Monday, June 30, 2008

Responding to Climate Change

An article in the Mainichi Shinbun (毎日新聞) outlines a report released by the Japanese Government's Ministry of the Environment. Among other measures the report suggests building a dam on the Tone River to ensure water for rice agriculture and the forcible relocation of residents in coastal areas that are in danger of flooding.

To read the full article click here.

In terms of "resiliency", these kind of large-scale, intensive responses raise some alarm because of the unintended consequences they might have. Dams, for example, have extremely short lives and can cause havoc without appropriate institutional support to maintain them.

I think government officials, including those in Japan, need to think more carefully in order to develop constructive responses to environmental changes of all varieties. Hasty responses done at large scales often have unintended consequences, which, by the time they come to light, are difficult to maneuver around because the social-environmental system is locked into a certain mode of operation. I argue that slow, diverse, and flexible responses are often much more effective in dealing with changing environmental conditions.

Otaki, in both good ways and bad ways, is a reflection of differing responses to not all environmental--but also economic, social, and political--changes. Local responses based on a depth of environmental knowledge and rooted in local social and cultural institutions have been much more effective and beneficial to the long-term health of Otaki's social and natural environments, than those made at higher levels, which often fail to account for local environmental, social, and cultural impacts.

There are lessons to be learned here, and yet the Ministry of the Environment presents only bigger and more intensive responses. God save those living on the shorelines. . .or under the god-damned dam!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

追いつめられた村 Cornered Village

A while ago a resident of Takigoshi 滝越 lent me a DVD copy of a television program produced by NHK (nihon housou kyoukai 日本放送協会--Japan Broadcasting Corporation ). The program was called 追い詰められた村 ("Cornered Village") and suggested that the village may be in the most dire situation among rural areas in Japan.

NHK’s assessment of Otaki can be said to be true in several senses. First, geographically Otaki is located at the back of a long canyon that leads to the base of Ontake-san. A single winding road links Otaki to Kiso-machi (木曽町), the nearest modest sized town with a hospital, train station, and large supermarket. The presence of this vital road means that Otaki is socially oriented towards the Kiso Valley and Nagano prefecture; however, accounts of interactions with residents of present-day Gifu, which borders Otaki on the west, suggest that this orientation has not always been exclusive.

Second, environmentally speaking, 95 percent of Otaki’s surface area is comprised of forestland. This means there is little space for large scale agricultural, or other pursuits. The majority of this forestland (86%) is national forest (国有林), which is owned and managed by the national government. This means that Otaki’s natural environment can also be thought of in political terms.

Finally, Otaki has also been backed into a corner economically through a series of external impacts and poor decisions. Japan’s rising importation of foreign timber resources from the 1960’s brought a drop in domestic timber prices and effectively ended a forestry boom that had brought mild prosperity to Otaki. As Japan began its miraculous economic climb, Otaki, with little natural resources at its disposal, was at the mercy of larger national trends and faced an unstable future. The completion of Makio Dam in 1981 brought a much needed influx of money and the promise of a new way forward for Otaki. However, what was viewed as a blessing has evolved into a nagging curse as a ski hill constructed with the dam funds steadily dragged Otaki into heavy debt. A bid to amalgamate with neighboring municipalities in 2005 was denied to Otaki because of this debt. Coupled with national restructuring launched under Prime Minister Koizumi, Otaki’s debt has forced this small mountain village into dire straits. The current village government is working, with significantly reduced salaries, to make Otaki a stable and independent village.

The Otaki of today is somewhat difficult to define. The village seems to be in a state of transition: attempting to find a new path into the future as it deals with the repercussions of decisions made in the past. Demographically, Otaki is undergoing drastic changes. The population structure of Otaki is similar to that found in rural areas across Japan; a rising elderly population coupled with a decline in overall population. Otaki’s population currently stands at 995, down from 1,768 in 1980. During this same period the rate of elderly residents has risen to 32.4%.  

Though tourism remains the primary industry in Otaki, tourist numbers (including skiers and worshipers) have declined in recent years. After tourism, manufacturing jobs are the most prevalent, followed finally by agriculture. On the ground, this pattern takes the form of elderly residents engaging in agricultural work, while younger family members (if any remain in the village) work outside of the home.

Otaki also continues to struggle economically. For 2008 roughly 3/4 of Otaki’s annual budget is slated for administrative and financial operations, with almost a quarter of this being used to pay back public debt. This leaves only a fraction of funds for use in providing basic services such as sanitation, health, and education. Major cuts have been made to the salaries of village employees and to money spent social, cultural, and educational activities.

