Swidden agriculture, known in Japanese as yakihata ("burned field") farming, has been conducted in Japan for several centuries. In contrast to the destructive slash-and-burn farming seen in some parts of the world, it is a sustainable practice in harmony with the forest ecosystem. Moreover, turnips grown in swiddens are highly nutritious, brightly colored, and, above all, delicious.
Swidden Agriculture in Japan
Many people associate swidden agriculture with deforestation in Africa and elsewhere, and in Japan around the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, schools often taught students that it was a crude farming method that harmed the environment. But the situation in Africa involves complex factors, such as sharp rises in the number of people relying on slash-and-burn farming due to the influx of civil-war refugees from neighboring countries, which then leads to frequent forest fires caused by lack of experience. The Japanese have practiced yakihata farming for hundreds of years as a sustainable form of agriculture in coexistence with forests. Today it continues in a small number of areas.
Yakihata farming is generally believed to be a relic of the Jomon culture. The highly productive rice farming techniques introduced from continental Asia largely replaced swidden farming and led to a shift from a lifestyle of hunting and fishing to an agricultural lifestyle. The exact origin is disputed, but what is most significant is that yakihata farming continues even today in mountainous areas, if on a small scale. It has lasted to this day because it enables a dietary culture most suited to the local climate.
The English expressions "slash-and-burn" and "shifting cultivation" may bring to some minds the image of farmers moving from one plot to the next on an almost yearly basis. But yakihata farming in the Japanese mountains consists of a cycle spanning several decades: A piece of land is burned, planted, allowed to recover for many years until the soil is fertile again and sufficient vegetation has grown to produce good ash, then burned again.
A plot in Yamakumata, Niigata Prefecture, was set on fire in August 2007. As one of the local men participating in the event told us, that same area had been burned 50 years ago. The residents of this remote village have watched over their life-sustaining forest on a time scale unimaginable to the impatient city dweller. In places where yakihata farming is still practiced, a single cycle spans anywhere from 30 to 50 years, depending on the region. Until about three decades ago, Yamakumata farmers planted buckwheat in freshly burned fields, cereals the next year, and adzuki beans and potatoes in the third year, by which time the soil's fertility will have declined. Cryptomerias would then be planted and allowed to grow for 40 or 50 years before the same land was set on fire again. The felled trees were sold as lumber and, in the old days, supplemented young women's wedding funds.
Why did the Japanese of old practice yakihata farming? Farming by this method poses several merits. The obvious merit is that the fire serves to kill off unwanted bacteria and pests without the use of either agrochemicals or herbicides. The resulting ash is rich in potassium and other minerals, moreover, eliminating the need for fertilizers or even water.
Land-clearing fires are heavy work and fraught with the danger of forest fires in the absence of good teamwork. But the vegetables grown in a yakihata are highly nutritious and well worth the trouble. According to Kyoto Sosei University Professor Tamutsu Ogi, who has advocated traditional swidden agriculture from about three decades ago, research has shown turnips cultivated by this method to contain seven times as much vitamin C as other turnips (National Institute of Health and Nutrition). From buckwheat to cereals to turnips to kudzu, every plant and vegetable grown in yakihata are richer in nutrients than those grown elsewhere.
Most of all, the exquisite taste of the produce is why yakihata farming has been passed down to this day. As the turnip growers of Yamakumata all say, yakihata turnips are at once brightly colored, crisp, and flavorful.
Yakihata Farming in Yamakumata
Yamakumata is a tiny community of just 70 people in 22 households in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture. With no buses servicing the area, it still retains an air of the austere Edo-period country lifestyle. Virtually the entire village cooperates in burning a single piece of land.
The cycle of yakihata farming in Yamakumata is roughly as follows.
1. Felling (mid-July)
Cryptomeria and other trees are felled, the underbrush cut, and the ground cleared. Even the younger men who work in town come back for the event. A total of about 30 people spend a week preparing the land for burning. According to locals, this is the most important part of yakihata making.
2. Burning (August 12)
Burning takes place in spring in some regions, but high summer is the season of choice in Yamakumata. Locals say that mid-August, with its low precipitation, is the best time for burning. In recent years the area has hosted " yakihata tours," in which participants stay overnight in Yamakumata and experience yakihata making.
We joined this tour on August 12, 2007, and were awed by the sheer force of the fire. A steep 40-are area was to be burned this year. Some of the weed cutting takes place both the day before and on the day of the burning. The weeds must be thoroughly removed along the perimeter so that the fire does not spread to the surrounding forest. Weed cutting under the scorching sun is sweaty work to say the least, but the locals go about it coolly, seemingly indifferent to the heat.
In this region, the fire is started at nightfall, and the beauty of the flames consuming the night is most spectacular.
At dusk, the people pray to the mountain god for protection and partake of sacred sake. In Kochi Prefecture, where yakihata farming has also been practiced, there is a prayer for the safe escape of creatures such as snakes and insects that goes, "Those who crawl shall crawl away, those who fly shall fly away."
