Japan Dispatches, 2004

Peter and Judy returned to Japan on the Autumnal Equinox 2004. Soon after, we started receiving dispatches from this journey. Ecology leader and Planet Drum Foundation Board Member Kimiharu To acted as networker supreme as well as guide and interpreter for travels & presentations.

Dispatch #1, A Prescription for Japan’s Cities, Sept. 26, 2004. A discussion about urban problems and examples of a workshop/presentation and proactive solutions.

Dispatch #2, Finding the Path Off the Road, Oct. 7, 2004. Beginning with a conference session in the fair-sized city of Kagoshima that included an energetic mapmaking session this dispatch includes a visit to the city of Minamata, site of a mercury poisoning tragedy— “a Hiroshima of environmental destruction.”

Dispatch #3, Tokyo Typhoon: Vestiges of a People and a River, Oct. 15, 2004. Musings about the Jomon, New Stone Age people and observations of a wild portion of an urban river.

Dispatch #4, Restoring Ecology From the Inside Out, Oct. 18, 2004 Thoughts about ecological awareness in Japan and a description of the public discussion arranged by Kimiharu To in Tokyo between Peter Berg and Taoist poet Nanao Sakaki moderated by author Tsugi (Keibo Oiwa) that presented a long-term positive vision for ecological change.

A Prescription for Japan’s Cities

Dispatch #1, September 26, 2004
Northwest Pacific Main Islands
By Peter Berg

Starting out from Tokyo on a trip to other parts of Japan is like using a highway transport truck to drive to a garden for a walk. A tandem truck with separate warehouse size containers each packed to the roof above a single narrow zigzagging aisle. One container holds a jumble of erratically steered cars, motorcycles and bicycles, another bulges with streaming phalanxes of preoccupied humans, a third is crammed with shops from only two people wide up to mammoth department store edifices dozens of stories high splattered over nearly every inch with signs matching their size. These are the first super-arenas encountered by anyone and there is a feeling that an unlimited number of others will follow. (They do and without pause.) Unabashedly hard-core consumerism tolerates high-end European fashion advertisements on the front page of even a popular English-language daily newspaper. Ads in general are so thick that truly important traffic signs and pedestrian lights, street names and direction arrows, and flashing emergency lights can be impossible to detect. The dominant atmosphere surrounding this extreme stuff-worship is a quintessentially Bladerunner world with omnipresent and incomprehensible juxtapositions of old and new cultures. Worn granite demons at the foot of a sheer aluminum wall, a twig broom with a bamboo handle at a precarious angle against a wall beside a tattered handbill for a computer dating service. There is a definite darkening shadow of overdoneness, that the city’s life can’t keep up this heated pace indefinitely. Up-to-date Tokyo is cooked to the limit and about to smolder.

Then how to account for personal endurance and even congeniality despite the pounding noise of construction, cyclonic whooshing of traffic, impatient bumps of half-running crowds, and visual assault of searing fuchsia, chartreuse… the whole family of neon tinged colors? Put it this way, what would make a Tokyo native homesick? Japanese in general often say that what they miss when away is their distinct food. To be more precise regarding Tokyo, tiny noodle shops can be as welcoming as other parts of city life are insufferable, as reasonably priced as others are outrageously expensive. They unfailingly produce large satisfying bowls of magical tasting ingredients that are as unique as their eight seat counter refuges with owner family members cooking, gossiping, joking, or even doing homework before your eyes. There are hundreds of diverse neighborhoods with dazzling special qualities that range from blaringly overt sexuality to subtle serenity. They are all as close as the nearest entrance to the quickest, cleanest, safest, and most frequent subways imaginable (with the caveat that their fares are probably the highest). Good eating, enjoyable playing and fast mobility make any city amenable regardless of its hassles. And there is one more point of specifically Tokyo identity that can’t be overlooked. Other capital cities may be the center of their national societies, but this near-thirty million person layered heap is Japan’s central high-revving engine as well. A friend estimated that the working population is dominated up to seventy percent by those who chose to stay or came here to pursue life careers. Being so dedicated they can’t help but imagine themselves to be fundamental and indispensable not only to Tokyo’s existence but to Japan’s itself.

As for the walk in a garden, it couldn’t be in pursuit of a more different vision. This was the starting and return point for a circuit to appropriately declare the need for ecologically nesting cities sustainably within natural features and systems of different places throughout Japan. Ecology leader and Planet Drum Foundation Board Member Kimiharu To acted as networker supreme as well as guide and interpreter for Judy Goldhaft and me. Matsumoto City in Olympics-pummeled and economically depressed Nagano Prefecture was the first stop. Councilman Yagi Satoshi hosted us in City Hall with other council members, Nagano residents, and some visitors from Tokyo for a talk about transforming cities. It concluded with a workshop making maps that showed participants’ depictions of their local nearest bodies of water, land forms, soils, native plants and animals, and both beneficial and destructive aspects of human life.