"Cornered Village". . .it's one way to look at Otaki. However, this view is made at a high level using statistical data. The anthropologist's job is to get on the ground to try to round out. . .or completely break apart. . .some of these numbers and to question the conclusions they make. At least one resident that I've talked with has embraced the idea of Otaki as being "cornered" to express her feelings of love and respect for, and also her desire to protect, the village. Indeed, "cornered" is a definition that comes not from those in the mountains, but from those down below in the cities where NHK programs are made.

In the mountains you're never really cornered, you're simply at the bottom a mountain--this requires vertical thinking--only place to go is up. Those in the mountains climb to gain a vantage point, one that often provides the best view. My own research takes this perspective, starting on the ground in the village and then moving up to gain a fuller vision of what is occuring. You can say that Otaki is "cornered", but it's always been cornered. Otaki's residents are mountain people who have, through their own unique history, learned to live among the trees and clouds and this requires that we leave our biases at the foothills and then climb up to meet them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Japan's Forgotten Sacred Mountain: 御嶽山 Ontake san Pt. 1

I have, as of yet, to write in any length about Ontake-san (御嶽山), the volcanic mountain upon whose southwestern slope Otaki sits. Ontake-san is an integral part of Otaki's geographical, historical, ecological--and probably any other "-ical" one can think of--landscape. There's a lot to say about the mountain and so I've labeled this entry as "Pt. 1"; I don't pretend, however, to have any depth of knowledge about Ontake-san (in fact I know very little), but I do hope to learn more, and as I do I plan to add more entries. Anyway, here goes Pt. 1.

Standing at 3,067 meters Ontake-san is Japan's 14th tallest mountain, and it's second tallest volcano, second only to Fuji-san. Ontake-san has been revered for hundreds of years as a reihou 霊峰--a holy mountain--and may have once rivaled Fuji-san in this respect. Every year hundreds of pilgrims come, dressed in white, to pay homage to the mountain, pray, and undertake various spiritual practices.

Among these practices is a form of meditation that takes place at different waterfalls located on the mountain. Practitioners stand at the base of the waterfalls and allow the frigid waters streaming from above to pummel them as they try to remain calm in a meditative state. I have yet to see this practice myself, but have visited two of the most popular waterfalls used by pilgrims: Kiyotaki 清滝 (pictured), and Shintaki 新滝, both of which are located in Otaki.

The Otaki side of Ontake-san was first opened for spiritual practice in the 2nd year of the Tenmei era (1782) by a mountain ascetic known as Fukan (普寛).  From this time a steady stream of believers have come from around Japan to make pilgrimages to Ontake-san. Worshipers of Ontake-san belong to a religious sect known as Ontake-kyou (御岳教). I don't know much about the sect, apart from what I've seen myself on the mountain; it looks very similar to other forms of Shinto (Japan's indigenous religion).

This spiritual aspect of Ontake-san also served as an economic staple for Otaki for many years, with villagers catering to the needs of pilgrims, providing lodging, food, and portage. These days most pilgrimages come to Ontake-san by bus and often don't spend too much time on the mountain or in the village. However, the sacred mountain paths of the past still remain and there is a growing interest among residents to restore these areas so that they can be used once again.

One such area, Sawataritouge (沢渡峠) (pictured above, about 1920, and below, present), was used by pilgrims up to, and even after, WWII. The spot was popular with pilgrims because of the panoramic view of Ontake-san it offered
. In the past a small hut offering beverages and foods, as well as a large torii gate that framed the view of Ontake-san, stood at Sawataritouge. These days, all that remains are the stone footings of the gate, some stone lanterns, and a scattering of beer bottles and other "trash" from the hut.

Sawataritouge also appears in Shimazaki Toson's (島崎藤村) novel, Before the Dawn, which means that he likely visited this spot on his way to Otaki to do research for the book. Therefore, the location has historical value in more ways than one. It's for this reason that many residents in Otaki are expressing interest in restoring this spot. As it is now, if you aren't accompanied by someone whose been there before, it's nearly impossible to find Sawataritouge.

Though Ontake-san seems to have lost some of its status as a sacred mountain within the modern Japanese landscape, it's clear that the volcano has long been admired and revered. Residents of Otaki have also long revered Ontake-san and I admire their renewed interest in helping to restore the mountain's status as a place of awe and respect.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Searching for the road ahead

Coming through a recent past where economic livelihood came, along with capital and infrastructure, from external sources--forestry, dam construction, and skiing--the residents of Otaki are searching for a road that can take them into the future.

There is an interest among residents in developing Otaki's unique cultural and natural resources in order to attract tourists. It was with this purpose in mind that about 25 residents met on Monday, June 9th to discuss ways of developing local culinary techniques and dishes. The meeting was organized by Otaki's Tourism Revitalization Council (観光再生協議会). Their idea was for residents to come together to learn some new recipes, but, more importantly, to generate some dialog about ways of developing local cuisine.

