The following is the established format for referencing this article:Ogura, S., and S. J. Forwell. 2023. Responsibility as humans: meaning of traditional small grains cultivation in Japan. Ecology and Society 28(1):27.
Small grains are a group of ancient grains that have been cultivated in different parts of the world for thousands of years, have high nutritional value, are resistant to drought, play a key role in agricultural resilience, and are adaptive to climate change. Of emerging concern globally, however, is that several varieties of small grains and related agricultural knowledge and practices are disappearing owing to the promotion and efficiency of industrial farming methods, agricultural intensification, and marked shifts in generational commitment to small grains cultivation and changing relationships with the land. This case study presents the findings of an in-depth ethnography of a farmer in Shiiba Village, Japan, who grows local varieties of small grains using traditional shifting cultivation methods. Explored in this study is the meaning of small grains cultivation and benefits and significance of this practice for a farmer and the implications for society and the environment. Four themes related to meaning emerged from this case study: (a) small grains cultivation is a source of life across generations; (b) harmony: restoring the forest and co-existing with wild animals; (c) collaboration and revitalization of the local community; (d) a way of life. As a result of the meaning of the practice and his commitment to ensure the survival of small grains cultivation, a potential pathway is introduced involving collective responsibility and the contribution to the health of humans and the ecosystems.
The current Anthropocene era has raised ever more urgent questions around how humans might survive on this planet in the long term. At the core, the overarching question is what our collective responsibilities are as human beings living on the Earth. On the basis of this broad question, this project offers an example of taking responsibility for the greater good of the community, by presenting the meaning of traditional small grains cultivation, and the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and practices of a dedicated farmer and his family based on their reciprocal relationships with the forests and wild animals.
Small grains are a group of ancient grains (Hinterthuer 2017) that have been cultivated in different parts of the world for thousands of years that have high nutritional value, are drought resistant, have a key role in agricultural resilience, and are adaptive to climate change. In many parts of the world, however, varieties of small grains and related agricultural knowledge and practices are quickly disappearing owing, in part, to the development and adoption of industrial farming methods, agricultural intensification, and the changing relationships between the people and the land and non-human beings. In Japan, small grains, such as barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica), are some of the oldest grains, with the seeds having been passed down from generation to generation for more than 2800 years (Nasu and Momohara 2016, Shoda et al. 2018). Since the seventh century, rice became a symbol of power and authority for those who rule (Knecht 2007), and by the early 1600s, small grains were considered as food of farmers (lower-classed), while rice was for the upper class, which may have led to discrimination against the small grains and those who eat them (Masuda 2001). However, the most significant shift occurred after the second world war when the majority of small grains cultivation was abandoned during rapid economic growth in the last half of 20th century (Sasaki 1972, Shiiba and Utsumi 2010).
While small grains cultivation was marginalized, the 20th century also brought modernization to the methods of small grains cultivation that included the use of machinery for sowing seeds, clearing the land, and for harvesting and processing grains, which necessitated cultivation to be done on flat fields or land that has been terraced. These methods largely replaced traditional cultivation, where farmers used hand-spreading of seeds, hand-harvesting of small grains, and slash and burn shifting cultivation to enrich the soil on mountainous terrain (in Japanese, yakihata). Many Japanese farmers who cultivate small grains use a blend of contemporary and traditional methods, where some farmers are more traditional, and others are more contemporary in their approach to farming.
Because the traditional methods fly in the face of contemporary agricultural norms, which privilege efficiency and modern technology, the question became why use traditional methods, and what meaning does this hold for the farmers. Using an occupational science lens, and ethnographic method, a case study approach was adopted.
An occupational science lens, which is a human experiential perspective to engaging in an occupation, defined as any meaningful activity, allows for the exploration of meanings of small grains cultivation from the lived experiences of the farmers (Yerxa 1990, Hocking 2000, 2009, Wilcock and Hocking 2015, Borges da Costa and Cox 2016). The occupational science lens accounts for the physical and social context, individual attributes such as sensory perception, cognitive and physical abilities, as well as the nuances of meaningful activities and diverse worldviews (Hannam 1997, Dickie et al. 2006, Simaan 2017).