When the maps were completed the attendees were divided into groups representing different geographic areas. At that point formerly quiet listeners turned ebullient declaimers of their detailed creations. Each took more time then usual for a workshop I’ve presented in different countries at least a hundred times. “In Japan there aren’t many opportunities to express your personal feelings”, Kim explained. “People don’t attend workshops here just to learn how to do something but to extend themselves in public. We have to let them take as much time for this part as they want for their outward exposure as well as learning from each other.” That fits with the workshop’s overall purpose to initiate reconceptualizing who as well as where you are in nature, so we watched with no little amazement as voices rose and arms waved.

The two main groups learned radically different things. Tokyo visitors barely knew the breadth of their urban home much less whatever natural elements were cemented in, flowed under, or flew over their daily lives. For them this unawareness and need to know was a valuable lesson. Nagano residents did much better, recounting the surrounding major natural features and a few within Matsumoto city limits. They unanimously complained that damming of local water resources with utility company hydroelectric generators for distant users had disastrous effects on local aquatic habitats. The development of more benign forms of this renewable resource for their own power needs was also a major issue.

Before the workshop someone commented that the biggest political problem was “the incompetent mayor”. Considering the key city administration roles some of the participants play, future ideas about restoring and maintaining natural systems and programs for pertinent sustainability issues should now get a better hearing and higher political profile.

We spent that night in the ski resort town of Hakuba, guests of techni-organico Green activist Ko Ogawa, his multi-talented wife and all-play baby girl, in an old farm-style house he was renovating in a way that blended with the original expansive openness of these buildings intended for large families. Ko’s high energy radiates out into web designing, childcare, landscape photography, sound recording, mountain biking, political campaigning for greenish candidates and issues, dauntless self-reliance, public events ice-breaking, and community volunteerism. A bona fide player in the sustainable future Renaissance. It was the city’s Environment Week in a national holiday period celebrating the autumn equinox and Ko adroitly handled all of the technical aspects of the event.

My talk on the next day’s program was aimed at the historical state of environmentalism and the arrival of its Second Phase. The shock and implicit negativity of the introductory phase reflected in titles like SILENT Spring, The Population BOMB, Planet in PERIL, and many similar grab-by-the-shoulders-and-shake outcries had done their job. For better and worse everyone now knows we share the Earth’s same limited skein of life. Better for developing further ecological consciousness and action based on this foundation. worse because the scale of destruction brought by greenhouse gases, species extinction and disappearing habitat, soil loss and desertification, resources depletion, and other mortal facts of present-day biospheric life seems beyond personal, governmental, or even intergovernmental control. How does that knowledge fit the young 21st Century’s absorption with economic growth, globalization, terrorism, and war? What do we do in the Second Phase?

Our identity as a species has actually been changed. Humans have always coped through developing culture, and at present this means accounting for the reality of being unified interdependently with all other forms of planetary life and natural elements. To do this we must recognize the living continuity of these factors in the widely diverse locales where we live, bioregions in the biosphere. Working to restore and harmonize with them sustainably is the wellspring and foothold for the new culture.

Our species is now and will increasingly become based in cities. Homo sapiens urbanus.

This isn’t seen as a hopeful prospect for most people given the conditions of city life. Urban centers are predominantly dislocated from living responsibly within their bioregions even though they ultimately depend upon them. To dim the prospect even more, the illusion of city separation from nature and consequent disregard for the realities that are necessary for survival isn’t new. Sumerian, Mayan, Cambodian, Hellenic, and most other ancient cultures’ cities were abandoned because they became over-extended in terms of local food, water, and other essentials. So will the present-day maximegapolitan sprawls that sometimes Gargantuanly contain half their national populations. They should and sometimes already do collapse for the same basic reason. Simply stated, cities die because they progressively consume greater amounts of resources and produce huger piles of wastes.

The identity of cities has to change to fit the new identity of our species. They have to become reciprocal with the life of the bioregions they occupy, they must become sustainable and city dwellers need to live sustainably within them. The have to produce resources and eliminate wastes.

There is promise for these changes in the Ecuadorian city of Bahia de Caraquez which has adopted an Ecological City Plan. Planet Drum Foundation has worked to promote bioregionally beneficial approaches for food, energy, water, recycling, human waste, industries, and education since the Ecological City Declaration there in 1999. An example is a program to turn household wastes into compost to grow fruit trees for residents of a disadvantaged barrio eventually that has been expanded to become a city/county wide recycling effort. This is especially significant since organic material represents a full half of the waste stream there. There is also a revegetation project for controlling erosion using only native plants in a neighborhood ruined by a mudslide resulted by creating a “wild park” with steps, paths, identification placards, and a self-guided tour map. The neighborhood community participates in maintaining and leading tours of the park. Another, more ambitious project seeks to revegetate many hundreds of hectares of similarly eroded land along a six kilometer stretch entering the city that fulfills numerous bioregional criteria. It not only grows and plants thousands of trees but saves soil, produces useful fruits and plant materials, creates habitat for native animals, reserves rain water by reducing runoff, prevents mud slide destruction of houses and roads, reduces siltation in streams and the major river, creates jobs growing seedlings and planting them on hillsides, provides an educational facility, and offers development of future benefits including visitor services and accommodations. An inter-generational, free Bioregional Education Program is teaching basic reading, writing, mathematics, and other skills through involvement with restoration and sustainability projects. Industries for using recycled material include handmade stationery produced from wastepaper and decorated with native plants by several different small companies. There is a steadily growing number of three-wheeled bicycle “eco taxi” organizations, mangrove and other natural features restoration and education projects, eco-tourism companies of various kinds, ecologically oriented art works programs, and city-wide celebratory events.