A local chef, H-san, who has forty years of cooking experience and runs a pension called Diamond Dust (ダイアモンドダスト) was our teacher for the day. H-san is a straight speaking man who was quick to plead with, and even berate, the participants to work harder to help develop Otaki's local food customs for tourism. Otaki's failings thus far in developing a sustainable tourism base are not due to a lack of people, suggested H-san, rather it's a problem of motivation ("やる気ない"). H-san's tirades came between moments of instruction about what to chop or slice, while his own food preparations continued unabated. There was a passion in both his speaking and his cooking.

Those of us who participated in the study meeting worked in groups of about six to create three dishes. The first was houba-zushi (ほうば寿司). Houba refers to the large leaves of a tree that is common in the Kiso Valley. In the past (and even today) the leaves were used for a variety of purposes, but were especially beneficial in wrapping and keeping foods that might otherwise spoil. The "zushi" part of the name is simply a different reading of sushi, which means rice seasoned with vinegar, not raw fish, as is commonly thought. Houba-zushi then is sushi rice topped with pickled vegetables, cured fish, and perhaps some other ingredients then wrapped in a houba leaf. The houba-zushi we made included cured trout, slices of fried egg, pickled ginger, and various pickled mountain vegetables, such as warabi and fuki. The dish was very easy to make and really delicious. According to H-san and other residents, houba-zushi has at least a hundred year old history in Otaki.

Our next dish, a salad, was more contemporary, but drew on some elements native to Otaki and the Kiso Valley. For the salad we started with watercress then added some bacon bits. Next we added Kiso beef steak that we fried and then cubed. The salad also included some warabi and a bit of carrot. The whole thing was topped with a red beet 赤カブ (famous in Otaki) vinigrette that was really amazing.

The final dish was tempura using wild vegetables and leaves collected from around Otaki. I'll have to plead ignorance on knowing everything that was in the tempura. I believe there was a bit of fuki, perhaps warabi, chikuwa (pressed fish sausage, which tastes much better than it sounds), and a variety of edible leaves. All of these were formed into small patties and fried together. Having eaten a lot of tempura, I can say that what we made was particularly light and crispy. All of the leaves gave it a freshness that I haven't tasted with tempura before. H-san told us that this style of tempura also had quite a long history in Otaki, probably back to the turn of the century.

After everyone had finished with preparations we all sat down to eat. I looked out on the seating arrangement and noticed that the older women of the village had all placed themselves on the far side of the room, while the younger women (most of whom have been in Otaki about a decade or so) were lined up on the other side; Edward Hall's studies of proxemics came to mind. The configuration, however, was also a result of the social expectation that younger women will take care of preparations. In other words, the older women sat down early, next to friends I'm assuming (explaining their grouping), while the young women fussed over table settings. The alignment also reflects a Japanese custom of placing elders and persons of higher status further away from the door. For an anthropologist, such as myself, this spatial division also reflected a broader social gap between what one might call the "old village" and the "new village".

This conceptual division was further illustrated as we began to discuss Otaki's culinary traditions. I unfolded my houba-zushi and began to eat, as the older women took turns sharing some of the recipes they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. I was surprised to later hear from the younger women that, despite their ten years or more of residence in Otaki, had not until now learned how to make these foods. There is a disconnection between these two groups, the old and the new, that is troubling in terms of Otaki's prospects for the future. This isn't an entirely new phenomenon and it isn't unique to Otaki. John Knight observed a similar pattern between "old" and "new" in Honcho, Wakayama Prefecture, which he writes about in his article "Organic farming settlers in Kumano" [1].

In spite of this perceived gap, through events such as this study meeting, the residents of Otaki are attempting to discover a road ahead. The process, however, is fraught with social, cultural, political, and economic bumps and dips that threaten the entire enterprise. These obstacles are rooted at different scales, from international rises in oil prices that threaten the whole tourist industry, to local social relationships that at times inhibit the formation of networks capable of sustaining communities.

With so much beyond the control of Otaki's residents, who lack access to much of Japan's economic resources, as well as local natural resources, the social and cultural capital that resides within the community itself is perhaps their greatest asset. Opportunities like this one to meet, discuss, and form new social bonds, are an important, preliminary step. The hope is that new structures--social, economic, and political--capable of developing this community capital, can begin to take form.

So, thank you H-san for the wonderful food, and thank you everyone for the wonderful discussion. Here's to the road ahead for Otaki. . .

Knight J. 2003. Organic farming settlers in Kumano. In Farmers and Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan, ed. A Waswo, Y Nishida, pp. 267-84. New York: RoutledgeCurzon

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Kaminari 雷

A big storm came through Otaki yesterday. Thunder, lightening, and plenty of rain. I spent a good part of the afternoon watching the lightening strikes on the hillside across from my house. Nothing beats a good Utah thunderstorm, but yesterday's was pretty good. Our plants loved the rain as well.

