Sustainability as Community Practice, Not Individual Effort

Even in 1877, most rural areas of Japan committed no more than 12 percent of their agricultural output to cash crops. That means 88 percent of what they were growing in their fields was for subsistence—that is, for feeding their large families composed of both blood relations and married relations as well as multigenerational servants and tenants. This information, from Thomas C. Smith’s The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan, is interesting not merely because it gives us a portrait of what “sustainability” looked like in communities before industrialization took hold but because it points to an oft-overlooked quality of sustainable agriculture: there is no such thing as food security unless the whole community is committed to it.

Over and over again, Smith’s research points to the mutual support offered by large family groups in order to survive. True, smaller branch families had to offer more labor to the head family in exchange for borrowing tools and resources (including water and fertilizer, both expensive commodities). But the head families also dedicated labor to the land of the branch families! This was especially true during planting season, Smith explains, when each field had to be planted in a window of a few hours, a day at most, so that the next field could be planted and the next and the next in quick succession, while the rice seedlings were in peak condition.

Today one can find all sorts of websites about sustainable farming, urban gardening, “bug-out” planning (in the event of a major crisis), and so on. After three years of working with these various resources and farming on my own quarter-acre lot for a family of four, I can tell you I am disturbed by one common and regular oversight that Smith’s research makes painfully clear: communities achieve sustainability, not individuals (or even, for that matter, nuclear families).

This is common sense. If I have a gorgeous garden and a field planted with crops and a pig, goat, and chickens when a true “bug-out” situation occurs, how long will I maintain those resources without violence? But what if I lived in a large complex of buildings and land with an extended family (loosely defined) upwards of 50 people? Even better, what if I live in a cluster of four or five such families, all of us managing land that has belonged to our collective families for a couple hundred years? How do the odds of survival look for each of these groups?

The struggle, then, is not so much in merely learning the physical skills of growing crops and raising animals and doing so consistently from season to season but also in learning how to coordinate these things across one’s family or chosen community. Among other things, ancient Japanese families dealt with these delicate social dynamics by employing the following strategies:

  • Selecting a clear leader who speaks for the family as a whole (but does not simply dictate decisions!)—often a leadership role that is inherited from parent to child
  • Consensus building in private before ever inviting public discussion, especially in front of outsiders
  • Correcting deviant and dangerous behaviors with successively harsher punishments: private warnings, public embarrassment e.g. by banging pots and pans outside the offending person or family’s house, all the way up to the harshest action of expelling a person or branch family from the community
  • Worshiping and carrying out shared religious rituals, in particular for a god associated with the family over many generations (that is, a god who was unique to the family and community, not a universal entity)
  • Trust graduated over generations of work on the land, so a latecomer family to a village might not be allowed to own land or place a statue of the family god in their home until the first arrivals were grandparents or even had already passed away

These practices reveal that sustainable lifestyles did not follow the trajectory of an individual human life or a single nuclear family’s life but rather it was a multi-generational and highly collaborative effort that required social skills, self-restraint, and the ability to take a long view of the impact of one’s actions on the land and the community.

Rural Families in Meiji Japan

When I was researching Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) for my novel-in-progress, Hai, most of the books I read concentrated on urban areas ca. 1900, especially Tokyo and Yokohama. Urban centers were the locus of all forward momentum during this period, while rural villages struggled to find a place in Japan’s project of becoming a modern nation-state. Some villages succeeded in asserting their dominance in key industries, like textiles, to the point of threatening the livelihoods of urban guilds, but crops still had to be planted and harvested as they had for hundreds of years, and many families owned land going back at least that far.