The model that is developing in Bahia de Caraquez isn’t necessarily applicable in all aspects for more developed places such as Japan, but it addresses bioregional component areas such as watersheds, native species, and sustainable production that are necessary although different in their particulars. City residents should begin the transformation of their lives while pressing for public policies that can reach further than their personal control.

There has been a circle of eco-networkers in Hakuba ever since the 1998 Winter Olympics brought home the necessity of environmental involvement in an unmanageably grand way. Residents suffered the onslaught and learned from it. A native plant nurseryman introduced himself and immediately led a tour of the exquisite naturally planned growing site he named “Biotope” with a creek for aquatic plants and rock formations to grow bare-soil tolerant local mountain varieties. Natural materials handicrafters have become more numerous, led by renowned native wood furniture artist “nature boy”  Bunpei Maniko.

Most prominent among the bioregional luminaries is Toshio Watanabe who originally opposed the Winter Olympics even though he operates a ski lodge that might have benefited from the crowds. When prevention of the environmentally ruinous Games could no longer be debated he magnanimously turned over his place to house volunteers and became one himself as a guide and interpreter for visiting team members. He is permanently devoted to ecological betterment and oversaw the organization and direction of Environment Week with its speakers on subjects ranging from mountain wildlife to sustainable community development, and learning opportunities including a map-making workshop by Kim and myself followed by Judy performing her inimitable “Water Web” performance art piece.

Toshio’s newest project is restoring an abandoned 115 year old former farm site as a school for teaching traditional approaches to local living by carrying out activities linked to farming and nature. Irori Juku (Hearth School) is on a 200 hectare site that has a main building with five actual four-person floor hearths and study spaces. Its stout one cubic meter roof beams are hand-adzed and only wooden pegs were used in the original construction. Stacked parts of another old house from a different abandoned location will eventually be reassembled here as well. Toshio has begun cutting down a dense thirty-year old stand of planted cedar trees that are a monocultural plague on Japan’s hillsides. (Planted continuously since the end of World War Two to create employment and as a future source of wood, cedars now are a main culprit in loss of native plant diversity and animal habitat, besides causing allergic responses to pollen that are common throughout Japan and reportedly affect 40% of Tokyo’s population.) A shoulder-high charcoal oven with two burners was built of native clay to feed in small-sized logs that are fired for three days and then allowed to smolder for the rest of a total week. It’s an inferior grade of charcoal for cooking but ideal for the many other uses Toshio described: water and air filters, sewage filters, and room and other living space freshening. Traditionally a construction material under buildings for absorbing both ground and air borne moisture, charcoal is also used contemporarily as an insulator under floors and in walls to resist electromagnetic fields. Charcoal-making will be a lesson area when the school becomes established along with whatever other activities flow forward in the process of restoring the farm and surrounding mountain forest landscape. This may represent more than just a personal preoccupation because Toshio is a candidate for Hakuba’s City Council. If he succeeds Hearth School could have far-reaching implications for the entire community.

Finding the Path Off the Road

Dispatch #2, October 7, 2004
Northwest Pacific Main Islands
By Peter Berg

Starting in September the Japan countryside starts showing a yellowish green tint of planted rice in squares of land as small as backyards and as large as whole valleys. This alert color brightens even more toward a bursting mustard yellow as fields ripen for harvest beginning around the autumn equinox and continuing in higher and cooler mountain terraces through early October. Stacked in paddies as numerous small teepees, hung upside down on single, double or even triple tiered racks, or arranged bunch by bunch like bricks in chest-high chimneys, the cut rice retains its green stalk/yellow head aspect for a week or so before turning deeper and deeper shades of gray-brown. Meanwhile new two-spear green shoots rapidly rise in the previously cut rows of brown bunch-stumps, resurrecting what had come before. This parade of shapes and colors is happening everywhere at nearly the same time sounding a symphonic dominating theme from the landscape that reverberates in consciousness as a naturally unfolding procession. It doesn’t matter if the cultural reciprocity through rituals that once accompanied it has lapsed through use of machines to plant, tend and reap. The dance remains in the process itself perpetually ready to hypnotize with grace.

The southern main island in the Japanese chain of Kyushu feels more informal and humanly slow-paced immediately upon stopping at the train station in Hakata to pick up Yoko Nishida who will accompany Judy and me. She makes us feel at home waiting for the next train by presenting a page of mounted photos from her visit to our office in San Francisco and bioregional tour of Glen Park.

