a world where living creatures are always willing to offer their lives in consideration for others’ needs.

What follows is my translation of part of Kenji Miyazawa’s story, “Ginkgo’s Fruits.” Kenji writes in a very beautiful, poetic language, and I have done my best to preserve the beauty of his writing. In this passage he portrays a mother ginkgo tree’s fruit as her children. The children are about to depart from their mother early on the morning of a late autumn day while the ginkgo’s leaves were fully colored with yellow.

Under a high dawn sky, where even birds of daytime could never reach the high, sharp pieces of frost that flew south with a rustling sound. It is a clear, deep dawn when even a ginkgo tree on a hill could hear the subtle sound of frost flying south. Startled, all the ginkgo’s fruits woke at once. Yes, today is the day of their departure. All knew today would be the day. The two birds that came last evening had told them as much.

This year, 1000 gold colored children were born. All at once, this very day, all those children will depart. The mother tree felt sad that she would lose all her golden hair, shaped like an open fan, the very next day.

“Where am I going?” a girl ginkgo fruit muttered as she looked up at the sky.

“I don’t know. We don’t want to go anywhere, do we?” said another girl fruit.

“No matter what happens to me, I will accept. But still, I so want to stay with mom.”

“Look! It’s already bright. I’m happy. I will certainly become a golden star,” a boy ginkgo said.

“I will too. Without fail, when I drop from mother’s arms. Soon the north wind will carry me to the sky,” another boy ginkgo said.

From a clear wind, cold as ice, came a rumbling sound. “Goodbye, mom! Goodbye, mom!” As all the children jumped all at once from the branches and fell like rain.

The North Wind smiled and blowing away with a tinkling glass flutter said, “This year they say goodbye, goodbye on this beautiful day.” The sun, a flaming gem hanging on the eastern sky, showered splendor over one and all, including the grieving mother as her children embarked on their journey.

Before dying, Kenji Miyazawa wrote of two different ways of looking at the universe. In one view the world has a living will, which works constantly to try and make all living creatures happy. In the other view, the world is blind and things happen in some kind of chain reaction or by sheer coincidence. If he was asked which was the correct way, the so–called way of science or the way of spirit, I think it is clear from his stories that he would have chosen the way of spirit. Kenji spoke of how individual happiness in the true sense is impossible unless all other living things in the world are happy as well. He believed that to live rightly and powerfully you must be conscious of the galaxy within yourself, and live in harmony with it.

I think Kenji’s work paints a beautiful picture of the relationship the Japanese people had, and to some extent still have, with nature. Reading his stories can help us to perceive the arrogance of an all too common modern materialistic view of nature. His work inspires us to re–imagine the relationship between humans, animals, plants, the earth, and the universe and to envision new ways of viewing our interdependent relationship with nature.

To conclude, I refer to the writing of Yoshinori Yasuda, an environmental archaeologist and Emeritus Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. And, once again, I paraphrase.

Professor Yasuda writes about how after Japan lost the Second World War it became untethered from its Shinto roots. In modern times, the original nature–based Shintoism had become appropriated and fundamentally altered into what is called Imperial Shintoism. At the end of the war, much of the world felt that Imperial Shintoism is what had lead Japan into the combat in the first place. Because of this, the Japanese people felt unable to express their Shinto–based philosophy anymore.

In the post war period of high economic growth, more traditional, broader views of nature, as well as polytheistic philosophy and religion, were rapidly lost. The Japanese people denied their ancient traditional philosophy and approached the environment with more western philosophical and religious views. Without the Japanese people’s original Shinto-based thoughts and philosophy the country as a whole became a kind of economic–materialistic animal and joined much of the world in contributing to the deforestation of tropical and boreal forests. Behind the scenes of the explosive economic growth of Japan, was a previously unthinkable exploitation of nature.

Considering Professor Yasuda’s perspective on post war Japan, and in light of today’s theme of seeking new ways to recover from natural disasters, I strongly believe that what is necessary is for Japanese people to recognize the importance of our Shinto roots, the philosophy based upon coexistence and interdependence with nature and the environment.

Although the western philosophy of material and scientific advancement has lead to many great and important improvements in modern society, I think it has gone too far. I believe we must balance the western materialistic and scientific view with the ancient eastern nature–based philosophy. I believe we need to honor and respect nature, which is the foundation of our existence.

Born of the Japanese traditional and ancient view of living life in harmony with nature, Shumei International offers the Natural Agriculture way of life as a way toward the evolution of human culture. In so doing, we believe that Natural Agriculture can help bring the current imbalance between nature and materialism into a more sustainable balance.

A New Way of Life
Why Natural Agriculture? Pure Soil, Seed and Heart Testimonial Articles Recipes
Farming & Growing
Farms and Gardens Cultivation Basics Cultivation Methods Articles about Cultivation Get Seeds Publications
Get Involved
Global Friends Message from Friends Donate Now Events Volunteer Shop Contact Us