Never before in its 3,000-year history has Japan’s agriculture been so politicised. Since the watershed events of the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima in 2011, the average citizen has grown quite savvy about where their food comes from, and about which types of food present higher health risks.

The Japanese government’s announcement that it would join the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade talks has further politicised those at the very heart of Japan’s food production – the farmers themselves.

Agriculture is one of the primary industries of Japan’s economy, but even so it accounts for a mere 1.3% of GNP. Joining the TPP will open the door to foreign exports (not to mention bioengineering) that will not only push this number down even further, but threaten to change the nature of life in Japan altogether.

One upshot is the increase in the number of individuals who have taken responsibility for their own food production. A ‘back to the land’ movement (burgeoning since the late 1990s) has exploded since Fukushima. Though not always political per se, many young Japanese, driven by both environmental and economic concerns, are shunning a life in the cities for one in the soil.

The idea of returning to the countryside is hardly a new one. For nearly 40 years Masanobu Fukuoka’s classic work The One-Straw Revolution has lured people back to a traditional life of farming. Just as a previous generation considered Fukuoka’s book an influential resource, so many of these current farmers have found inspiration in the ideals and methods of artist-turned-farmer Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, now considered the leading proponent of Natural Farming in Japan.

Based in Sakurai, not far from the ancient capital of Nara, Kawaguchi too began his approach to farming by adapting Fukuoka’s method of foregoing ploughing, fertilisers, weeding and chemicals. But he diverges from his predecessor’s more theoretical approach, and opts instead for the intuitive. Like Fukuoka, he began by doing very little and allowing the land to grow wild, but he soon came to realise that what was required was a return to cultivation as it was performed in the earliest days of Japanese farming. As a result, his methods are more flexible, and truer to his background as an artist, relying more on the conditions of the individual environment than on a series of rules.

Kawaguchi came to these conclusions later in life. He was born in 1939 into a family that had been farmers since the Edo period (1600–1868). His memories of the war years are memories of darkness; a time when 14 people lived together in the house where he was born and still lives today.

As the eldest son, Kawaguchi inherited the farm when his father passed away five years after the war. Kawaguchi laboured on the farm so that his younger siblings could receive an education, but his own education didn’t progress beyond middle school. Later, while in his twenties, he began to attend night school in order to receive a high-school education, but accompanied as this was with the demands of farming, his physical and mental health began to fail.

Kawaguchi studied at the Tennoji Art Institute in nearby Osaka and tried to make his living as an artist, wandering the country and visiting museums and temples. He felt that to be an artist, one needed a sharp eye to discern good from bad. In between these journeys, he would return home for the planting and harvest periods.

During one trip, he noticed a rice field through the window of the train, and saw there a beauty of fathomless depth. This convinced him that the inner journey is far more important than the outer, since real beauty is determined within each of us. He decided not to make art his occupation, but rather to make his life his art. From that moment on, he practised farming full-time.

After more than 20 years of farming with chemicals, Kawaguchi’s health began to decline, resulting in severe liver damage when he was just 36. At about this time he came across a book about the influence of chemicals on the body, which changed his thinking about agriculture. He officially stopped using chemicals two years later.

That same year, a large tumour was found in his wife’s womb while she was pregnant with their first child. Most allopathic doctors recommended invasive surgery in order to remove the tumour, but Kawaguchi found a 90-year-old midwife who performed a cure using natural means. This experience, and the subsequent birth of a healthy daughter, pointed Kawaguchi towards his parallel path of traditional Chinese medicine.

As his own health began to improve, Kawaguchi accepted his physical weaknesses and began to understand that one needs do relatively little to care for and help one’s body, and that the life force of the body and the Earth will do the rest. Likewise with his farming – all that needs to be done is to support the crops with what they need to grow while they are in their vulnerable infant stage; then, later, the life force of Nature will do the rest.

One of the first things you notice about Kawaguchi’s rice fields is the space between the rows. He leaves this extra space for the organisms living in the soil. These organisms create the perfect growing conditions for the rice, and add extra nutrients.

Besides those living, the soil also holds the remains of dead organisms from previous seasons. These remains nourish the living and allow the new organisms to grow, a cycle of life found everywhere in the natural world. Kawaguchi says that were he to plough and turn over the soil he would break that cycle, and this particular soil now contains the remains of over 30 years of organisms.

It is literally history beneath our feet.

Weeds too are allowed to stay, as weeds are also living things and have a role as members of the organic world. Kawaguchi says that if we weed, the first few crops are richer, and so of course people begin to chase after short-term gains. In weeding once, the soil softens, but over time the soil grows hard and it becomes necessary to weed again and again. There the problems compound. We need to plough the hardened soil, which causes it to lose the nutrient-bearing organisms, and then chemicals are needed to assist in the growing. But Kawaguchi sees this as mistaken thinking.

In fact, all life in the natural world is lived, as demonstrated in the interrelationship of all living things. Plants cannot exist without animals, and vice versa. If there is good harmony between the organisms, plants and animals, the cycle of life continues. As a farmer, Kawaguchi sees his role as simply to nurture this natural order, by cutting the weeds back just enough so that new rice shoots can grow, but later allowing the weeds to grow along with the rice in harmony. This leads to wholeness, with everything living together.

The transition to Natural Farming didn’t occur so naturally. Building a layer of soil laden with dead organisms took time. Kawaguchi added weeds, and the unused rice stalks and bran left over from the year’s harvest. Eventually, he no longer needed to add anything. At first, the yield of the crop decreased slightly, but the amount of life increased. Then the amount of rice increased over time.

In 1991, Kawaguchi founded the Akame Natural Farming School, which now has ten locations teaching farming, and another five teaching traditional medicine. Former students have begun their own satellite programmes, and over a thousand people have studied his method.

Kawaguchi has never attached a name to his approach; nor does he take on apprentices, because he feels that everyone has their own way. And he believes that there are as many methods of Natural Farming as there are people practising it – something that he encourages.

This is an edited extract from an original article published in the Kyoto Journal. The film Kawaguchi Yoshikazu in Natural Farming, an interview by Keibo Oiwa, is available from The Sloth Club, Japan. For more information email: [email protected]

Ted Taylor writes at