For my new novel, I’ve decided to go back to the beginning of the Meiji era, the early 1870s, and concentrate on persecution of Buddhist temples. I’ve also decided to abandon the cities and set this novel in a rural, mountainous region (probably in western or northwestern Honshu, the main island). So I picked up Thomas C. Smith’s The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan as a starting point for understanding village life. Even though the book was written in 1959, it is full of quotes from original sources dating back to the 1600s, including journal entries from peasant farmers across Japan! Here are some lessons I’ve learned:

Japanese families were composed of three circles of relations. At the center stood a nuclear family of 4 or 5 people with a male head of household. The nuclear family owned the most land and held the most political power in the village, which often was composed of no more than a few such families. Next came a middle circle of blood relations such as younger brothers and sons, as well as genin or fudai, hereditary servants who might have been with the family for many years. Finally there was an outer circle of tenants called nago. Many individuals in the two outer circles could be interrelated with the nuclear family by marriage or adoption. In total, these three circles might add up to 8-12 people, with some groups as large as 20+ people.

Land was owned by the nuclear family but worked by everyone. There’s a sweet spot in rice farming where a small group of people working a piece of land achieve maximum efficiency and productivity. If too many people spread out their labor on the same land, sometimes the land doesn’t produce as well. So let’s say a family has grown from 4-5 members to 7-8 members. The head of household might take 4 people and say, “Here, I am going to give you this tiny holding to work for yourselves. I’ll lend you my farm equipment and occasional help. See what you can do with it.” That new nuclear family, which is still subordinate to the main branch of the family, works as hard as it can to scrape out subsistence-level crops on the smaller piece of property, probably inducing the land to produce more than it ever did when it was just part of the larger property. Even crazier, the main branch of the family still expects the newly semi-independent family to contribute labor to the rest of the property in exchange for getting to borrow equipment.

The gift of a small holding might or might not include a house. Sometimes families were awarded property to work for themselves, but they still had to live in the main house. If they did get to move out into their own space, it was probably into a one-room hut around 40 x 20 feet in size that could accommodate 7-8 people.

Blood relations or not, everybody behaved like part of the family. One reason this agricultural system worked in Japan was because it was treated like one large extended family. Everyone in the three circles of family could expect the head of the main family branch to arrange weddings, births, funerals, and so on, for their well being and the benefit of the family. All family members contributed to honoring the family ancestral god(s), and they all expected to receive the benevolence and protection of the family gods. Also, the head of household handled administrative affairs such as paying taxes on all the crops, not just for the main holding but for all the smaller tenanted holdings, too. The head of household was also responsible for achieving consensus on political matters in the village in a way that served the family (and he was very likely the only person with the power to do so, since “new” families were not allowed the opportunity to be elected to any official positions!).

Poor families could sell family members, but rich families couldn’t. Rather than resorting to infanticide, poor families might sell their children or other family members such as younger sons of the head of household to wealthier families as genin. The wealthier families often wanted the help because agriculture is labor intensive. However, if a well-to-do family ended up with too many children or uncles, they usually had to shave off a tiny property from their main holding and “gift” it to the excess family members. As the Meiji era brought massive shifts in culture, such as by the introduction of new industries, it became harder and harder for rural families to sustain their labor needs. Lower-ranking villagers were tempted away to urban areas for better wages and opportunities. So gradually families had to grant larger and larger holdings to the people they wanted to stay and work the land, or they had to combine new industries with traditional crops, such as raising silkworms or ginning cotton.

Units of measure that might be of interest:

koku = enough rice to feed 1 person for 1 year (barely)
masu = enough rice to feed 1 person for 1 day

to = 1/10 koku
sho = 1/10 to

1 chō = approximately 1 hectare, or ~10,000 meters square
tan = 1/10 chō

In the Tokugawa era only:
10,000 koku = minimum yield of a fiefdom to qualify its lord for the title of daimyo
100-9500 koku = title of hatamoto
< 100 koku = title of go-kenin

A property might be described as having a “20-koku yield.” Three koku was considered a good yield off 1 tan, so I imagine most small holdings had to be at least 1.5 tan to handle subsistence-level farming for the average nuclear family. Non-rice crops would still use these units of measure, by the way, but they might be valued at less than rice for tax purposes. So, for example, the crop might only be worth one quarter or one half the same field grown in rice. Woods, wasteland, and pasture were equal to the value of rice because those resources were so valuable for agriculture.

Spring in the Rice Fields. Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1795 (link).