Thousands of years of natural disasters in one of the most seismically volatile places on earth have embedded in the Japanese psyche a fear, reverence, and love for nature. This, along with Japan’s diverse climates, abundant rainfall and historic isolation have set the stage for literary, artistic, cultural, religious, food and farming/foraging practices that are unique worldwide.
Japanese literature is replete with references to nature, and reaches back over a thousand years to The Tale of Genji, written in the Heian Period by Murasaki Shikibu, a novelist, poet, and lady-in-waiting of the Imperial Court. Seasonal metaphors are used throughout. One particularly moving example evokes the pain of lost love: “The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
The Tale also references the Japanese gift for gardening in great and small places. The ancient interior courtyard garden continues today bringing nature literally into the home. Japanese contemporary architects such as Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, Shigeru Ban, Tadao Ando and Sou Fujimoto are well known for integrating nature into their practice.
Capturing the very essence of nature’s beauty is seen in forms such as miniature gardens (hakoniwa), miniature trees (bonsai), flower arrangement (ikebana), the tea ceremony (chanoyu), short poems called haiku, and of course the art of cookery.
The Japanese concept of coexistence with nature has led to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. Based on nature worship, it has evolved through animistic beliefs that every element of nature is divine. Mountains, imposing rock formations, ancient forests (or sacred trees) and “life force” (the essence of the sacred) were the original four main objects of worship in this ancient religion. Shinto Shrines are a sacred place for praying, housing gods (kami), and are used for a variety of celebrations such as weddings, children’s events, and festivals.
Many Japanese festivals (matsuri) are rooted in Shinto beliefs, with gods and spirits treated as guests of honor at the event. Rice planting festivals, held in June during the rainy season, involve prayers for a good harvest. Kimono-clad girls, their sleeves tied back with red sashes, plant the rice, while musicians perform nearby with drums, flutes, and bells. The dance traditionally associated with such festivals gradually evolved as a part of the Noh theater.
In autumn, harvest festivals are held, and the first fruits of the rice paddy field are offered to the gods. In many places floats carrying symbolic gods are paraded through the streets. At the Imperial Palace on November 23, a national holiday, the Emperor presents offerings of new grain and produce at a special alter.
In countryside towns and villages, traditional festivals and rituals remain an intrinsic part of farming communities. And it is from these rural landscapes that the term satoyama has emerged. It is now synonymous with an international food sustainability initiative, based on Japanese community farming practices in coexistence with nature.
Sato means home or native place. Yama means mountain or woodland, and can also imply a sacred zone where one’s spirit goes after death. Combining the two words denotes the term, “sacred home woodland.” It is commonly described as the border between secondary woodlands or mountain foothills and arable flat land near villages, known for its rich biological diversity. Satoyama landscapes are splendidly portrayed in the 1988 heartwarming anime film My Neighbor Totoro.
These have served greatly toward the biodiversity and sustainability of village communities. Examples include temperature regulation and pollution control from CO2-absorbing cypress, pine, cedar and bamboo; water control and soil nourishment via reservoirs; a source of lumber for tools, charcoal, fuel and oak logs for growing shiitake mushrooms; a source of food from wild edible plants (sansai) such as butterbur buds (fuki no tou), ostrich fern (kogomi), and bamboo shoots (take no ko). Satoyama are similar to the ‘commons’ in the U.K. and northern Europe where people have managed communal lands over centuries.
The first written reference to the term dates back to 1759. Forester Hyoemon Terauchi recorded the livelihoods of rural mountain woodland communities and used satoyama to describe the human managed landscapes surrounding those communities.
But great changes have taken place in Japan since the term satoyama was introduced in the early 1960s by forester-ecologist Tsunahide Shidei as a reaction to the chemical fertilizer revolution of the time. The country has seen a major shift from an agrarian society sustained by locally grown bioresources to an industrial urbanized society dependent on fossil fuels and imported food products. This, compounded with Japan’s rapidly aging and shrinking population, has affected not just the small family farmer, but the country’s food and fuel security.
In response, the Satoyama Initiative was launched. It began as a joint collaboration between Japan’s Ministry of the Environment and the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS). Established at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2009, it was officially recognized in 2010, and is now supported and implemented by an international partnership of over 100 governments, civil society organizations, and indigenous peoples. The Initiative’s vision is to “realize societies in harmony with nature” by properly maintaining biodiversity that enables a stable supply of natural food sources well into the future.
The Satoyama Initiative reflects Japan’s intrinsic relationship with nature reaching back thousands of years. Going forward, it is hoped that Japan’s future creators will continue to portray nature in ways that inspire people worldwide with unique beauty, and environmental wisdom.