An occupational science lens supports understanding and respecting TEK, associated traditional practices, and worldviews. Although Western science recognizes the value of TEK in reducing risks from human-induced climate change, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; IPCC 2022), it continues to undermine the traditional ontologies and epistemologies that underpin TEK and continues to privilege modern scientific and economic thought. There have been criticisms from Indigenous scholars toward the Western science-based understandings of TEK, which often overlook ontological and epistemological dimensions of the knowledge (for example, Whyte 2018). It is therefore important to incorporate the worldview that foregrounds TEK (Comberti et al. 2015, Bobowski and Fiege 2023), an exploration for which occupational science can contribute. This case study focuses on one farmer Mr. Masaru Shiiba, who is unique not only for the use of traditional methods that dominate his farming practices, but also his approach to biodiversity that is based in reciprocal relationships, located in the mountainous region of Shiiba Village.
Small grains farming through shifting cultivation in Shiiba Village
Shiiba Village, which was certified as one of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) sites of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2015, is located in the middle of the Kyushu-Mountains in Miyazaki prefecture on Kyushu Island, Japan. GIAHS sites are distinct from a conventional heritage site and are “a living, evolving system of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape or biophysical and wider social environment” (FAO 2022). In March 2022, there were 62 systems in 22 countries. Shiiba Village has a population of 2424 (Shiiba Village 2022) with a total area of 537.29 km², of which 96% is forested, ranging from 1000 to 1700 meters (Shiiba Village 2022). Shiiba Village consists of 11 areas, all scattered among the mountains. The annual rainfall is very considerable, reaching about 2800 mm, with heavy rains occurring in summer and autumn because of the moist southeasterly winds from typhoons. Winters are cold, with freezing temperatures in the mornings and evenings, and occasional snowfall. Shiiba Village is considered as one of Japan’s three greatest secluded regions. In this environment where flat land is quite rare, Mr. Masaru Shiiba and his family continue to cultivate local varieties of small grains: hie (barnyard millet) and awa (foxtail millet), through traditional shifting cultivation using slash and burn practices (Fig. 1). With this traditional practice, food production, forest and soil regeneration, and collaboration with other community members are all part of this type of farming.
In Shiiba, traditional shifting cultivation using slash and burn practices follows a cycle of approximately 20 years and starts with cutting down trees in the patch of the forest the year before they burn the field and lay them dormant. In early August, people burn the field (Fig. 2) followed by hand-sowing buckwheat, because buckwheat seeds germinate well with heat and grow quickly allowing for harvesting before the frost. The same day that burning occurs, they also seed daikon and turnip, vegetation that covers the ground with their leaves, and prevents weed growth the next spring when people seed hie and awa (Fig. 3), which are harvested in the autumn (Otani 2016). Burning the field also supports maintaining biodiversity (Comberti et al. 2015, Center for Ecological Education 2020), because different edible plants, such as aralia sprout (Aralia elata), taranome in Japanese (Fig. 4), will grow from the burned ground even if there were no such plants in the field prior to being burned (Otani 2016). A study done in Masaru’s parents’ field shows that the total number of buried seeds increased rapidly after three years of burning, and reached about four times the number of buried seeds in a thicket (equivalent to after 100 years of burning) after 5 years (Tanaka 2004). Traditionally, people cultivated azuki bean and soybean in the third and fourth year, which have high nitrogen-fixing capabilities (Sun et al. 2019). People cultivated different crops each year to avoid replantation failure, and then left them to rest for about 20 years, allowing the forest to regenerate
The farmers in the village have the culture of kachaari (or kateri), a local term in Omukai area in Shiiba Village that literally means lending and borrowing, such that until the 1980s, families supported each other for burning the fields, weeding, harvesting, and processing the grains, enabling the people to survive in the remote mountain villages. Through kachaari, people collaboratively took care of the land and waters. With the introduction of the modern systems, however, the spirit of kachaari was abandoned and replaced by electronic machines, eliminating the need for cooperation with other families. People in Shiiba Village experienced the rapid changes in society during Japan’s marked economic growth that occurred between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, which drastically changed farming systems and their livelihoods (Kamada 2017). With the introduction of modern roads, which were built for a hydropower dam, and the change of mindset to see small grains as old-fashioned and shifting cultivation as an environmentally destructive practice, many people stopped cultivating small grains through shifting cultivation and collaborating around farming practices. Rather, people planted Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and Japanese cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) in the shifting agricultural fields as cash crop, changing the mountain landscape from deciduous to coniferous, reducing biodiversity (Otani 2016). Since that time, these changes have influenced younger generations who are leaving Shiiba Village after graduating from junior high school, to seek jobs or attend higher education in the city.
