SK: The way you teach is very different from the normal teaching in universities...

KO: Yes, I have been taking my students overseas, but I don’t want their trips to be just like a regular student visit, so I make sure that they experience something very different. I used to take my students to visit Indigenous people in North and South America, usually in very remote areas. Recently, I have been taking them to Bhutan. Instead of staying in hotels, we stay in farmhouses, with ordinary people. One year I took the whole group to England to stay for a week at Schumacher College, and we made a book out of it.

I’m an anthropologist, so I have been trying to combine anthropological studies with ecological thinking, and also unity between thinking, doing and being. For instance, my students are required to go into rice fields and do everything from transplanting the rice to harvesting, threshing, cooking and sharing their meals together. If the students fail to participate in this entire process, they can’t get their degree.

Fortunately, Yokohama Campus, where I am Professor of International Studies at the Meiji Gakuin University, is adjacent to an amazing Nature park managed by the city, and it is a real treasure. In this park we have a rice field. We go out and work there; we learn from Nature. We observe Nature. We meditate there.

It’s quite unusual, but the time that the students spend in the park is actually more worthwhile than the rest of the study – including my lectures!

You also started The Sloth Club…

I lived outside Japan for a long time, mostly moving back and forth between the United States and Canada, studying and working. I got so inspired by David Suzuki, the highly respected and influential Japanese-Canadian scientist and environmental activist. Instead of pursuing a pure scientific career, he created a role of being a spokesperson for Indigenous people, and a teacher at the same time. I started to think that maybe I too could try to amalgamate my academic interests with my activism.

During this time, I went on a study tour in Ecuador, where I became involved in the movement to save the mangrove ecosystem, including the tallest mangrove tree in the world (more than 63m high). It was in this ancient forest that I encountered a very amazing, unusual and beautiful animal called a three-toed sloth.

When the forests are cut down for development, other animals and birds can escape, but the sloths cannot, as they are too slow. So they come down with the tree as it is felled. My friends and I felt very sorry for these sloths. So we said, at first, “Save the Forest, Save the Sloth.”

There was something very special about the sloths. The first thing that struck me was the ever-present apparent smile on their faces, which made my activist friend call the sloth the bodhisattva of the forest. I became very interested in them, and I travelled in Central and South America to meet the animals and the people who studied them. I started to find amazing things. One reason why they are so slow is because they don’t have much muscle, and the reason for that is that they are vegetarians and their metabolism is so slow that they can spend seven to eight days digesting their food. Because they are so light they can hang from a thin branch high up in a tree, the safest place for them. Their slowness is part of their survival strategy. They actually evolved in the direction of slowness instead of speed.

Instead of defecating from the top of the tree, they come down to the ground each time, and they usually make a little hole in the ground or leaf mould with their little tail. Then afterwards they cover it with leaves. Why do they not defecate from the top of the tree like monkeys? Some scientists have a theory that they are making sure to give as much nutrition as possible back to the same tree that is nurturing them. Sloths are like the farmers of the forest. They are protecting the ecosystem that is their home.

It was as if the sloths were teaching me how we should live. My friends and I had been very active trying to solve the sloths’ problems, but we soon realised that we are the ones who cause the problems by the way we live.

The message we received from the sloth was “Be the change.” So I, my students and our friends got together and formed The Sloth Club. Our goal was to protect the forest in Ecuador and elsewhere and at the same time to change our own lifestyle. It was 1998: it was still rare for activists to focus on the way they lived. Some people would look at me and say, “Are you telling us to blame ourselves instead of blaming the companies or the system?”

“No,” I would reply. “I was just saying that it’s not enough just to criticise big companies. We have to change ourselves.” Soon we became known as the rather strange activists who carried their own chopsticks and a thermos with a teacup everywhere we went. In Japan, disposable chopsticks are widely used. On average, we use and discard 200 pairs per person each year. The population of 125 million people, multiplied by 200 – that’s a lot of wood, you know. Another crazy fact is there are more than 5 million vending machines in this small country. To run them all 24 hours a day throughout the year, we need one nuclear power reactor. If you add all the energy needed for everything directly or indirectly related to the vending machine for canned and plastic beverages, it amounts to the output from three or four nuclear power reactors. Who is supporting this system? We are. If we had stopped using vending machines, we wouldn’t have needed a Fukushima.

Let us move to your other project. You are making DVDs – what is your idea behind that?

One of the mottos of The Sloth Club is the amalgamation of activism, learning, business, art and spirituality. In other words, to be holistic. So we decided to make some films that would be instrumental for social change, artistic and educational – and commercially viable. We call the series Asian Visions, as it focuses on Asian visionaries and their profound wisdom that we need for the challenges of our time.

The first film of the series was with you, and it is entitled Soil, Soul, Society. Encouraged by its success, we made a second one, about Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, a Japanese guru of natural farming.