In the evening the storm broke just in time for the sunset. Today we had sunny skies again.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

山菜 Mountain Vegetables

Truly one of the best parts of living in the mountains is being able to find a variety of wild vegetables. The other evening while walking around the village, Chizuko and I found this warabi (left) and ninjinba.

Back at home Chizuko boiled the warabi, cut it into pieces and served it with soy sauce and some bonito flakes. The ninjinba is a little bitter, so we've been using it in sauces and soups.

Another favorite of Chizuko and I is tara-no-me. These sprouts of green grow out of stalks that seem almost dead. They are covered in thorns and I've had my hands bloodied a couple of times trying to gather them. However, when you fry the buggers (Chizuko does them tempura-style) the thorns lose all their bite and you can eat them no problem. Dip these in a little salt. . .wow, what a treat.

The wee bit of knowledge that I have gained concerning edible plant varieties has come through informal chats with residents. A walk in the mountains becomes a lesson in botany (as well as history, ornithology, entomology, et cetera). There's been numerous occasions when I've been told, regarding a plant I'm admiring, or perhaps holding in my hand, "you can eat that!" Music to my ears.

Gathering mountain vegetables is also an occupation (at least part time) for some. From what I've seen on the internet you can fetch a fair price in Japan. Unfortunately, mountain vegetables seem to do worse in the dark forests of cypress and cedar that cover so much of the national forest around Otaki. I would imagine that in the past burning was beneficial in promoting the growth of various wild vegetables, but that practice has vanished in Otaki. . .at least for now.

With so much talk of "eco" buzzing around Japan presently, I wonder constantly how the logic breaks down here, deep in the mountains. If you want to see low impact living, just take a walk through Otaki in the twilight and breath in the thick smell of wood smoke pouring from houses. I'm not saying the residents of Otaki are ecological nobles--in fact ideas of "eco" are surely rarer here than in Tokyo. Yet, residents in Otaki have learned to live by using what the environment around them has to offer: wild vegetables, wood, the occasional beast. This is changing of course--in part because of "eco" driven policies regarding national forests. "Hands off"; "natural"; "eco"--that's an external reality that hasn't existed in Otaki for hundreds of years.

I want the residents of Otaki to have the ability to help make decisions regarding the forests that are intertwined so tightly with their lives. The people of Otaki are the ones on the ground, keeping tabs on the subtle changes occurring in the environment around them. Yet decisions continue to be made in offices, based on numbers and definitions and projected outcomes.

Boy, how discussions can fly. . .
I digress.
For now I'll try to just be content and eat my veggies.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Nakagoshi 中越

The Nakagoshi section of the village sits on a wide butte above the Otaki River. The butte stretches out in a half circle from a large escarpment of rock and brush above which sits the school and the rest of the central village. A significant portion of Nakagoshi is made up of fields and rice paddies, probably the largest agricultural space in the village.

On a cloud-filled afternoon, after morning rains had lifted, I descended into the Nakagoshi section walking along a series of roads that zig-zag down the steep embankment at the north end of the section. Here a row of homes stand against the vertical wall with their faces turned to a hillside on the far side of the Otaki River from Nakagoshi. I stopped at a small wooden shrine to admire the stone buddhas that sit on the wall around it. Most of these hotoke-sama were worn from lives spent out in the open, exposed to all nature's elements; a couple were lacking heads, which had been replaced with regular round stones.

Resting quietly on the southwestern edge of Nakagoshi are a series of small, single-storied buildings topped with red steel roofing that is commonplace in Otaki. In the past these buildings served as housing for national forestry workers. Constructed with local timber well suited to the unique climate of the region (wet summers and cold, dry winters), these homes are still standing sturdy, giving them an eerie and uncertain air, as if their long absent residents might return at any moment. However, that time has passed; no workers, sweaty and smelling sweetly of cypress sap, are coming home today. The empty halls and weed infested exterior of a grander, two-storied building--white and official looking--gives a certainty to the finality of the scene. I'm not absolutely sure, but I imagine this was once the Otaki eirinsho 営林署--forestry management office. A nearby building carried a sign labeling it as the north Otaki forest office; this building too was abandoned.

Forestry carried Otaki through the better part of the 20th century and was a boom time for the village. However, a three hundred year history of external control of forest resources most certainly guaranteed that Otaki, with no real access to these resources, could not sustain itself along this path. Sure enough, when national needs shifted and domestic forest resources were no longer required, Otaki was left with stripped mountains, abandoned buildings, and few economic options.

Untouchable resources--buildings and forests--seem an added slap to the face for a community struggling to maintain basic services and find a way into the future. One hopes that new forms and structures that allow the residents of Otaki to access these resources will be allowed to develop in the years to come. If not, the scenario of an Otaki comprised entirely of empty buildings will become more and more of a possibility.