The first author is a Japanese woman who was born and grew up in Tokyo. She was familiar with the names of Japanese small grains, but had not eaten them until she encountered small grains in the Lepcha Indigenous People’s territory of Dzongu in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim in 2011. There, people were cultivating their traditional millet, which was once their traditional staple food. In 2014, she documented 36 threatened traditional crops that were only present in most remote villages (Ogura 2015). In 2016, she was invited by the community-based non-governmental organization, the Muonde Trust (https://muonde.org/), to conduct a drawing workshop on small grains in Mazvihwa, Zimbabwe. There, she learned about the Indigenous small grains of the Shona People (Ogura 2017). In 2018, she explored small grains cultivations in Japan, and visited Shiiba Village for the first time where she first met Mr. Masaru Shiiba. In 2021, she conducted year-long fieldwork in three different communities in Japan, including Shiiba Village. The second author, who has been an occupational scientist for over 30 years, has published extensively and has contributed to the development of the field of occupational science. She contributed to the overall direction and objective of the paper as well as the analysis, drawing from an occupational perspective. Her occupation-focused research and teaching experiences in meaning, life transitions, and occupational repertoire of those engaged in natural life transitions as well as transitions experienced by marginalized groups (immigrants, persons with disabilities, 2SLGBTQ+) added depth to this paper.
CASE STUDY OBJECTIVE
Traditional knowledge, practices, and wisdom gained through lived experiences have been sought out by scientists and policy makers for building stability in the time of uncertainty (Berkes et al. 1995, Huntington 2000, Berkes 2004, Cajete 2018, Kimmerer 2018, IPCC 2022), recognizing that there are limitations of Western scientific approaches to tackle against anthropogenic climate change and depletion of natural resources that are based in modern scientific worldview (Kimmerer 2018). However, currently there is still a gap in understanding and respecting TEK, associated traditional practices, and worldviews in favor of modern scientific ontologies and epistemologies (Whyte 2018). Therefore, there is a need to foreground diverse ways of knowing, and reciprocal relationships that result.
As such, the objective of this case study is to explore the meaning of the small grains cultivation to a dedicated farmer. By understanding Mr. Masaru Shiiba’s personal engagement and motivation for his continued engagement in the traditional small grains cultivation and the meaning it holds for him, enables a better understanding of TEK and associated practices through human lived experiences. This case study builds on the body of work and effort being done to understand TEK, by capturing a deep nuanced understanding of the meaning around TEK through occupational science lens.
CASE STUDY METHOD
For this case study we used an ethnographic approach, an approach that values the time in the real-world setting and becoming familiar with the social and environmental setting through participant observation (Harrison 2018). The prolonged nature of the ethnographic process suits the research objective, allowing deep understanding of the meaning of the practice and the motivation of the individual.
In this case study, data were collected through in-depth interviews, participant observation, numerous informal conversations documented in field notes, and participation in various aspects of small grains cultivation. Participant observation included watching and engaging in the occupation of small grains cultivation and being with Mr. Masaru Shiiba in the environment observing his relationships to tools and their use, as well as his relationship to the community, the land, and his family. The first author also created a short documentary film based on the interviews (Video 1). Data were collected over four visits between March and August 2021, encompassing a total of 41 days. The first author stayed at his house, ate meals with him and his wife, Ms. Michiyo Shiiba, and participated in different activities, including accompanying Mr. and Ms. Shiiba while they were engaged in small grains cultivation. The manuscript of this paper was reviewed by Mr. Shiiba, as the first author verbally translated it to Japanese line by line, and reflected his feedback.
