Satoyama: Japan's Amazing Rice Fields and Farms

satoyama rice japan photo

(Photo from Ataru's blog Tokai no Inaka)

Satoyama is a word that describes the farming landscape near the hills and mountains in Japan, where water is abundant and farmers for a long time have maintained the soil for rice and vegetables. The NHK documentary, Satoyama: Japan's Secret Water Garden was aired on BBC and PBS, and you can now see it on Youtube (links below the fold), narrated by David Attenborough. Welcome to the paddy fields and local communities near Lake Biwa, Japan.

Japan's Ministry of Environment wants to restore satoyama, the part of the territory located on the outskirts of villages that formerly provided rural Japan with food firewood, coal, water and diverse cultures, somewhat equivalent to the french bocage. Hiromi Kobori and Richard B. Primack describe one particularly successful program where conservation efforts and fund-raising are linked to Totoro, an imaginary forest animal featured in the popular animated film!

(Part 1/6 of Satoyama: Japan's Secret Water Garden)

There are many attempts at defining just exactly what satoyama means:

Satoyama consists of a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. In this system, each habitat is considered essential for the agricultural economy. Grasslands were maintained to feed horses and cattle, which were then used as sources of power in agricultural activities. Streams, ponds, and reservoirs were managed to adjust water levels in the paddy fields and to supply fish to eat.

(Tabata H. 1997. The Nature of Satoyama)

satoyama fields mountains japan photo

Satoyama are not really wild forests or nature left to itself, but are the result of careful human intervention in natural systems over the centuries. And frankly, there isn't really anything "secret" about them - they are perhaps more like the commons in the UK and northern Europe, where people have managed communal lands over a long period of time. Hiromi Kobori and Richard B. Primack note that the total size of satoyama for a village depended on the number of people living in the village and the area of rice fields:

In many areas, the cultivation of rice was carried out next to and even inside satoyama. This constant collection of leaves and wood kept the forest open, and prevented succession to forest with large trees and dense shade. In the late Edo era and Meiji era (1868 to 1912), the size of the satoyama occupied by one family became smaller because farmers could buy commercial fertilizers and no longer needed leaves for fertilizing, resulting in less intensive forest management.

totoro forest project japan image

(Image from the Totoro Forest Project)

Near where I live there is an example of successful habitat preservation thanks to the efforts of the "Totoro Hometown Fund Campaign" to save areas of satoyama located in the Sayama Hills on the outskirts of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. The project started in 1990 by local residents and a private environmental conservation organization concerned with maintaining examples of the Japanese landscape. The campaign uses as its mascot "Totoro," the central character from the popular animated film by Hayao Miyazaki called My Neighbor Totoro. An important element in the Totoro Hometown Fund Campaign is that local citizens operate the management programs and volunteer programs, resulting in a strong sense of local control of the project.

totoro forest project san francisco photo

(Photo from the Totoro Forest Project Blog)

In San Francisco, you can visit the art exhibition with works celebrating forests at the Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 US (between Second Street and Third Street).

Satoyama: Japan's Secret Water Garden
Part 1:
Part 2 :
part 3 :
part 4 :
part 5 :
part 6 :
More biodiversity:
Alternative Economy Needed for Biodiversity?
Agriculture Needs a Fundamental Rethink in the 21st Century
Agriculture Sustainability Metrics Need Work: Can You Help?
Nagoya To Host UN Biodiversity Conference In 2009, Facing Protests

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