Saturday, May 20, 2006

Darrell Moen on Organic Farming as Social Change: "Regional Revitalization in the Okitama Basin of Yamagata Prefecture"

Anthropologist Darrell Moen's fascinating account of disenchanted Japanese leaving large cities and taking up organic farming to revitalize rural areas:

Excerpt from "Regional Revitalization in the Okitama Basin of Yamagata Prefecture":
This report describes the ways in which a group of organic farmers in Yamagata Prefecture have been able to effect basic structural changes that contribute to the social transformative process of counter-hegemony.

Members of the Okitama farmers' League (OFL) have initiated a regional revitalization plan that is based on the concept of eco-circularity in which local household food wastes and other organic materials are converted into compost for use by area organic farmers. By forming organic farmers' collectives, members provide farm-related work in rural areas during the long winter months. The women farmers in the group formed a support group for farm wives to fight collectively against female subordination within the household as well as to improve the overall position of women in the Okitama area.

They are challenging the dominant culture's values and social assumptions, and are engaged in creating new cultural values and definitions of self in relation to others. The Okitama Farmers League offers a vision of a noneconomistic, democratized, and environmentally sustainable society centered on universal principles of human rights, social justice, and popular participation in the reformulation of the meanings attached to work, authority, culture, family, community, gender, and consumption.

At each of four regional organic farmers' groups I visited in Japan while engaged in my dissertation fieldwork research, I found at least two or three member farmers who had experienced living in the megalopolises of either Osaka or Tokyo for an extended period of time (between four and ten years). Some of these farmers left home to attend colleges and universities, returning to the family farm upon graduation; others had pursued careers in the city after finishing their schooling.

Referred to as the "U-turn phenomenon" in Japan, increasing numbers of the sons and daughters of farm families are returning to their natal towns and villages from often prolonged stays in major metropolises, and a large number of those who return and take over family farms are doing so on the condition that they will be able to farm organically. They bring back with them not only invigorating new ideas and new forms of behavior, but also eye-opening stories of the alienating lifestyles and hardships associated with city life that make life in the countryside appear greatly preferable in contrast.

The returnees often breathe new life into regional towns and villages, and their enthusiastic determination to succeed as full-time organic farmers, helping to form various organic farmers' collectives and (by the mind-1980s) working with other rural residents to revitalize the countryside, often acts as a catalyst, motivating others to work together to improve their lives.

The presence of the returnees accelerates the process of transcending the rural-urban dichotomy, as they maintain their ties (material and ideological) with both areas. Because of their familiarity with the hectic and congested urban lifestyle, their friendships with urban residents, their knowledge of broader social issues and their experience with some of the movements associated with them, and their ultimate decision to choose the rural over the urban, they have been able to make significant contributions to the growth of the organic farming movement in the relatively remote regional areas of Japan.

In this report, I focus on a group of organic farmers in Okitama County (Yamagata Prefecture) who are involved in revitalizing their entire regional economy.1 Okitama County, with its three cities, five towns, and numerous villages, lies in a fertile basin surrounded by the Northern Japan Alps. Situated in the middle of Japan's snow belt, the county has an agricultural season that lasts only six months, and 95 percent of the county's farm families obtain most of their income from a combination of local factory employment at subcontracting firms and migratory labor during the six months of winter.
(Originally posted at the Kyoto Journal website)