Masaru was born in Omukai area, northwest region of Shiiba Village in 1953. He is one of six children and the only son of Kuniko and Hideyuki. He recalls his childhood to include envying other children who could play, when he and his sisters had to help with the house chores before they were allowed to play. He described his parents as strict. His mother later became famous for her knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, as well as the traditional practice of slash and burn shifting cultivation. She was featured in books and documentary films, such as the award-winning Kuniko Obaba to Fushigi no Mori (Grandma’s eternal forest; Shibata 2012), and practiced shifting cultivation that was passed down to Masaru. During the period when a majority of villagers were leaving shifting cultivation, Kuniko and Hideyuki continued the traditional practice with strong beliefs of its importance and for preserving the seeds, noting that they had enough land to do the shifting cultivation on their own.
Initially, Masaru had dreamed of working as a Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteer through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He wanted to see the world, but his parents did not allow him to become anything but a farmer. His schoolteacher even tried to convince his parents to allow Masaru to attend high school. Masaru’s frustration with his parents’ strictness and expectations for him to become a farmer grew as he matured to a young man.
He married Michiyo, his elementary school classmate, and they had four children. But the couple eventually made the big decision to leave the village, a change that was not perceived positively. They moved to Shimane prefecture, some 600 km away, where they lived for about 20 years. Masaru worked as a truck driver. In 1997, Masaru decided to return to Shiiba Village without his family because his father experienced a stroke, and he began to learn about shifting cultivation from his mother. Five years later, Michiyo followed him to assist with the work. Masaru recalls that the reason he returned to Shiiba Village was based on his exposure and what he saw in the outside world:
Before I left Shiiba, I didn’t think of the traditional practice as something important. There was no economic benefit, and it depended on the weather. I thought there is no way I can make a living, and it’s better to get a day job. So I left the village. But when I was working in Shimane prefecture, I traveled all over Japan and saw different places. I realized there are more difficult places to live, compared to life in Shiiba with the traditional shifting cultivation that is really not that bad. What’s more, after almost 20 years of not doing this work, I started missing it. When I came back to Shiiba, I saw shifting cultivation fields had become very few, and my family was the only one practicing it. So I decided to protect it. It was just so natural (to decide). In fact, [working in the field] reminded me of the old days, which was comforting.
Since that time, they have remained in Shiiba Village, practicing small grains cultivation. Michiyo reflected on the early days after returning to Shiiba Village and reported that they did not have good harvests in the first few years, but slowly their skills for hand sowing (Fig. 5), weeding, harvesting, and processing the grains improved.
From the days spent in Shiiba Village and the multiple data sources used in this case study, understanding the meaning of small grains cultivation to Mr. Shiiba was increasingly evident and became foregrounded. These meanings are described below in four themes: (1) small grains cultivation is a source of life across generations, (2) harmony: restoring the forest and co-existing with wild animals, (3) collaboration and revitalization of the local community, and (4) way of life.
Small grains cultivation is a source of life across generations
When reflecting on the question “what does small grains cultivation mean to you?” Masaru’s response was “small grains cultivation is a source of life across generations.” He saw that small grains contributed to the wisdom required to live in the mountains, is foundational to health, and maintained connections to his ancestors who have passed down their ways of knowing and being.
In Japan, people have eaten small grains for a long time. They are highly nutritious. They make our body strong and make us healthy. Today, because of the consumption of unhealthy foods, dementia occurs faster as people eat all kinds of food. This is also the case with ... cancer. Now our food culture has been westernized, but we must eat small grains to allow our body to be stronger. We should live strong [just] like small grains.
According to Masaru, small grains cultivation is the basis of what we are today. He reported telling children in Shiiba that “the reason you are here today is because your grandparents survived by growing and eating hie, awa, soybeans, and azuki beans through slash and burn shifting cultivation”. He says the basis of the traditional practice is to eat and survive, and he cannot be responsible for letting it die as it has enabled people to be healthy in the mountainous areas. “It’s easy to quit, but it’s important to continue.” Masaru opined,
The ancestors have made good things for us. So, to build on our ancestors’ way of farming, is also good. Now modernized agriculture is the mainstream, but what people did to have food for eating since the ancient times, still works today. Nutritional value [of small grains] is high. But from an economic perspective, it’s uneconomic work. We all need to think about how we can continue the small grains cultivation as they are seeds from ancient times.
