Japanese turn to farming to find fulfilment

Half Farmer, Half Something Else
Growing in popularity in Japan, a new environmental lifestyle choice is helping people grow their own food, reconnect with the land and pursue more fulfilling vocations

The global economic crisis that began with the collapse of US securities house Lehman Brothers in 2008 also triggered a series of business failures and job losses in Japan. The nation was already facing a number of problems: while many are quitting their jobs early, young people are still having trouble finding their own. Energy and food self-sufficiency is low, at four per cent and 40 per cent respectively. It has a rapidly aging society and farming population, with more than two-thirds of farmers aged over 65. Moreover, the number of people with mental health problems is growing rapidly, and more than 30,000 people commit suicide each year.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, particularly in a new lifestyle with the potential to reduce or resolve these problems, and to help the nation realise a more attractive and diverse future, which is quietly becoming popular.

A 21st-century lifestyle

First proposed in the mid-1990s by Naoki Shiomi, the Half-Farmer/Half-X (HF/HX) lifestyle means people growing their own food while at the same time being constructively involved in society by realising their own personal passion – the ‘X’ in the equation.

In industrialised countries, people tend to consume goods haphazardly, addictively, in order to feel fulfilled, or buy goods on impulse after receiving prodding from adverts. They don’t have the time to spare more than a passing thought for the global environment or the working conditions of the producers of the goods they buy; they put them into their shopping basket without considering whether they are necessary, long-lasting or match their values.

Abandoning the 20th-century style of mass production, mass consumption, mass disposal and long-distance transportation, HF/HX points the way to happier lives and a more sustainable world.

Living the HF/HX lifestyle back in his rural hometown of Ayabe, Shiomi has discovered that less money and more spiritual enrichment results in contentment. Numbers have increased nationwide in recent years. HF/HXers are content with their lives, consuming less and so finding less need to consume. In addition, because agriculture is part of their daily lives, they cannot help but shift their focus to the natural world. They soon develop what Rachel Carson called a ‘sense of wonder’ in their environment.

One of the reasons Shiomi recommends HF/HX is that it allows adherents simultaneously to enhance their farming and vocational lives. In the act of growing things, people experience and begin to harmonise with nature, connected in mind and body to the cycles of life. In the modern era, where the places of production and consumption are almost completely separate, involvement in growing things could be instrumental for many in regaining a sensitivity to and sensibility about the natural world.

Almost everyone wonders from time to time who they really are and what is the purpose of their life. According to Shiomi, the answer to these questions is to practise the ‘X’ that each person is called to do. Truly engaging with your ‘X’ can lead to such an enjoyment in and enthusiasm for life that people can forget about sleeping and eating, he says. The sensitising experience of focusing on farming and deeper thoughts, while sharpening sensibility through earnest work, often brings out the best in people working on their own personal callings. Not only that, in these times of economic crisis people tend to feel immeasurably more secure knowing they have enough basic food to survive, at least until next summer.

True affluence

Possessions have historically been considered a sign of affluence, but lately values seem to be changing. Nowadays, increasing numbers of people are asking themselves if having a lot of things really makes them happy.

Having spread word of HF/HX through lectures, books and over the internet, Shiomi has observed that it is people in their 20s to 40s – the so-called ‘debt generation’ – that show particularly strong interest in the lifestyle. Perhaps because they are the ones that will have to pay the debt left by the previous generation. An increasing number of young people are recognising the benefits of sharing rather than monopolising resources, living a life commensurate with one’s income level rather than chasing after unnecessary things, and keeping pace with the flow of nature rather than leading a hectic life consuming energy and sacrificing the environment.

Irrespective of age and gender, many people in Ayabe are now exploring their own ‘X’ and helping activate their communities at the same time. One woman of 70+ years started to offer accommodations at her spacious farmhouse as a green tourism business. A former teacher began growing roses in memory of Anne Frank to donate as symbols of peace. A married couple have begun focus on their painting, while at the same time cultivating their sensitivity to nature through farming. After hearing stories like these, an increasing number of visitors have come to visit Ayabe to see how people there live.

HF/HX is happening in other Japanese regions, where an increasing number of people are leading more enriched lives. A new and fulfilling life model can be followed where people have found their X, says Shiomi, whose own X is the creation of just such a society.

Living in the countryside is not a prerequisite for the HF/HX lifestyle, but flexible thinking is – you can grow in balconies, rooftops, weekend farm plots or community gardens – and nothing will be perfect from the start. Accomplishing just one per cent of a person’s ideal way of farming and exploring their personal ‘X’ is progress in itself; there is no formula. Start with what is possible right now, says Shiomi. Sowing just one seed is the quickest way to start.

The HF/HX concept is spreading, and in a society facing so many problems is seen as a ray of light. More remedies to the problems of our age will be revealed in the next few years, and will include new lifestyles such as the one Shiomi lives.

This is an edited version of a longer article that appeared in the Japan for Sustainability (JFS) Newsletter No.80 (April 2009)