We’re met in Kagoshima by fresh-eyed, community-building professional Yuko Oguri and seventeen year Japan resident writer Jeffrey Irish to enjoy southern laidback style eating and spending the night at his remarkable rebuilt countryside dwelling. It is a former lookout for village cows with a single tiny enclosed crows nest above a one-room concrete house. Jeff smoothed out what was there with new flooring and plaster, built a perfect cooking hearth to use home-made charcoal, and added a walled-off elegantly simple squat toilet and wood-fired hot bath. Although he is around six and a half feet tall, the whole place can’t be longer than thirty-five feet or wider than twenty yet seemed open and oddly spacious. Nothing seems done except with extreme care and deliberation, so much so that it represents a thoughtful living exhibition of traditional Japanese house aspects reiterated in a contemporary context. Except for electricity for a computer and telephone, lights and a few appliances, it could have existed at the beginning of the Twentieth Century if not earlier. The prospect of remodeling the old lookout for a token amount of yearly rent came through his work and involvement for the past seven years with a village that faces abandonment. This is part of a massive trend of younger residents leaving for cities that is similar to Toshio’s Hearth School site outside Hakuba. Jeff has helped the place and its remaining elders survive and written articles for Japanese newspapers and books extolling the sustainability of older local practices and customs.

Yuko took over the next morning explaining the conference session in the fair-sized city of Kagoshima with local group leaders and members planned for the day. This was to be an active community organizing event arranged through her adult life-long learning extension program in coordination with public service groups. She envisioned an ecological underpinning for future urban community sensibility with implications for a new national policy to merge local governments. If cities around Kagoshima merged together, they should do so with consciousness of sharing the same bioregion. Once again I was humbled by the adaptability of the bioregional concept to a completely unforeseen situation, and the way it was taken up during the meeting is worth telling because it was a first in all of the group sessions any of us had experienced.

Community non-profit group leaders spoke first explaining the purpose and menu of the gathering, followed by energetic, inclusivity-driven Satomi Maruno. She magically dispelled the kind of shy hanging-back that sometimes afflicts audiences here by prompting them all to write their first thought about what was good in the community. Then they held up and read what seemed an expectedly wide assortment of favorites: “a spot on the river”, “the respectful way people treat each other”, and even “the neighborhood badminton club”. Satomi next requested a quick response about each person’s role in the community and received another diverse collection (including “I don’t have one”). People were now in the mood to take a ride of imagination together.

Because of the predominantly urban backgrounds of the attendees, I shortened the usual rap to explaining what ecological factors and natural features sustained city life.

Next Judy delighted them with “Water Web”, but the program was running shorter by twenty minutes than what was scheduled. The workshop organizers improvised by staging a mass bioregional map-making exercise using the blackboard and volunteers to draw in the local river, mountains, soils, native plants and animals, and best vs. worst human adaptations to those natural features.

After some anxious minutes of appeals for the first volunteer, the map got underway with an extremely accurate, curve-by-curve depiction of the river by someone who guided tours on it. There was an appreciatively astonished pause as everyone watched the miraculous perfect line take shape and widen slightly to end at the ocean. When I next asked for mountains and hills, there was a rush by four young women to the blackboard that took everyone by surprise. But not for long. Flashbulbs popped all over the room as other participants realized that an important moment of group understanding was taking place and they recorded it the way baseball fans snap a homerun. None of the workshop practitioners had seen anything like this in any previous context and we stared at each other with hands outspread, “Wha..huh!”

It wouldn’t have been possible to stop volunteer artists after that. Six, then eight chattering people were sketching in soil types when a woman ran up to quickly label one of them “pyroclastic flow” (in English) and then run back to her seat. Plants and animals nearly overflowed the frame of the blackboard. Noxious superhighways, polluting factories and obtrusive dams competed with admired recycling spots and beloved gardens. People were enthusiastic and had become engaged far beyond expectations. When the organizers solicited the last person’s statement about what had been gained from the meeting, there was unanimous acceptance of the information and enjoyment of the experience. The most striking declaration for me was from a woman who worked at a cement company; “I didn’t realize that I know nothing about the natural elements around me. I’m going to find out now.”

A few days later Yuko joined our quest to visit the saga-laden city of Minamata in nearby Kumamoto Prefecture. Devastated starting in the fifties beyond anything comparable in the horrible long history of industrial pollution, the place has given its name to mercury poisoning, Minamata Disease. Several blocks-sized Chisso Corporation knowingly poured countless gallons of mercury and other lethal chemicals into sluices leading to the bay. Borne by air, water and fish into human nervous systems they caused wasting disorders, crippling and death for as many as one hundred and seventy thousand people. We wanted to see what degree of ecological restoration had taken place, and how people viewed living there today.

