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Preserving Japan’s Traditional Landscapes  

12-09-2015 17:35

Kumakura, a quintessential Japanese mountain village in Gunma Prefecture northwest of Tokyo, was settled about 150 years ago. The dry, well-drained slopes of the surrounding mountains proved to be perfect for growing mulberry, and residents terraced the steep hillsides, building up solid stone walls to form dandan batake (literally, stair fields) in which to grow the mulberry plants to feed silkworms. They built their houses on similar steep slopes, fitting the one-room-deep structures onto narrow shelves of land, with living space on the main floor and rooms for raising silkworms above. The cocoons the silkworms produced were taken to a factory in nearby Tomioka where they were processed and spun into thread.

When the silk industry collapsed after World War II, the residents of Kumakura converted their dandan batake for raising the popular Japanese vegetable konnyaku, or Devil’s Tongue, a crop the area is known for today. But residents of Kumakura sadly admit that their village probably will not survive the current generation. Young people have fled the hard work and isolated living for easier, better paying jobs in the city. Many of the remaining residents are too old to make the daily trek up the steep slopes, hauling tools and plants, and cultivating by hand. Twenty years ago, when our guide Toshinobu Ishida had conducted an architectural survey of this town, all the houses were occupied. Today, only 10 of the 50 are lived in and the youngest resident of the village is 38.

Kumakura is one of many remote, historic farming villages that I visited as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow in Japan. As a specialist in American rural buildings and landscapes, I came to Japan to study its hidden places -- the places visitors rarely see, where traditions are a way of life, not a tourist attraction. I came to learn how these villages are faring as Japan becomes increasingly urbanized and its farms increasingly marginalized, and to offer help and support for their survival.

Through my Fulbright Fellowship I was able to conduct research in Japan from September 2001 to May 2002, working under the sponsorship of the Japan National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage Conservation (the Japanese counterpart to our National Trust for Historic Preservation), and with assistance from the Heritage Conservation Graduate Program at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Thanks in large part to my hosts at the Japan National Trust, Director- General Michitaro Yamaoka and Programs Manager Junichi Yoneyama, I was able to visit about 30 villages in 25 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, interviewing farmers, community activists, and local officials and documenting a wide range of working landscapes.

Japan’s Traditional Landscapes

Everywhere in Japan you see striking evidence of human use of the land, from neighborhood community gardens in Tokyo to the broad rice fields of northern Honshu to perfectly shaped rows of tea bushes in southern Kyushu. In the fall, all available vertical surfaces are draped with drying fruits and vegetables. On country roads and city bike trails farmers sell their produce from small stands. Each type of agriculture, whether rice, sericulture (silk production), tea, vegetables, mushrooms, dairy or beef cattle, creates its own cultural landscape. The variety is so great that it is difficult to discern a single defining feature, such as the barn in America, that symbolizes rural Japan. But two features that figure prominently in the2 Japanese landscape and in the minds of the Japanese people are terraced rice fields and thatched-roof farm houses.

The limitations of topography in this mountainous island country have forced farmers to carve fields out of forests and steep slopes, as well as cultivating the broad, flat plains. The resulting tanada or terraced rice fields are a distinctive and much admired feature of the Japanese landscape. My first glimpse of tanada came in mid-September in Niigata Prefecture, in the midst of the rice harvest season. From the top of a hill, hundreds of bright green layered fields, set off with walls of carefully fitted stone and canals of sparkling water, spilled down into the valley. Many of the fields were so small, they could only be worked by hand. As farmers cut the rice, they hung the sheaves to dry on bamboo poles lashed to rows of ancient cypress trees that had been planted especially for this purpose.

The classic Japanese farm village is a cluster of 20 or so houses at the edge of a hill or forest. But each region of Japan has its own distinctive traditional house style, based on climate, available materials, local building traditions, and farming practices. The isolation of Japan’s farmers and carpenters up until the late 19th century meant that each region developed its own style and traditions and that these traditions continued for generations without much outside influence. Thus a house built in 1900 is very similar in design to a neighboring house 300 years old, but two contemporary houses 300 miles apart might be very different.

The thatch-roofed farmhouse, or kayabuki minka, is the best known of the traditional farmhouses of Japan. Some well-known examples of kayabuki minka include the magariya of the Tohoku region of northern Japan, where horses were stabled under the same roof as the family; the gassho -style houses of Gifu and Toyama Prefectures, with tall, gable roofs designed to accommodate silkworm production as well as to shed snow; and theheiretsu-gata, long, one-roomdeep houses built on terraces cut into hillsides, such as those in Kumakura and other mountain villages.