The third film was about Hwang Dae-Kwon, a South Korean thinker-activist who was arrested in the mid-1980s and tortured, and ended up in prison for 13 years on a false spying charge fabricated by the military dictatorship of the time. While in prison, he managed to treat his devastated mind and body by using as medicine weeds that he found in the prison ground. He ended up creating a wild plant garden in prison, consisting of more than 100 species. Through this most unusual experience, he formed his own unique version of ecology. The only things he was allowed to write were letters to his family, which he did, attaching masterful illustrations of plants. On the surface it looked as if his letters were only about the plants, but actually his philosophy of ecology and peace was implicitly woven into them. After he was granted an amnesty and released, his collected letters were published and became a million-seller in South Korea. He is one of my heroes.

The fourth film is about Vandana Shiva, who is familiar to all of you.

The fifth film, which we have just released, features Sulak Sivaraksa and Pracha Hutanuwatra from Thailand. They are highly respected Buddhist philosophers, and champions of social and ecological movements in Southeast Asia. They represent today’s Buddhist economics – the phrase originated by E.F. Schumacher – and are leaders of the international movement called Engaged Buddhism, originated by Thich Nhat Hanh.

We will soon start editing the sixth film, which is about Bhutan. I have been there 15 or 16 times already. Fifteen years ago, I started to hear about the Bhutanese policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It’s a very radical way of looking at the world. While almost 99% of the countries in the world think that the goal for society is to increase GNP, as early as in the late 1970s the fourth King of Bhutan said, “I don’t much care about GNP. As a matter of fact, I don’t know what the GNP of Bhutan is,” but he added, “What is important to us is Gross National Happiness.” That was a nice play on words. But by saying that, he was actually giving the whole world a great warning.

I became very curious about Bhutan, and I grabbed an opportunity to go there and met Pema Gyalpo, a tour operator, who volunteered to guide me as he had heard that I was an environmental activist and was curious. Pema and I travelled together for two weeks, and bonded through what we see as spiritual brotherhood. After I started to take study tours to Bhutan, he once told my students that the reason why he was in this business was “to earn money to maintain the roof of my village temple”. Asked about his village, he told me, “It’s a faraway place in the south-eastern region of the country, four days’ drive and two days’ walk.” He said, “You come with me, and you’ll understand the real meaning of GNH.” I started to think about it, and a few years later, I decided to go. That was six or seven years ago. It was another world. I have been to many remote areas of the world, but this was totally different. I fell in love with the village and have been there four times so far. This village is going to be at the centre of our sixth film.

What other projects are you working on?

I have been wanting to create a centre of learning like Schumacher College in Japan. Many people are also interested in it, but the hurdle seems too high. After the great tsunami disaster and the resulting Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, I started to think that instead of trying to make a Schumacher College right away, we could start with something very humble that would be a first step towards something bigger. Thus, the Slow Small School began.

Of course, at the centre of this school we have to have a kitchen. So we started to look for a place. Fortunately, we have been offered one by Jiyu Gakuen (‘Freedom School’), which has been at the centre of the century-old Japanese free school movement. The original school buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was inspired by the educational philosophy of the founder Motoko Hani.

Thus we started Slow Small School. Twenty-five adults from all ages participated in the first term from June 2014 to February 2015, meeting once every month for a whole day. The second term starts soon, with another set of students. Morning meditation is followed by lectures, bodywork, artwork and discussion. Intellectual discussion is focused on “de-economics”, or unlearning the dominant economic mindset. At lunchtime, we all cook together in the big kitchen and eat together. Other than the regular class, we organise occasional events and activities. Last year we had a two-day field trip in the countryside in autumn, and hosted the Satish Kumar Tender Loving Care Japan Tour in spring. It was great to see a kind of community emerge from all this. At their graduation, I told the students, “Now, each of you is a Slow Small School, from which a new community of learning grows.”

With your Sloth Club, making films on Asian activists, starting the Slow Small School and your own personal teaching in the university, what kind of vision have you developed for Japan?

I use three words, Slow, Small, Simple. These words express the authentic essence of Japanese culture and the ecological wisdom embedded in it. The Japanese are famous for their craftsmanship. They are known for the beauty of their craft, but also for its smallness. They care for details and their representation in the Mingei movement, which is an embodiment of simplicity and slowness. I want to see a resurgence of these three fundamental ideals of Japan. All my work is devoted and dedicated to this vision.

In the modern world you have to go faster, so that the other person feels that he or she has to go faster too. Then you too have to go faster. We are actually stealing time from each other. After all, time is the only thing that belongs to us in this life. In fact, life is time. We have been trying to be successful in this competitive world by sacrificing the only thing we have, which is time. So, when I say slow is beautiful, it actually means that we have to take back our own time: embrace and enjoy time.

Only then can we say that life is beautiful. This wisdom has been always there, in Japanese culture and tradition. Probably it was the same all over the world. Look at the ancient wisdom from the Indian, Chinese and Greek philosophies: they all talk about time. How silly it is to sacrifice your own life to become rich materially, but poor in time! So it is just a matter of reminding ourselves and bringing back a kind of wisdom that has been always there.

When I look at the environmental crisis, I feel overwhelmed, but the hope is that we always had this wisdom with us and it’s within us – it’s just a matter of reminding ourselves and bringing it back. It’s not that we have to reinvent something. No, it’s just been always here and it’s still here. This Slow Movement is to remind ourselves of this fact.

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Satish Kumar is Editor-in-Chief at Resurgence & Ecologist.