Although it was a weekend, resourceful Yuko arranged a tour of the twenty-two kilometer length of the Minamata River watershed guided from source springs down to the ocean by organic tea farmer Kazuya Matsumoto. Amazed on arrival to find him married to one of her university classmates, Yuko rode with us in a happy cloud of revived friendship to Samukawa Spring on nearly one thousand meters (3000 feet) high Mt. Ozeki This peak is significant also as the border between Kumamoto and Kagoshima Prefecture where we had just been. Spring waters spout from stark rocks above a rugged flat shelf with statues of water deities and protective spirits, offerings, and a cup for drinking. “Many people come her to fill jugs of water, ” Kaz said and so did we. An evergreen variety of oak dominates the dense although inviting wet forest with accompanying camellias (Japonica). Diminished to the point of endangerment, small numbers of native matake (bamboo) and sugi (cedar) compete with massively planted exotic species of these plants in monocultural groves that ominously comprise as much as half the vegetation in the watershed. The small parrot-green mejiro bird with white eyes survives as a native.

Only a quarter of a mile from the steep springs, numerous narrow rock-walled terraces make sensuous curving beds for household supplies of yellowing rice, flowering buck wheat (it ripens in winter), and soybeans. Good signs of continuing viability and self-reliance. Previous cash crops such as tangerines have diminished but more sustainable tea and onions remain profitable enough to attract young farmers. 

Watershed maintenance is limited to building up new hillside retaining walls and shoring up old ones, even though a national attention-getting massive avalanche last year that killed more than a dozen people indicates restoration of indigenous vegetation is an urgently needed preventative for future erosion. The mountains are steep and boulders up to five meters (fifteen feet) in diameter came down in the slide.

The city limits are fortuitously the same as the watershed borders, and coming into the most populated coastal part we are given a wonderfully detailed watershed map with numerous side panels showing natural sites, customs, products, and activities. It is only one of many other outstanding information sources and activities found here now paid for by public funds. Ecological consciousness in Minamata was harshly spurred beyond other places by the mercury poisoning tragedy and remains higher than other Japanese cities, a Hiroshima of environmental destruction. Councilman Yoshimoto Tetsuro pioneered this level of community environmental education and practice as the appropriate way to begin a long process of recovery. Fifty-eight hectares (about one hundred and thirty acres) of soil were needed to cover over the mercury poisoned bay bottom near the plant, and another one and a half million cubic meters of sludge were dredged from farther out. The landfill has been planted with native vegetation from various parts of the watershed and there is a soulful park with memorial statues sculpted by living victims. Surf fishermen were standing in front of the garden on terraced landings leading into the bay. In one place a memorial billboard reads that this is a ” …model of an environmentally friendly city learning from the lessons incurred by Minamata Disease.” Another part states, “Where you are standing now is the land solemnity. By visiting this place, we hope all will recognize the importance of environmental protection.” Misspelled English that causes the words to be read several times only heightens its touching effect. Judy had tears and Kaz reminded us, “Many people suffered but no one knows how many lives of animals were taken.” It is a poignant, historic turn-around city that deserves re-dedicatory pilgrimages.

Spent the evening back in the mountains at a comfortably funky, lived-in old farmhouse with agricultural guru Amano-san and the friendly disciples who arrive unbidden at this door. We feasted on seasonal delicacies, took a hot bath with a football size bag of home-grown organic English tea that stained the water orange-brown, and rode in the back of his pickup truck to view the waning harvest moon.

Tokyo Typhoon: Vestiges of a People and a River

Dispatch #3, October 15, 2004
Northwest Pacific Main Islands
By Peter Berg

The definite origin of the New Stone Age people of the Japanese Islands is unsure but they may have originated in Siberia and arrived at least 10,000 years ago. Known now as Jomon, their DNA survives predominantly in the contemporary population along with that of Yayoi descendants who migrated from Korea starting from around 2,500 years before the present. (These are such well established traits that a peculiarly directed scientific finding reported last month used the two genetic types to gauge the average national male fertility, establishing among other things that Jomon descended men had greater sperm counts in spring and Yayoi in fall.)

Jomon culture was highly advanced if the ornate pottery vase with gracefully sculpted flames shooting up from rim that is on display at the Tokyo National Museum is a fair indication. Their relatively dense village-style society with dozens of thatch-roof circular houses dug into the ground must have been intensely interactive. The dwellings feature leg-dangling double circular rows for ten or so people each sitting around a central fireplace. (There is an echo of this today if you unexpectedly find a space for knee-high legroom under the table in a home or at a restaurant when seated on the tatami mat covered floor.) Only thirty or so feet (ten meters) in diameter, the interiors of these dugout homes feel larger inside because they are divided into ample separate spaces for sleeping, working, cooking, and storage similar to the style of a rounded Mongolian ger (yurt). A significant difference from the nomad structure is the sitting tiers descending like a miniature stadium into the earth, which along with ceiling rafters and a walled ground level comprise altogether at least four small-scale floors. Larger meeting halls and other specialized buildings are also found with these sociable huts in a defensive enclosure, guarded by watch towers constructed of tall tree-sized poles. “Ceremonial” centers with standing stones are sometimes found outside the villages similar to countryside shrines today.

