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, March 25 – 27, 2004, Natchitoches, Louisiana, by Mary Humstone, University of Wyoming There is an old saying, “The farmer is a good gardener for Japan.” Farmers have cultivated almost every inch of available land in this small, mountainous country, and their carefully tended fields, canals and terraced hillsides, along with their thatch-roofed farmhouses nestled in compact villages, create a landscape that is both productive and beautiful. But in Japan, like the United States, these rural treasures are threatened by changes in agriculture and land use. Urbanization and declining farm incomes have sent many rural residents fleeing to cities, leaving remote villages under-populated and depressed. Cities and towns are spreading into the countryside, paving over farmland with housing developments and big-box stores, and ambitious rural revitalization projects threaten to replace traditional markets and industries. In this presentation I will show examples of Japan’s traditional landscapes and discuss how they are threatened and what is being done to conserve them. Compared to the United States, Japan’s countryside still retains much of the look of traditional farming. Although farming here has been mechanized for more than thirty years, farming by hand is still part of life in rural Japan. During harvest time, the landscape is alive with people working: harvesting vegetables, cleaning up the fields, putting away the poles used for drying rice, hanging persimmons and other fruits and vegetables to dry on the walls of houses and barns. [image #1 – terraced rice field, Niigata Prefecture] More than 80% of the land area in Japan is mountainous, leaving very little flat land for development and agriculture. Consequently, hillsides are terraced to eke out every possible square foot of arable land for growing rice, vegetables or fruit. Some of these terraced landscapes reflect centuries of work by generations of farmers, carving fields out of hillsides, constructing irrigation systems, improving the soil. These landscapes are not only beautiful to look at – they are also cultural treasures. Other examples of distinct cultural landscapes in Japan include areas traditionally used for growing tea and raising silkworms. A typical rural village in Japan is a cluster of houses at the edge of a field, or along a hillside, with rice terraces or fields extending out around them. This arrangement was designed to conserve space for agriculture and provide protection for villages during times of political unrest. Some villages were surrounded by moats, for even greater protection. In one or two areas of Japan you will find scattered farmsteads, individual complexes bordered by trees and set in the middle of the fields, much like our typical American farmsteads but much more compact. [image #2 – Gassho-style houses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go, Toyama Prefecture]There is no typical farmhouse in Japan, because traditional house styles vary from region to region. During the middle ages, travel in Japan was restricted to the upper class, and regions grew up isolated from one another. Building traditions based on local climate, building materials, type of farming or industry and the skills and knowledge of local carpenters
persisted well into the 20th century. Houses in each village of Japan look very similar, although they may have been built several hundred years apart. The “L”-shaped magariya houses in the north were designed to house horses under the same roof as the family, and provide a sheltered work area during the cold winter months. The steeproofed gassho zukuri found in a small area near the Sea of Japan, housed the family on the main floor with several stories above devoted to raising silkworms. In mountain villages of Gunma Prefecture north of Tokyo, long, one-room-deep, eave-front houses, with wood shingle roofs held down by stones, were built on narrow shelves of land cut into the mountainside, with living space on the main floor and rooms for raising silkworms above. Other significant features of the cultural landscape in Japan include rice storage buildings, storehouses for household goods (kura), barns and other farm outbuildings, irrigation canals and ponds built to heat water from the mountains for irrigating rice fields, rural shrines, stone markers, some inscribed with haiku, and even self-service vegetable stands. This beautiful and fascinating landscape is threatened by some of the same forces that threaten farms and rural communities in the United States and around the world. Japanese farmers, whose average farm size is 3.9 acres compared with 487 acres in the U.S., are struggling to compete with cheaper imported goods. Farm incomes are not keeping up with other sectors of the economy, and many people are choosing not to farm, or being forced to find other work. Eighty-five percent of Japan’s farmers now farm parttime, and commute to their farms on weekends, leaving houses in rural villages empty and shuttered, while on the fringes of cities