Threats to Traditional Rural Life

Although Japan is vastly different from the U.S. in geography, lifestyle, and culture, both countries grapple with many of the same problems. Declining farm incomes have sent many rural residents fleeing to cities, leaving remote villages with empty houses and abandoned fields. Many farmers have taken part-time jobs in nearby cities and commute to their fields on weekends. In villages throughout Japan, the traditional community structure and mutual help systems that maintained village facilities for generations have fallen apart as young people leave for the city and those who remain become too weak to participate.

As in the U.S., total acreage under production is steadily declining, as cities spread into the countryside, paving over farmland with housing developments and big-box stores. Japan’s much vaunted train system that transports millions of people into, out of, and around Tokyo each day is being abandoned in rural areas, replaced by private automobiles. Rural Japan is becoming a car society, with all the trappings that go with it: highways lined with car-oriented businesses, elevated expressways that slice through agricultural vistas, and small, independent businesses forced to compete with new shopping centers down the road.

The Japan National Trust

The Japan National Trust (JNT) is one of several organizations concerned with preservation of traditional landscapes in Japan. The JNT’s small but dedicated staff of eight fan out across the country helping to preserve both individual landmarks and the broader Japanese cityscape, townscape, and landscape.

Some of the Trust’s successes include the purchase and preservation of two gassho-style thatched-roof houses in the World Heritage –designated village of Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go; restoration of a steam locomotive which, thanks to a team of 150 volunteers, makes weekend trips through the tea-growing landscape of Shizuoka Prefecture; the restoration (now in progress) of the Yasuda House, the 1907 Tokyo home of one of Japan’s most prominent families and a rare surviving example of pre-war architecture blending traditional Japanese and Western elements; and the development and management of five Heritage Centers each dedicated to telling the story of a different aspect of Japanese heritage.

On a broader scale, the Trust organizes networks of concerned citizens to address issues such as preservation of thatch-roofed houses and industrial heritage, convenes conferences and symposia on current issues, and sponsors research projects, many of which have led to official designation of historic properties at the national, pre-fectural, or local level.

The Trust is engaging a variety of partners in its efforts to change the perception of rural Japan from inaka (a disdainful, derogatory term for countryside) to satoyama (a term that celebrates rice paddies and other areas where people live in harmony with the natural surroundings). A 1998 exchange with the Glynwood Center of New York provided assistance for the residents of the village of Ogimachi in dealing with the overwhelming popularity of their community following its designation as a World Heritage Site.

Within Japan, the Trust works closely with national agencies such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Education to increase awareness of and respect for Japan’s varied cultural landscapes and to encourage their preservation.

Japan’s Thatch-Roofed Houses

One of the Japan National Trust’s major initiatives is preserving a beloved symbol of rural Japan, the kayabuki minka or thatched-roof farmhouse. Concentrations of these still exist in certain villages that have been designated “Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings,” roughly equivalent to our National Register historic districts. But in small, undesignated villages throughout Japan, these traditional- style houses are rapidly disappearing. In the U.S., living in an older house has a certain cachet, but for many of Japan’s rural residents, it is an embarrassment. “Most owners of these houses, especially younger people, feel an inferiority complex,” said Yutaka Yoshioka, former Agricultural Attaché for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., who is now president of the Association for the Preservation of Traditional Thatching Methods in Iwate, an organization active in northern Japan. “They feel they should be patient while their grandparents are living, but they want to change their lifestyle after their grandparents die.”

Traditional Japanese houses are radically different from the Western-style houses and apartments that are being built in Japan today. Traditional houses consist of large, multipurpose rooms, which might be used as living rooms during the day and for sleeping at night. Walls and doors are made of wood and paper, providing much less privacy than a modern house. There is no central heating, and houses are notoriously drafty. As one architect told me, “These houses are perfectly designed for three seasons of the year in Japan, but in winter you suffer.” While older American houses can be easily updated for modern living, traditional Japanese houses require much more drastic changes -- or a decision to return to a more traditional way of living.

Even those who would like to keep these houses face intimidating hurdles. The common kaya ground, where mountain reed for thatching roofs was grown and harvested, is a thing of the past, as is the mutual help system, or yui, which insured that all members of a community would help each other with their roofing projects. Like the villagers themselves, professional thatchers are aging, and few young apprentices are joining the trade. What was once a low-cost roofing material has now become a luxury available only to the very rich, or to those who are able to receive a government grant.

Today, travelers to rural Japan are apt to see an oversized replica of a kayabuki minka serving as a multi-purpose restaurant and souvenir shop on the highway, while the real thing sits abandoned in a nearby village. “In Japan, national monuments are considered important but local farmhouses owned by private owners are not. There is no special energy on the local level to preserve farmhouses,” says Mr. Yoshioka.

Help for Kayabuki Minka

Working with the Ministry of Agriculture and other partners, the Japan National Trust has developed a nationwide kayabuki minka network, and launched an ambitious survey of remaining thatch-roofed houses throughout Japan. The network will eventually set up local chapters made up of homeowners, carpenters, roof thatchers, and citizen volunteers, creating a modern-day version of the traditional village mutual help system, and giving owners of kayabuki minka the support and encouragement to turn their embarrassment into pride and their outdated houses into comfortable living places.