Extrapolating today’s Japanese society from Jomon stretches credibility but there is an atavistic ring to the high degree of organization that was involved. The climate was significantly colder then, the terrain even more uneven and rocky than today (subsequent agriculture and other forces have smoothed it out somewhat), but Jomon people seem to have done exceptionally well at survival despite those harsh conditions. Is this the actual taproot for the outstanding Japanese trait of cooperativeness even before the orderly necessities of rice farming that came thousands of years later?

Jomon could also be a great-plus grandparent for the respectful cultural identification with nature that was so prevalent here right up to the abrupt era of Emperor Meiji that brought modernization only a century and a half ago. Chinese and Indian influences for at least two thousand years before are often cited for obvious contributions to Japanese nature philosophy, but they are comparatively late to credit for the core sensibility about natural forms and qualities. It is a uniquely native taste that guides fundamental elements such as Japanese food, use of stone and wood materials in natural forms, and unique celebrations of the seasons. Older residual features persisted even when cultural achievements were deliberately evolved from Chinese aesthetics such as the beautifully landscaped Edo Period (17th-19th Century) Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens in Tokyo’s relatively sedate Bunkyo District. A walk through the garden shows arrangements of indigenous volcanic stones, careful placement of distinctive native trees, and plain grain-showing wood and stone structures. Some wild native elements are also part of the experience such as white egrets navigating through dark trees to perform balletic open-wing landings on rocks beside a lake. It even retains a precious small length of the original Kanda River which has elsewhere been replaced by oversize gutter-like cement sluices that blight almost all of Japan’s urban watercourses. More than just a meditative wonder from the past, this revelation-filled park is a reservoir for holding and eventually liberating some of the ecological forces that eventually can transform Tokyo toward a post-industrial future.

A section of the concrete-shrouded Kanda River is just across the street from where we are staying at Kimiharu To’s apartment and its condition is easy to gauge on daily morning walks. Easy to overlook in the shadow of an elevated highway, it is a perfectly straight, barely moving, stagnantly dark green stripe about 25 meters (75 feet) wide that sulkily fills one-quarter of the trough. Until recently I had only once seen a solitary bird flying above the surface and a single albino carp swimming along the edge. Then Japan’s twenty-second typhoon this weather-crazed year struck Tokyo head-on and altered everything.

First there was a surprisingly cold, hard-blowing all-night rain, then a relatively calm morning of off and on drizzles, and even a puzzling false period of calm. Next came the true drenching, near-hurricane force typhoon with body-slamming gusts and occasional strangely warm tongues of tropical air that lasted through the afternoon and night. Kim fidgeted while inside during the height of the blow and finally slipped a rain jacket over T-shirt, shorts and zoris to see what he could find outside. It was a spectacular discovery that he came back to insist we share. Kanda River was in full flood, completely filling its suddenly inadequate cement jail and surging over pedestrian bridges into the street. Kim was in rescue mode having informed the building manager to call for water barriers that emergency crews arrived to put in place with amazing speed. Of all the typhoon phenomenon the river’s total reversal of character was the most profound. It was now brown and running with a current of twenty to thirty miles an hour; rising, falling and rising again several feet in a few minutes. The surface flickered under bright lights carrying along pieces of wood, plastic containers, and other debris so quickly there was barely time to identify them.

Normally preoccupied with doing business, Tokyo was pushed to the outer limit of its ability to cope like a mountain climber in a sudden blizzard. The city’s famous perfectly scheduled trains even stopped running. The next morning there were broken umbrellas in crippled postures on every block and street corner, testifying to the universal effect of the typhoon on everyone in the city. Another Jomon village encounter.

The Kanda River slowed to a walk and dropped to its previous low level but new effects stemming from the storm came into play. The odor was no longer stagnant but richly organic like a mudflat. Tree branches broken off by the storm floated along the surface. An egret flew low under a walking bridge and landed to wade near the edge while some smaller brown birds playfully climbed up iron ladder rungs set in the cement above the water. It might only last for another day or two, but the Kanda had once again become alive.

Restoring Ecology From the Inside Out

Dispatch #4, October 18, 2004
Northwest Pacific Main Islands
By Peter Berg

There is still a medium level of desire for ecological accountability in Japan today on individual, community and some business levels, as well as in planning by local and national agencies. It’s not a rage and could even be waning, but it is greater than in the United States where post-9/11 consciousness continues to be dominated by terrorism, war and economic concerns. Neither major presidential candidate campaigned significantly on environmental issues, for example.

Environmentally beneficial ideas that are unpublicized or actively blocked in other parts of the world have often been refreshingly welcomed. Japan is the birthplace of the seven years old Kyoto Protocols on climate change that stands as the most significant monument so far for a positive environmental direction in this century (even if its implementation is still problematic both here and with other nations). Energy efficiency has always been a concern in this relatively fuel-poor country and clever solutions retain a high priority.  They have even become a staple export in several areas, witnessed most recently by the quick popularity in the US of Japanese-made gasoline-electric hybrid cars.