Harmony: restoring the forest and coexisting with wild animals
Masaru has continued the small grains cultivation believing humans must be in harmony with the ecosystems such that forests are restored in a healthy way, saying “I want to die after making good mountains.” As mentioned above, Japanese cedar and cypress are being planted that result in a loss of biodiversity. In tandem with this loss, is an increase in catastrophic landslides, as the shallow roots of the coniferous trees cannot hold the earth and water in the dense rains.
Masaru started planting deciduous trees the year after the fields were burned.
After a few years I came back, [I started seeing] the environment was deteriorating with cedar trees taking over the mountains, while [at the same time] I could not see the maple trees changing colors. The areas with mountain cherry blossom trees were also decreasing. This resulted in the wild boar coming out of the forest and going into the villages for food.
At first, I was mad at wild boar. They would destroy everything. I put up electric fences and nets, but ... it is hard ... It’s fine if it’s a small area, but we have to put these up the whole mountain. Rather than that, I thought it would be better to give wild boar something to eat [on the mountain]. If there was food in the mountains, they wouldn’t have to come [into the village]. I thought chestnuts would be good as they’ve always loved chestnuts ... So I said, “Let's plant chestnuts.”
...We planted 500 chestnut trees. Then, we decided to plant cherry trees [to beautify the mountains in spring]. Now there are about 20,000 chestnut trees and over 10,000 cherry trees. I hope this will change the mountain environment - the environment for humans and animals, and the forest ecosystems. If we return them to the natural mountains, there will be plenty of food. Earthworms, snakes, and frogs again populate. Nothing good will happen in the darkness of coniferous trees. It’s not the boar’s fault. It’s the humans who changed the environment. In the past, wild boar were rare, as were deer. Nowadays we call them vermin, but that’s what humans have created. If we change our perspective a little, we will find a way to coexist.
This is my 20th year of planting, as I didn’t plant for the first three years, ... [after] I returned. The big trees are about 20 years old now. At that time, we planted 500 trees. But deer will eat some of the (young) leaves. Cherry is their favorite food, so that’s part of how we should make a better environment in the mountains.
Masaru asserts that it is about “coexistence and co-prosperity” with wild animals. “We all owe our lives to nature. I feel joy seeing the cherry blossoms blooming in the mountains, and the biodiversity coming out from the ground.”
People in Shiiba Village are also hunters. Masaru says making a better forest environment gives people delicious wild boar.
... That’s why we must take good care of the boar as well. Wild boar won’t grow if it eats radishes and buckwheat (in the agricultural fields). They eat nuts, snakes, worms, vine (in the forest), and then boar will become delicious (Fig. 6). In the end, we have to coexist and prosper together.
Burning the field also helps to maintain the biodiversity in the forest.
Fire revitalizes the forest. After burning the field, we get more than 50 different plant varieties [including edible and medicinal plants]. Seeds are sleeping in the soil, and they wake up by burning. That’s the attractiveness of the practice .... It’s interesting and I can’t quit doing it. There are still a lot of things I don’t yet know.
We receive blessings from the earth after burning. Slash and burn does not result in environmental destruction. Soot and smoke from industrial complexes and military bombings are the worst. I hope people realize the benefit of eating healthy food, produced with slash and burn shifting cultivation.
Collaboration and revitalization of the local community
The third aspect of a meaning and compelling reason to continue small grains cultivation for Masaru is the importance attached to the traditional practices to revitalize the local community. The population in Shiiba Village has shrunk to 25% of what it was when he was young. He is deeply concerned about the community’s future.
The 3.11 Fukushima disaster (in 2011) made people shift their focus to the countryside. It also changes the way people live. I want to attract people from outside to move here. Then, young people who had left Shiiba may also come back. They can live with joy, using what we have in the mountains. I hope our tax will be used to support this kind of work.
Masaru reminisced about events that reminded him of his younger days when families helped and collaborated with each other in the spirit of kachaari. He wanted to re-create this feeling and attitude and thus established an annual event of burning the field where about 100 people from all over Japan would come to Shiiba Village to experience it.
I can’t do it by myself, and I started collaborating with other people. When I didn’t find enough people around, I invited guests from outside (of Shiiba) to experience the burning and the cultivation process. Through traditional cultivation practice, everyone comes together and works together, and it’s fun.
