by Rebecca Williams 

Rice field with composting toilet at the PCCJ

Rice field with composting toilet at the PCCJ

Using donated abandoned farmland in a typically narrow and beautiful Japanese valley, the Permaculture Center of Japan (PCCJ) teaches permaculture techniques specifically relevant to Japanese cultural and geographic specifications. Rice cultivation and working with small, narrow blocks of land are an important factor for densely populated and mountainous Japan, so the PCCJ’s location in the rural mountainous town of Fujino in Kanagawa Prefecture is the perfect educational venue. The Center runs a variety of different programs a year including an intensive Permaculture Design Course in the summer, a practical course that meets once a month for one year and a Kids and Family Permaculture Course. Since its opening in 1996, the center has trained over 500 students.

Many graduates of the PCCJ courses continue to return to Fujino to live and have created a thriving community centered around sustainable lifestyles and alternative thinking. Home to a Steiner school, a vigorous Transition Town movement, co-housing organizations, a multitude of artists and the Permaculture Center itself, Fujino is a community of people and organizations who share a desire to affect change in Japan.“

The permaculture movement is growing in Japan because people are looking for connection. For people who don’t know what to do, permaculture is a good way for them to take action in their lives,” says Junko Nakazono, co-founder of the Transition Town movement in Fujino.

Today about 75% of the Japanese population live in cities, with rural areas continuing to suffer socially and economically from urban drift. With Japan importing roughly 60% of its food, food security has become one of the hot political issues of the day and can be said to be one reason why many young Japanese have started to embrace permaculture. In August 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan ended the 53 year near consecutive reign of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with food security as one of its main talking points. The DPJ’s goal is to increase food self-sufficiency to 50% in 10 years, and to 60% in the next 20. This election saw the mobilization of a usually despondent young Japanese electorate said to be responsible for the power shift.

“Japan relies too much on imports. It’s scary! Young people have to learn how to grow their own food,” says Taka Yamamoto, a worker at PCCJ. More than 70% of Japan’s working farmers are over 60 years old and nearly half are over 70. The graying of Japan’s agricultural sector has caused the area of abandoned or idle agricultural farmland to steadily increase since 1985 standing today at 3800 sq.km. (1520 sq.mi.). In 88% of cases, the land was abandoned because the owners said they were too old to work it.

Garden chicken house at the Permaculture Center of Japan

Garden chicken house at the Permaculture Center of Japan

PCCJ founder Kiyokazu Shidara was once a rice farmer in Niigata Prefecture but grew disillusioned with the common use of pesticides and herbicides. He became interested in organic agriculture and went on to study Agricultural Anthropology at the University of Georgia. While living with a tribe in Africa conducting anthropological research, he learned ways of living that were more deeply connected with nature and became determined to practice permaculture in Japan.

 “More than 60% of Japan is forest land. Nature is there, but we don’t have any relationship with it,” says Shidara. Since opening the Center at Fujino in 1996, Shidara has continued to expand his permaculture vision with 3 other branches: Nagano in 2004, Kansai in 2005 and Kyushu in 2008. He is also currently working on establishing an Urban Permaculture Center in Kobe. “I’m not asking people to move from cities, but to change their lifestyles,” Shidara says. “Our grandmothers and grandfathers lived permaculture, but we have abandoned that way of life.”

 Permaculture in Japan has come on the heels of a general ‘Farming Boom’ where young people are becoming more and more interested in growing their own food and creating their own lifestyles. Hyakusho, a Japanese word that historically meant ‘ordinary people’ and therefore ‘farmers’, is now being reclaimed to mean ‘100 skills’ or roughly, ‘self-sufficiency’. It has come to have a pejorative meaning in the modern era, but is now often used as a rallying cry for Japanese wanting to change their reliance on consuming foreign goods.

“Everyone should be able to support their own lives with their own skills; I ask people to just get one more skill”, says Shidara. Passionate about practical change through grass roots action, Shidara and his Permaculture Center of Japan are training the next generation of Japanese farmer/activists to remake the countryside and the country. “The time for teaching permaculture is over. We have to create an original and efficient culture now.”