Both in social customs and individual behavior there are traditional ethics that carry over into environmental areas. Waste is highly discouraged and re-use is considered prudent. Leaving clutter indoors and throwing things away outdoors was once unheard of and even in messier disposability-ridden modern times is significantly less here than in most developed countries. Consumer consciousness lags noticeably behind in areas such as redundant paper packaging to decorate and guard purchases and gifts that is unfortunately considered to be an art form, and thorough-going recycling is thwarted by burning trash officially categorized as “combustible”.  But  “green labeling” is a large and steadily growing phenomenon that is actively encouraged by industries eager to sell products here as well as in Europe with its comparatively tougher EU standards. (Ads for ISO 14001 training to become employed helping companies to meet export standards can be found in taxis.) Surprisingly, some companies have had long-held policies to introduce notable environmentally sound innovations on their own that later become accepted industry-wide. One that is familiar to anyone who has worked in an office is reusable ink bags in copy machines.

On the side of wild nature, an urge to control rivers with concrete dams and paved streambeds is finally coming into question on local and national levels with suggestions to tear some down. The post World War Two mania for over-planting of cedar trees is now held to be a mistake if only because they are a major source of rampant allergies in the countryside and urban areas. Restoration ecology for everything from small aquatic habitats to whole watersheds is receiving some attention. Limits on fish catches are being considered for a range of species.

Considered “radical” concepts in the United States and Europe, ideas about natural resources and city management and planning according to bioregional considerations are becoming popular on local, prefectural and national government levels here. Only environmental and student groups were interested in them during the middle nineties when I first toured Japan, but half of the dozen presentations in September and October 2004 were sponsored at least in part by mayors, city councils or agencies scattered across the country.

Kimiharu To of Japan Environmental Education Forum (JEEF), a fairly large and influential representative of various environmental interests, feels that official recognition can only be partially effective in transforming social and cultural consciousness. There has to be a vast change in public attitudes to create a demand for more thorough-going eco-centered policies that are needed, so he sought out non-government community groups and popular audiences. Kim convinced JEEF to throw its sponsorship behind a weekend afternoon public discussion in downtown Tokyo featuring Taoist nature poet Nanao Sakaki and myself with social/cultural author Tsugi (Keibo Oiwa) as moderator. The title roughly translated as “New/Old Never Run Dry” and admission was free in return for registering to receive JEEF’s future notices. A hard-core environmental activist who helped publicize the event told her friends, “This will be a chance to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Nanao is a non-pareil literary phenomenon. A sailor in World War Two he lived through the devastation and reconstruction that lasted to the Sixties by following a personal path of natural and spiritual exploration. Myths followed his hippy-clad footsteps. Did he actually climb all of the highest mountains, and live off the land while hiking through valleys and along coastlines everywhere in Japan? Was he an activist planting trees in remote rural corners of the country? Did he establish a commune on one barely populated volcanic island and spread veneration for thousand year-old trees on another, originate a struggle to preserve coral reefs, and lead protest tours up dam-stifled dry riverbeds? Was he broke most of time, reading poems for nothing in coffee houses and bars, and making so many friends he can no longer remember most of their names? Almost all of it is true. And part of the price for living such an unaverage life is the nationally disgraceful irony that his principal following exists outside his own country. Even though he is a de facto “living treasure” for creating contemporary spiritual-philosophical verse in the great tradition of previous poet-seers, Nanao is barely known in Japan. He has spent much of the last thirty years living, visiting and inspiring audiences in other countries where his work has been translated into seventeen languages. He arrived for the discussion jet-lagged from readings in Prague, unapologetically sake-stoked to overcome sleeplessness.

Sakaki led off with a short reading that included the visionary poem “Let’s Plant Stars”. Tsugi, whose book “Slow is Beautiful” is extremely popular, served as an insightful moderator and commentator asking the two of us questions for the next two hours.  As the only non-Japanese speaker thus requiring interpretation for questions and answers that made every statement three times as long, I needed to talk simply and directly. “We are wild at heart. An animal species that is related to all of the other species. This has always been true, is true now, and will continue to be true.  Our brains are capable of entertaining different realities and illusions. One of these can sometimes be the mistaken belief that we are detached from nature. It’s easy to think this is true sitting in this auditorium. But all of us and everything in downtown Tokyo came from nature.  We are nature and have a long species heritage of harmonious interdependence with other life.” These may seem obvious truths but in the surrounding atmosphere of overcrowded subways, sidewalks, pedestrian signals, sheer stone and metal walls, escalators, sterile hallways, and countless other solely human artifacts they needed to be firmly reiterated. Tsugi mentioned a two hundred years old ginko tree on the same block as the auditorium that we had visited just before the event. It had been preserved with its own shrine but although over a hundred feet tall it was pathetically squeezed and starved for light between two new skyscrapers. He told how I had imagined peeling back what this tree had seen. New office buildings rising and blocking the sun, American bombers overhead, Japanese soldiers marching off to fight in Manchuria, the advent of Emperor Meiji … even as far back as before Tokyo when the city name was still Edo. This sadly treated tree was not only the sole significant presence of another species remaining in the area but also the single living witness to all of that history..