suburban housing is built on what was once farmland. In contrast to its dying villages, Japan’s cities continue to grow, providing much better opportunities for young people, as well as a more exciting social and cultural life. From 1960 to 1990, Japan’s farming population declined by 40%. As the average age of the farming population continues to climb, Japan’s rural heritage is being kept alive by its senior citizens. When this generation becomes too old to farm, what will happen to the terraced fields and gardens that are so carefully tended by hand? As discouraging as this situation is, there’s an important difference between Japan and the US. In spite of its reputation as a technologically advanced society, Japan still has its infrastructure of small farms and still honors its agricultural traditions. For example, in the spring, everyone from government officials to small school children participates in the ritual of planting rice by hand. There is even a little rice field on the Imperial Palace grounds in the middle of Tokyo, where the Emperor ceremoniously plants rice in the spring, and harvests it in the fall. [image #3 – Rice drying, Niigata Prefecture] Japan may have one of the best transportation and communication networks in the world and a growing number of American-style “big box” stores, but each region of the country still retains its individuality. Japan’s farmers have continued to grow regional specialties instead of succumbing to mono-culture, and each region has its own specialty foods, its own way of harvesting and drying rice and other local agricultural traditions, which along with beautiful landscapes and diverse architecture, contribute to a growing “Green Tourism”
movement. The tradition of producing and eating high quality, good tasting, fresh food has not been lost here. Japanese consumers demand, and farmers grow, peaches that taste like peaches, naturally dried rice and a wide variety of vegetables. Today, preservationists and agriculturalists in Japan are building on this infrastructure to conserve farmland and preserve traditional villages, homes, farm outbuildings and landscapes. These rural conservation efforts range from the activities of local citizen groups to ambitious projects sponsored by the national Ministry of Agriculture. They address issues from survey and designation of cultural landscapes to the use of volunteers to restore and maintain historic buildings and traditional farm lands. Although overall trends in rural Japan are discouraging, efforts of individual communities, organizations, and government programs are encouraging. [image #4 – Aoni village, Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture] Japan’s national historic preservation program has traditionally favored important temples, shrines, castles, and other high-style architecture over vernacular buildings and cultural landscapes. But recent changes in policy have broadened the definition of what is worthy of preservation. Recently, several rural villages and surrounding lands have been designated Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings, or denken, making environmental features that constitute historic landscapes (e.g. rivers, waterways, irrigated rice fields, dry crop lands, ponds, stone walls, hedges, forests) as well as historic buildings and other structures (e.g. storehouses, gates, walls) eligible for generous restoration grants from the government. The government is also considering adding a new category, Cultural Landscapes, to its “Historic Sites and Monuments” division, which currently includes Historic Sites, Places of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monuments. The recent designation of two rice terraces as “Places of Scenic Beauty,” an honor previously awarded only to designed gardens and outstanding natural landscapes, prompted an examination of how to best recognize Japan’s outstanding agricultural landscapes. The motto of Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture is “Aiming for a stable food supply and a beautiful country” - words that recognize both the practical and aesthetic values of farming. The big question is whether Japan’s goal of food self-sufficiency can be achieved through protecting traditional landscapes and agricultural traditions, or if Japan will succumb to destroying its cultural landscapes for the sake of efficiency. As Junichi Yoneyama of the Japan National Trust said, “We used to believe that ‘the farmer is a good gardener for Japan,’ but over the past twenty years we have let much of our farming lands go, and destroyed that garden.” Japan’s magnificent rice terraces are especially threatened. Japan has had a surplus of rice for a number of years, and farmers are being paid not to grow rice. As the amount of land in rice production decreases, the terraced fields that require more maintenance and hand labor than flat rice fields are the first to be abandoned. These terraced fields will not be preserved by setting them aside and protecting them from development; they require people to work the land, often by hand.
