In an economy which pushes and fights its way towards new, profitable solutions, one Japanese man weilds a refreshingly simple way of problem solving. Mr. Okitsu found balance for himself and his family in a way that most would find counter-intuitive.
A story based on talks with Okitsu San and Kita Osamu In the Summer of 2013, I spent a week with a quirky, energetic Japanese farmer and his family. Days started before the sun – which comes up pretty early in Summer Japan – with a sickle in hand, picking slowly through a thick forest of weeds and vegetables covered in dew; it was a far cry from my days of picking at a keyboard in Silicon Valley. The time here provided new ways to think about the modern lifestyle which most of us are born into. Okitsu himself came from a farming family in Saitama, Japan. His mother was a farmer and his father served as a local politician. It was an upbringing which encouraged him on a path to work in government agriculture policy. He took this responsibility with full commitment and seriousness; after graduating from the high ranking Tokyo Agriculture University, he found employment with Japan Agriculture (JA), the government entity which basically controls the Japanese farming landscape. An exuberant and stubborn character, Okitsu set to work at JA, putting all of his energies into a life dedicated to changing agriculture for the betterment of the Japanese people and their environment. On top of his workload at JA, Okitsu was also a regular at “Kinokuniya,” a mega-sized bookstore in Tokyo, where he emptied the shelves of agricultural titles on each visit, often reading more than 10 agriculture books every week. In his work, Okitsu was driven, “he thought about the future of agriculture in Japan and about the future of the Japanese people very deeply” tells Osamu, a farmer and long-time friend of Okitsu’s. But Okitsu’s exuberance couldn’t match what was in store for him in his job at JA. Working for Japan Agriculture During his regular weekly visits to the Kinokuniya book emporium, Okitsu noticed a curious – and rather expensive – book on the shelf. Thinking it too expensive, he just put it back. Yet, after a few more visits, and perhaps because he had already purchased nearly everything else, he decided finally to give the mysterious and expensive book a chance. Not only did Okitsu not put the book down once he began reading; he also couldn’t sleep after he finished. The book “Standing on the Miraculous Field” was impressive for Okitsu. It offered a simple and genuine way of thinking about both growing food and living; it was honest, and its words began to unravel in his mind, many of the issues which Okitsu was dealing with in his job with the national agricultural body. He saw that his country was going about growing food in a way which was counterproductive to health, happiness, and well being of the environment. The next day, Okitsu made a phone call to the book’s author, Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, who in turn invited him to visit his “Akame Farm School,” an open, community school which regularly attracted hundreds of students from around Japan. After the first meeting, Okitsu was convinced that the book – and Kawaguchi – was right. He continued visiting the farm, making the trip to Sakurai a few days out of each month. Okitsu understood that Kawaguchi’s farming could revolutionize the farming industry. But implementing this way of thinking within agriculture policy was another issue. JA needed to maintain profit, and profit could only be ensured by selling seed, chemicals, and pesticides to farmers. What Kawaguchi was demonstrating at his farm school was that farmers have no need for buying seed, herbicide, pesticide, machines, or fertilizers. As a matter of national economic policy however, JA was (and still is) highly concentrated on growing industry and growing profits. The way of farming which Okitsu knew was best for the people and environment, was a way of farming which contradicted his own job at the very core. Day after day and month after month, Okitsu would hit walls within the government agriculture agency. His ideas on creating a fully sustainable, people-driven system of farming were far too radical for the government position. He couldn’t foresee change being driven from within JA, so he decided to quit his job. His family were furious. Okitsu’s wife was highly against his opinion, reminding him that his job at JA was a very good job; it provided stability, good social status, and good pay. The two also had two small children at the time, and were ultimately concerned about having a way to support them through college. Adding to his wife’s uncertainty, neither of them knew of anyone in Japan who made a living doing this style of ‘natural’ farming. Nobody. However, Okitsu’s dedication to do what he thought was right was far too strong to be swayed by such fear and doubt. He had seen firsthand how Kawaguchi’s farm worked, and to him it was the only way forward. After half-convincing his wife, the two made the decision to jump into natural farming as way of life, even if it meant a financially poor life. Hoe, Sickle, Hands, and Feet It’s night time and a light rain has just finished outside, giving way to the chirping of crickets in the garden. Okitsu and I are doing our first and only ‘formal’ interview of the week, sitting on tatami-mats in a small room in his century-old traditional farmhouse. “For more than 20 years I’ve been devoted to natural farming, I send many vegetables to my customers” Okitsu tells me, his English coming through a thick, excited Japanese accent. Excusing himself for his poor English, he switches to speaking in Japanese. “Hoe, sickle, hands and feet. It’s enough. Do you understand?” I nod, timidly. “That’s all, and that’s about it. Just hoe, sickle, hands and feet. It’s enough.” I ask Okitsu about money and he laughs. “Do I grow plants to make money?” he says with raised eyebrows. “The first thing, the most important thing for a farmer is to make healthy plants and healthy people. That is the center. That is the only way.” Each night while I am with Okitsu and his family, we have dinner together. The first few nights I would sit in front of the low, floor-seating dinner table on my knees, somehow feeling this was more polite; it was just one of the dozens of things I did that week that elicited confused looks from Okitsu’s family. Later I defaulted to a more comfortable cross-legged seating style. On one particular night, with Okitsu’s wife and children in bed early to get sleep for the upcoming Tokushima dance festival, Okitsu and I got to talking in surprising depth – I say surprising because, although I spoke barely enough Japanese to exchange pleasantries, and he could rarely put a sentence in English together, we somehow came to understandings quite easily as our time together went on. In this particular after-dinner conversation, with a few tiny cups of beer on the table that were always being drank but never less than half full – as is the custom here – I came to understand something both simple and astounding about Okitsu’s way of thinking and living. Okitsu believes that most people want the same thing, to be happy, and indirectly, they wish for others to be happy as well. It’s a simple enough thought yet if we all want happiness, he contends, then it is truly pointless to spend any part of our time doing things which cause others to suffer. He extends this idea to nature as well, and this it in turn forms the basis of Okitsu’s natural farming. The important takeaway for those of us who are not farmers, is in how this idea can be applied to all actions in daily life, regardless of what we do for a living. After finally finishing the ‘endless’ beers that night, the two of use came to another conjecture about Japanese brewing: the cheapest beers in Japan are likely just shochu (clear alcohol) with added beer coloring and bubbles. Life is full of important lessons. In finishing our formal interview, I came to a conclusion about his style of farming, which requires no money to practice – as Okitsu says, just a hoe, sickle, hands and feet. I called it ‘no money’ farming. “Hai. Yes.” Okitsu agreed. “No money farming” he said with a smile and nod. “It’s enough.”