The three of us became a kind of expository team alternating experiences and visions with problematic realities and examples of creative solutions. Nanao described planting trees alone in the Kyushu countryside and being joined by farmers in a cooperative way without using environmentalist rhetoric. Tsugi pointed out the dual message of a potted native tree he had placed in front of his garage: honor bioregional elements, and get rid of cars. I recalled the disappointed reaction of a student who asked how to begin living sustainably at home when I answered, “Use the water when you’re finished with a hot bath to flush the toilet”. The significance lies with the nightly practice of most Japanese when they have the opportunity to take a hot soaking bath in a specially designed tub after showering. The student must have been looking for something more seemingly dramatic without realizing the enormous volume of water at five gallons or more per person for each bath. Or the general statement that this practice of re-use represents in consumer society. “Your whole life-style can begin to turn on one activity like that,” I insisted.

Tsugi wondered why Nanao continues to attract young people and he replied, “I don’t like people my age. They only talk about bad health and insurance plans. I don’t think of myself as old. I’m still alive!” People in their twenties volunteer for Planet Drum’s projects in Ecuador because we offer an opportunity to fulfill their ideals, I said. “We haven’t made life decisions that force us to comply with the demands of an ecologically destructive society. Our volunteers don’t want to make decisions like that either, and see us as people who haven’t compromised.”

Nanao stated that he hadn’t gone beyond grade school and believed that this is what kept him interested and involved in new information. Tsugi is a college professor but has had Sakaki as a guest lecturer for classes regardless of his lack of credentials. While listening to them a whole cluster of thoughts from different incidents during this visit lined up and they began to come together when I was asked to speak. There are nearly a quarter million high school students in Japan who don’t show up for classes. This is a startling new development in such an academically competitive society. Reasons range from brutal bullying among pupils to difficulty of courses that require whole evenings of homework. Teenagers also have a clear view of some new realities that aren’t adequately accounted for in classes. Computers and robots are displacing people from traditional work and conventional jobs that require schooling are disappearing extremely fast. Globalization is seriously threatening the roots of cultural identity. Even Earth is different because of environmental changes. Society isn’t controlling the outcomes from these sweeping forces and doesn’t know where they will lead.

A positive twist on this theme came when I visited Hitoshi Yoshida’s recently acquired old farmhouse in Nagano. He and his wife Seiko are reviving the place as a base for carrying out wide-ranging activities to raise watershed restoration consciousness locally and eventually throughout the Shinano River Basin, the largest in Japan. He had arranged a conference titled “Touch the Forest and Feel the River” at an agricultural university where I spoke. There were students (some from China and Bangladesh told me they were taking bioregional ideas they had just heard back home with them), faculty, local residents, and political figures from throughout the prefecture. On the farm Hitoshi is aiming toward self-sufficiency and housing a few student-helpers. A craft-wise handyman was employed to assist restoring the buildings and fields. He has since been joined by Yuuto, a high school dropout from the nearby town. The quiet boy visited once and decided to stay to learn traditional work. He watches everything the older man does and hands him tools when needed. At the conference he made tape recordings and photographs under Hitoshi’s direction. “His family didn’t want him to leave school and come here at first but now they seem to have gotten used to the fact that this is what he actually wants to do,” Hitoshi told me. In terms of finding his own path by learning to work toward ecological sustainability, Yuuto is a success story. “There’s too much meaningless education and not enough ecology,” Nanao declared.

Tsugi asked for more examples of sustainability and Sakaki handily read a poem with ten or so things anyone could do. I took a chance on how far audience participation can go at an “intellectual” event in Tokyo and asked everyone to stand. All two hundred or more immediately got to their feet. “Flap your wings like a bird.” I demonstrated and waited an anxious moment for a translation. Then they all flapped on cue and some whistling broke out. “Now growl like a bear.” They growled. “Growl louder!”  Fierce bear threats filled the modern style auditorium. “Now howl like a wolf.” There was a pause when I wasn’t sure they would follow so I howled another time before raucous howling broke out and continued through several peals. “Now sit down and resume being human beings.” There is something universal in this exercise after all, and I thought maybe it could go further next time. If there was enough time they could have been led in a circle around the seats writhing like a snake they way some of us had done with indigenous mountain people during a theater presentation in Cotacachi, Ecuador.

When it was over we three agreed to be being surprised by the remarkably close overlap of themes. (Once I argued that the need for urban sustainability was urgently important because the lethal pollution of Minamata was an imminent condition in all cities and concluded, “Tokyo is Minamata.” Nanao spontaneously wailed a sharp grief-stricken “NOoooO!” that startlingly established the point.) If the purpose was to pronounce a long-term positive vision for ecological change and re-inspire the hard-fighting activists and supporters who made up a large part of the audience, there was no question that they had stayed with us. Afterwards someone said that nothing like this discussion had happened here before.

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