Urban-rural exchange programs give urban people a chance to experience rural life while also helping to preserve some of Japan’s most beautiful landscapes. With help from the Ministry of Agriculture and organizations such as the Japan National Trust, many rural communities have set up exchanges with urban residents, who volunteer to repair terraces, roads and canals, and help with planting and harvest. An innovative rice terrace “ownership” program allows urban dwellers to lease a portion of a terraced rice field and grow their own rice. For a fee of 30,000 yen per year (about $250), “owners” can lease a field that will provide them with a year’s supply of rice for less than it would cost in the grocery store. A local community group oversees the land, and takes care of maintenance tasks such as irrigation. Owners come four or five times between spring planting and fall harvesting, to care for their plot of land. These projects not only help preserve the land, they bring a feeling of community back to places that have suffered from migration to cities. They cement friendships between rural and urban people, and help foster appreciation of rural working landscapes and an understanding of rural life. The Ministry of Agriculture also promotes revitalization of Japan’s rural villages, through programs such as the “Most Beautiful Villages of Japan,” which gives awards for places that not only look beautiful, but also have kept or rekindled community traditions, or that have diversified and strengthened their agricultural base. The agency also sponsors programs that support direct marketing of farm products including internet marketing, local processing of agricultural products, local crafts and industries and green tourism. While all of these are worthy projects, there is a concern that unless the officials who run these programs really understand traditional village life, they could end up destroying what they set out to preserve. Preservation of Japan’s thatch-roofed houses presents special problems. Traditional Japanese village life was based on a system of mutual help, called yui, that governed everything from irrigating fields to repairing roofs. Each village had a community field of mountain reed, or kaya, for thatching roofs. In the fall, each family would harvest their share of kaya, bundle it and set it around their house for insulation during the cold winter months. When a village member needed a new roof, each family would contribute kaya and labor, and a master thatcher would be hired to help supervise the volunteers. Anyone who contributed to a neighbor’s roof was guaranteed to be repaid in kind. Today, most of the kaya fields have been abandoned. Many people have moved away, and the community mutual help system has broken down. Those who own new houses with tile or metal roofs are not inclined to contribute to thatching a neighbor’s roof, and even if they were, master thatchers to supervise the project are hard to find – most are now in their 70s and retiring. What was once almost free – a roof made from locally grown plants and donated labor – can cost as much as $200,000 to replace. If these houses are to remain, there has to be a way to bring that cost down. [image #5 – Roof thatching, Miyama village, Kyoto Prefecture] Over the past few years, the Japan National Trust has formed a nationwide network to support preservation of
thatch-roofed houses. Teams in all prefectures of Japan are taking a nationwide census of thatch-roofed houses to determine the number of houses, where they are located and owners’ attitudes and needs, and to identify people who are interested in helping to preserve them. This network has the potential to create a new system to replace the village-wide system of yui – a geographically larger village that brings together homeowners, craftspeople and preservation-minded citizens who will volunteer their time to repair and maintain these important traditional Japanese buildings. Training a new generation of thatchers, and developing more efficient ways to grow and harvest kaya locally are also a part of this program. [image #6 – rice planting, Makino village, Kyoto Prefecture] The city of Miyama, in Kyoto Prefecture, is a good example of a municipality that has used agriculture, historic preservation and heritage tourism to revitalize what was a dying area. Miyama’s 5,000 residents live in 56 villages, the most well known of which is Kitamura, a designated village of thatch-roofed houses in the regional kitamura style. But the entire area has retained its traditional buildings and landscape, and city officials understand that building on that asset makes more sense than creating something new to draw in residents and tourists. As a Ministry of Agriculture “model area for revitalization,” the municipality has actively encouraged preservation of traditional buildings, and provides 50% matching grants for buildings that are locally designated. This has, in turn, provided new jobs and motivated a new generation to learn the traditional skills of thatching. Although tourism is an important part of the local economy, the city hasn’t neglected the industry that makes the land so appealing to tourists – agriculture. In addition to supporting its rice farmers, the local government has helped with the production and marketing of local specialty foods such as free-range chicken, and with the bottling and selling of a natural asset, spring water. In the past 8 years, Miyama has reversed the trend of rural decline by attracting 230 new residents.
All photographs by Mary Humstone
Mary Humstone was a 2001-2002 Fulbright Senior Research Fellow in Japan, under the sponsorship of the Japan National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage Conservation. She has worked in rural preservation for the past 18 years and is co-founder of the BARN AGAIN! program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine. She currently teaches architectural history and historic preservation and coordinates outreach activities for the American Studies program at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
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