A young person who moved to Shiiba Village from a city described her reasoning for staying as a result of her deep interest in participating in the burning and hopes to carry on this practice. Another young adult who moved to a nearby village, sought the teaching of Masaru and started burning the fields with his friends to restore the forest and restore the relationship with the land. The first author also experienced the burning in Shiiba Village in 2021, which was an astonishing event. She witnessed burning bringing the community together through communication and collaboration, as Masaru had hoped, while Masaru ensured the burn occurred safely avoiding a wildfire. Following the burning, people enjoyed a meal and conversation, similar to the traditions of by-gone days.
Way of life
This theme of “way of life” as an aspect of meaning in the engagement of small grains cultivation is shown in at least three ways: ki-do-ai-raku, cultural/religious practices permeating small grains cultivation, and providing an income.
Masaru described the traditional shifting cultivation as tough work, but in the hardship, there is the ki-do-ai-raku, which is joy, anger, grief, and pleasure, just like our life:
It’s the way of life as a human being. We all owe our lives to nature, don’t we? [In a life with nature] there is hardship and sadness but also happiness and joy. In the mountainous areas where there are few flat lands, the traditional cultivation practice has been a way of life for people, and the best way to survive. This is a perfect pesticide-free cultivation that is rain-fed. It’s a way of life - living naturally. In a life with nature, it is also important to live without making enemies, such as wild animals and weeds. Using pesticides for weeds is the worst practice. Living the way that does not make [non-human beings as] enemies is quite important. I hope more people will start slash and burn shifting cultivation [to further restore this healthy, fulfilling way of life].
His thoughts are reflected in the naming of a group called “Yakihata Soba Club” that he created to collaborate in shifting cultivation. As mentioned before, yakihata is a Japanese term for slash and burn shifting cultivation. Soba means buckwheat. And to the word club, Masaru creatively applied the Chinese characters for “hardship” and “enjoyment.” The Yakihata Soba Club is involved in activities such as slashing and burning fields, harvesting and preserving small grains especially hie, making and selling cookies made from buckwheat, small grains, and edible plants, such as Japanese mugwort. The club invites younger generations to acquire skills of the traditional methods, and to support making a living. There are about 10 people that are core members, consisting of the local, experienced farmers and young people who have moved to Shiiba Village.
Cultural and religious practices permeating small grains cultivation are embraced in the local worldview of respecting nature deities that are integral to this way of life. For instance, before burning the field, Masaru prays to mountain deity and fire deity that there will be no excess fire nor unburnt areas (Fig. 7). In the prayer, he also asks snakes, frogs, and insects to escape from the fire. This prayer, seeking permission from the mountain deity prior to burning their field is done each time (Shiiba and Utsumi 2010). Masaru said faith makes him stronger, feeling protection even if it is invisible.
Finally, traditional methods provide income not just from the crops Masaru cultivates, but from the wild edible plants that undergo regeneration as a result of burning. In spring, there is a natural growth of taranome plants in the fields that provides delicious food. These highly valued plants were harvested and sold at the local market, providing a good cash income for Masaru and his family.
Masaru’s practice suggests a potential pathway for enacting collective responsibilities that contribute to nurturing the health of humans and the ecosystems. While the focus of the interview was meaning around small grains cultivation in situ, what emerged naturally was the ancestral influence and importance of the reciprocal relationship between Masaru and the land as a way of life. What also emerged were non-material values for TEK and the traditional practice, such as giving respect and prayers to nature deities, emotions such as joy, and building community for collaboration.
The traditional cultivation methods are not just for farming that provides food but also to restore the forest. Taking care of the environment for wildlife, and putting effort into restoring healthy forests with controlled burning (rather than putting up nets and wires) resolves the imbalances and problems that are experienced with wild boar, and as a by-product, provides a healthy ecosystem that gives naturally occurring, highly valued edible plants. In addition, restoring the deciduous forest results in the ground water being absorbed and not running off, resulting in a reduction of natural disasters such as landslide caused by heavy rainfall (Dang et al. 2021). Masaru says,
Agriculture, forestry, and water are all one. Let’s plant cherry blossoms and chestnuts that are good for both animals and humans. Natural disasters will be decreased, and good water will come. [Further] healthy forests upstream provides nutrients and clean water through rivers that feed lives in mid- and down-stream regions as well as the sea. That will make fish and sea salt also become tasty.