Other groups are addressing this problem in different ways. The Association for the Preservation of Traditional Thatching Methods in Iwate has purchased several kaya fields and is experimenting with new, less labor-intensive ways to grow kaya for thatch -- hoping to make thatching more affordable for homeowners. The village of Kamitaira in Toyama Prefecture has built a training center to teach traditional roof-thatching skills to younger generations of Japanese. The center includes a frame for a traditional gassho -style roof where apprentice thatchers can practice their technique all year round. The Japan National Trust and other groups regularly hold volunteer thatching bees, where as many as 300 people participate in re-thatching a roof over the course of a few days.

Rice Shapes the Rural Landscape of Japan

Preservation of the traditional landscape of terraced rice fields is another goal of the Japan National Trust. “There used to be a saying, ‘The farmer is a good gardener for Japan,’ ” says Junichi Yoneyama, who directs a wide range of programs for JNT. “But over the past 20 years we have let much of our farming lands go and destroyed that garden.”

Many of the rice terraces are too small to be farmed by machine. Many are inaccessible by vehicle, so the farmer must not only plant, weed, and harvest by hand, but must haul the rice seedlings in, and the harvested sheaves out, on foot. During a time when farmers are being paid not to grow rice, it is natural that these fields would be the first to be abandoned. Once abandoned, they soon revert to nature. It takes annual maintenance to keep the walls straight and strong, the fields clear of brush, and the canals running clear.

In spite of these obstacles, it’s obvious to even the casual observer that traditional rice farming is important to the Japanese people. Every year the Emperor ceremoniously plants and harvests rice on a small plot on the Imperial Palace grounds, and this ritual is repeated by school children and families in hundreds of villages throughout the country. In spite of widespread mechanization of agriculture, natural drying of rice according to local customs has not been abandoned. As in many other developed nations, traditional agriculture is an important part of Japanese culture, but one that no longer makes purely economic sense.

Field Ownership Systems and Other Solutions

The viewing of tanada (terraced rice fields) was a popular pastime in Japan at least as early as the 18th century. On a trip to Nagano Prefecture, I visited a famous tanada viewing spot, Chorokuji Temple in Koshoku City, which was immortalized by Ando Hiroshige in several woodblock prints as a perfect place to view the reflection of the moon in the water-filled paddies. This area has recently been designated by the national government as a meisho, or Place of Scenic Beauty, an honor formerly reserved only for gardens or places of natural beauty, but not working landscapes.

Designation is an important first step, but as Mr. Yoneyama says, “We have to do more than just save buildings and land. We need living people working the land if rural lifestyles and farming traditions are going to survive.”

One of the JNT’s strongest allies in the effort to preserve traditional landscapes is the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). Programs such as the “Beautiful Villages of Japan” and “100 Beautiful Rice Terraces” are introducing urban residents to the special beauty of rural Japan. Field ownership systems, whereby urban residents lease a rice terrace and plant, tend, and harvest rice with the help of a local citizens’ group, are helping to bring back some of Japan’s abandoned tanada while giving urban residents a chance to experience rural life.

MAFF also sponsors programs to help diversify the agricultural economy and attract new farmers to rural areas. The agency’s motto, “Aiming for a stable food supply and a beautiful country,” reflects the goal of not only increasing agricultural production but doing so in a way that protects the natural beauty of rural areas. Developing new and more profitable specialty crops to match the Japanese people’s changing tastes in food, supporting local processing of agricultural products and other local industries, encouraging local food networks and direct marketing of farm products, and developing “green tourism” programs to bring visitors to rural areas to enjoy the beautiful scenery and delicious, fresh food and to learn about traditional methods of farming, are some of the ways that MAFF is building on agricultural traditions to revive rural areas. Preservation of thatch-roofed houses and terraced rice fields are an important part of this objective.

Learning About Ourselves

My Japanese friends were amazed at the places I chose to visit. Often I would be asked if I had seen this or that famous temple, and would have to contritely admit that I had bypassed the temple for the nearby farming village. But this seemingly strange interest of mine had some positive effects. A highlight of my research project was a trip I took with my Tokyo landlady, Kazue Nohmi, to her hometown of Miyazaki in southern Japan. “Traveling with you is very different,” she said after our trip. “We go to places I wouldn’t usually go to and it makes me think about how important Japanese traditional places are, and that we must do something to protect them.” This is one of the great values of international exchanges -- we all get a chance to learn about another culture, and to see our own culture in a new light.

For more information:

Japan National Trust:

Association for the Preservation of Traditional Thatching Methods in Iwate:

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries:

Publication Date: Spring 2003

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Author(s):Mary Humstone