Fed with cryptomeria branches, the fire proceeds downhill from the highest point. Soon it gains force, violently blazing up 7 or 8 meters into the air. The seasoned locals make nothing of the heat, even though watching close by is enough to drench us in sweat. Some men armed with 20-kilogram bags of water are seen running about and extinguishing runaway sparks. The fire is guided downward in this manner so that it burns every inch of the plot, producing good ash.
3. Sowing (August 13)
Turnip seeds are sown the next morning while the earth is still hot from the previous night's fire. Wisps of smoke rise here and there from the freshly cleared field. Planting seeds in smoldering ashes may seem deadly, but in fact the heat promotes germination. The potassium and other nutrients contained in the ash stimulate growth, moreover, resulting in delicious turnips. The seeds can be sown quite thickly.
Here in Yamakumata, turnip seeds are obtained by the courtesy of nearby Atsumi district, Yamagata Prefecture, where they are harvested every year.
4. Harvesting (October)
By the time we returned to Yamakumata in October, multitudes of turnip roots were peeping through the soil. Large, bright red-purple turnips crowded the areas where the raging fire had left behind quality ash, whereas only a few pale turnips grew feebly in less-burned or shaded areas.
The turnips are harvested all at once, and they are pickled on the same day by a team of seven people. It is heavy work filling the rice-straw baskets tied to the waist and carrying them down the mountain. Today, Yamakumata's uninterrupted tradition of yakihata farming is sustained by old hands now mostly in their seventies.
"All of us are now over seventy, so there may be no one to carry it on once we've quit," they grumbled. But seeing me reeling in the intense heat, they told me reassuringly, "Come here three times, and you'll be able to handle yakihata making too."
Rediscovering the Value of Yakihata
Although turnips are now grown by this method only in a few regions, yakihata farming was once practiced in mountainous areas across Japan. For mountain dwellers, in fact, agriculture and forestry were inseparable activities that together formed a seamless cycle of subsistence. Until just after the end of World War II in 1945, many people across Japan lived by cultivating such crops as buckwheat, cereals, turnips, and potatoes in swiddens and selling the wood of cryptomeria trees that they had let grow for 50 to 100 years.
Yakihata farming in Japan has been, and is, entirely distinct from the destructive slash-and-burn practices that are blamed for deforestation, wherein cultivators perpetually burn down more forest as old fields lose fertility. Rather, it is a sustainable system that consists of alternately farming and patiently nurturing the forest.
The first Yakihata Symposium was held in 1996 in Sanpokumachi, of which Yamakumata was a part and which has since been merged into the city of Murakami. Speaking at the symposium, Professor Ogi noted, "Hita in Oita Prefecture, Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, Sanmu in Chiba Prefecture—the forestry industries of all these places have their roots in the yakihata ." He stressed that swidden agriculture has come to attract international attention, including that of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as a form of agroforestry—the combination of food production with the growing of trees.
Members of the Sanpokumachi town office mainly organized the symposium. It was a pioneering experiment in retrospect, with participants gathering from places as far as Kochi and Miyazaki prefectures to discuss yakihata farming. A Yakihata Summit was started in Kochi Prefecture in 2007, moreover, and has since been held annually.
Also in Kochi, 2005 saw the launch of a new effort. Yakihata farming was revived in two towns, Niyodogawacho and former Hongawamura, after a hiatus of nearly three decades. The undertaking was led by the Society for Mountain Revitalization through Yakihata Farming, chaired by Takamichi Ueda and comprising members hailing from Kochi University, Kochi Women's University, Ehime University, and nonprofit organizations.
Japan has come to rely on imports for 80 percent of its lumber needs. Meanwhile, forests are no longer being utilized as they once were, and landslides and other disasters are increasing in the absence of human intervention. Of the forests of Kochi Prefecture, which covers 84 percent of the land, 66 percent were unmanaged planted forests. The project started in 2005 aims to tend the forests by conducting yakihata farming and subsequently planting those fields with various trees, such as castanopsis, chestnut, and Japanese persimmon. Furthermore, the revival of yakihata farming has also led to the revival of local turnip varieties.
A Model of Sustainable Living
The folklorist Tomio Yuki has frequented Yamakumata and other regions where yakihata farming survives. His own brother also practices yakihata farming in Fukushima Prefecture. In the words of Yuki, "There are those who say that yakihata farming is bad for the environment, and then there are those who say that it's the agriculture of the new age because no pesticides are needed. But what we know for certain is that the system has been continued in Yamakumata for at least about three hundred years. There's no better proof that yakihata farming is a sustainable practice."
Japan has a model of sustainable living in its own history and culture. It would seem much more realistic and tangible to look to its own tradition of yakihata farming than to refer to foreign countries for examples.
Photos: Kazuo Kikuchi