His approach of not having enemies among non-human beings, or not viewing wild boar as vermin, is based on having reciprocal relationships with nature, and having ongoing relationships between people and place (Kimmerer 2018, Diver et al. 2019). This is a different approach from the colonial relationships using a “fences and fines” approach to conservation that excludes people from the land, and seeing humans as separated from nature (Brockington 2002, Stevens 2014, Borona 2017). In reciprocal relationships, cultures of gratitude exist; if we are given some gifts, such as food and medicine from the land, people offer gifts back to the land, promise to take care of the land (Kimmerer 2018, Nelson 2018).
What Masaru meant when he talked about “living naturally” reminds us about the history of living on the earth, and having the ability to live in harmony with wildlife and the natural environment. Underpinning the tenets of the reciprocal relationship is the responsibilities of humans, sharing gifts from the earth with other non-human beings, and therefore enabling people’s survival in the mountains. While people are cultivating healthy land, the land is also cultivating healthy people, teaching life lessons and providing a life of fulfillment, purpose, and belonging.
Increasing interest in TEK is due in part to the limitations of Western approaches that are struggling to deal with the pressing uncertainties (Kimmerer 2018), seeking pragmatic tools for resilience and responding to environmental change (Ortiz 2018). This case study contributes to the literature on TEK, providing understanding of the importance not only for material outcomes such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, or biodiversity conservation, but also for non-material values, such as enjoyment of work, prayers to nature deities, and building community for collaboration. This connection between the meaning of work, particularly traditional small grains cultivation, has not been explored in TEK literature. Masaru’s case study shows what it means to cultivate small grains with reciprocal relationships with the land, embracing emotions, such as joy, anger, grief, and pleasure.
Although the relationships between people and the natural environment were largely altered in Japan during the period of rapid economic growth, younger generations who are now attracted to Shiiba Village are finding values in the traditional methods, worldview that respects nature deities, and a sense of richness in the way of life, that is not found in cities. As Masaru hopes, with more people finding value in the traditional cultivation practice, the area of healthy forests will expand, and may lead to a revival of kachaari and collaborative management, based on the people’s connections with the land and reciprocal relationships.
Traditional slash and burn shifting cultivation, which was once considered as an environmentally destructive practice, is not only a sophisticated system that contributes to resilience (Kleinman et al. 1995, Norgrove and Beck 2016, Karalliyadda et al. 2020, Reyes et al. 2020) and ensures the restoration of the forest (Tanaka 2004), but also has a deep meaning of how we live as humans. Masaru’s story suggests a way forward toward inter-linked issues of forests and biodiversity as related to ecosystem health, human health and food sovereignty, human-wildlife conflict, as well as disaster mitigation. It brings to light the often neglected but important value of the traditional and meaningful practice of small grains cultivation, that is, living a fulfilling life with hardship and joy, with collaboration and caring for each other.
In this paper we explored the meaning of traditional small grains cultivation for Mr. Masaru Shiiba, a dedicated cultivator of the slash and burn shifting cultivation methods. The meaning and the reason why Masaru, the farmer at the center of this case study, has continued the practice is described in four themes that include the following: it is a source of life across generations; supports relational harmony of restoring the forest and co-existing with wild animals; contributes to collaboration and revitalization of the local community; and that it is a way of life.
The meaning of traditional small grains cultivation for Masaru clearly shows that the practice is not only a profession but a way of life that supports the reciprocal relationships between people, wildlife, and the forest. This traditional ecological knowledge that people have passed down from generation to generation, ensures the well-being of humans and non-humans. The example articulated in this case study of Mr. Masaru Shiiba provides an example of a pathway for how individuals and communities might live in the time of Anthropocene.
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We are grateful to Mr. Masaru Shiiba for sharing his time and keen interest in this project. This paper is supported by the University of British Columbia’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Medicine, and Public Scholars Initiative.
The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, SO. None of the data are publicly available because of their containing information that could compromise the privacy of research participants. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by The University of British Columbia (H20-03896).
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