Agroecology, Sustainable Food Production and Satoyama

Rice Paddy


CJS-JSPS Symposium 

Agroecology, Sustainable Food Production and Satoyama: Contributions of Japanese Case Studies to the Discussion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Conservation

March 19 (Fri) - March 20 (Sat), 2021 5:00-7:30 PM PST

(March 20-21, 9:00-11:30AM, Japan Time)


The goals of this interdisciplinary symposium are: 1) to understand the historic importance of food and subsistence diversity, social practice, and food sovereignty for the resilience of ecosystems and food production systems, 2) to examine the validity of traditional, local and indigenous ecological knowledge for contemporary agroecological practice, and 3) to evaluate the contribution of Japanese case studies to the current discussion of sustainable food production, circulation and consumption. Agroecology initially started during the 1980s as a discipline of natural science, specifically as the study of ecological phenomena in crop fields. Today, agroecology is defined as an interdisciplinary research field, with an emphasis on establishing both scientific and social foundations for alternative agricultural practice. In the latter context, agroecology critically examines whether conventional agricultural practice with large amounts of external inputs, including chemical fertilizer and pesticide, is sustainable in the long run. Agroecological studies in Japan have led several scholars to reevaluate the importance of traditional and local ecological knowledge (TEK and LEK) in mountainous regions of the Japanese archipelago. Scholars in Japanese studies have also emphasized the critical importance of the conservation of regional landscapes, including satoyama (human-impacted rural landscapes that have been heavily utilized for agriculture and everyday living), and traditional social practice, such as iriaiken (collective use and ownership of non-arable areas near villages), for long-term sustainability of human-environmental interaction. In this conference, scholars from North America and Japan will present contemporary and historical case studies on agroecology, TEK and regional landscapes in Japan and other parts of the Pacific region. Particular emphasis will be on the contribution of Japanese data to the current discussion of food safety, environmental conservation, and resilience of agricultural practice at the times of disasters, social catastrophes, and climate change.



Online via Zoom

This symposium will take place online via Zoom. Registration is required:


Day 1 - (March 19, 5:00-7:30 PM, PST) 

  • 5:00-5:05   Opening Remarks by Dr. Toru Tamiya  (Director, JSPS San Francisco Office)
  • 5:05-5:10   Introduction by the Organizer

Session 1. Subsistence Diversity and Millet Cultivation in Japan: The Importance of Non-Rice Farming

  • 5:10-5:30   "Slash-and-burn Agriculture and Millet Cultivation in Postwar Japan" Kazunobu Ikeya
  • 5:30-5:50   "An Archaeological Perspective on Sustainable Agroecology and Millet Production in Hokkaido" Gary Crawford
  • 5:50-6:00   Discussant | William Balée
  • 6:00-6:10   Break

Session 2. Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Continuity in Landscape Practice

  • 6:10-6:30   "Understanding Changing Roles of Plants in Swidden Landscapes: Cultivation, Forestry, and Ecological Succession in Early Modern Japan"  Taisaku Komeie 
  • 6:30-6:50   "Food Diversity and Traditional Subsistence Practice in Mountainous and Hilly Areas of Japan: Continuity and Change from the Jomon Period to the Present" Junko Habu 
  • 6:50-7:10   "Traditional Management of Shared Resource Commons (iriaichi) in Japan as a Source of Flexibility and Sustainability in Agricultural Livelihoods" Margaret Anne McKean 
  • 7:10-7:20   Discussant | Brett Walker
  • 7:20-7:30   Q&A

Day 2 - March 20, 5:00-7:30 PM, PST 

Session 3. Satoyama Agroecosystems and Reviving Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Japan and Beyond

  • 5:00-5:10   Introduction to Day 2
  • 5:10-5:30   "Restoring Resilient Landscapes: Understanding the Roles of Living Traditional Ecological Knowledge at the Intersection of Satoyama Landscapes, Foodscapes and Agrobiodiversity" Kazumasa Hitaka & Osamu Watanabe 
  • 5:30-5:50   "Utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Tend Geophytes on the Central Coast of California" Joji Muramoto & Alex Jones
  • 5:50-6:00   Discussant |  Stephen Gliessman
  • 6:00-6:10   Break

Session 4. Food and Ecoliteracy Education and Promoting Social-Justice Oriented Food Systems

  • 6:10-6:30   "Changes Surrounding Japanese Agriculture and Issues of Food and Agriculture Education" Sanae Sawanobori 
  • 6:30-6:50   "Framing Agrifood Justice in Sustainable Rural Japan: Explorations of challenges and opportunitiesKeiko Tanaka 
  • 6:50-7:00   Discussant | Miguel Altieri
  • 7:00-7:30   General Discussion


Session 1

Kazunobu Ikeya, National Museum of Ethnology

Gary Crawford, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto 

Discussant | William Balée, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

Session 2

Taisaku Komeie, Kyoto University 

Junko Habu, Professor, University of California, Berkeley 

Margaret Anne McKean, Professor emerita, Duke University 

Discussant | Brett Walker, Professor, Department of Philosophy and History, Montana State University

Session 3

Kazumasa Hitaka, Ehime University 

Osamu Watanabe, Shinshu University 

Joji Muramoto, UC Cooperative Extension Organic Production Specialist, UC Santa Cruz 

Alex JonesManager, Campus Natural Reserve, UC Santa Cruz

Discussant | Stephen Gliessman, Professor emeritus, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session 4

Sanae Sawanobori, Keisen University

Keiko Tanaka, Professor, University of Kentucky 

Discussant | Miguel Altieri, Professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley


Session 1

Kazunobu Ikeya, National Museum of Ethnology

Slash-and-burn Agriculture and Millet Cultivation in Postwar Japan

Slash-and-burn, which is said to be among the oldest forms of agriculture in the world, has been conducted mainly in the humid tropics. However, it has been regarded as an activity that destroys tropical forests, emphasizing the destructive activities of cutting and burning down forests. In the Japanese archipelago, where 70% of the land area is mountainous, slash-and-burn has long persisted as a form of resource utilization of mountainous terrain since the Yayoi period more than 2,000 years ago. Reportedly, most areas were converted from slash-and-burn to cedar plantations after World War II. In recent years, however, slash-and-burn agriculture has been reevaluated as a sustainable resource-conserving farming method. Some areas are trying to maintain or revitalize it. The author has been conducting ecological anthropological research on the use of mountain resources in the Japanese archipelago, particularly addressing hunting and gathering. In addition to hunting and gathering, life in mountain villages generally involves a combination of fishing, farming, and trading, depending on the season. Earlier studies have often conducted paddy rice cultivation in the plains, although few reports of the relevant literature describe studies of field cultivation in the mountains. This report introduces changes of slash-and-burn agriculture that occurred in Japan after World War II, slash-and-burn agriculture in the 1960s, and recent movements of local communities toward slash-and-burn agriculture, combining perspectives from agroecology and the respective histories of regional landscapes. Through these perspectives, we assessed the importance of slash-and-burn in Japanese society.

Gary Crawford, University of Toronto 

An Archaeological Perspective on Sustainable Agroecoology and Millet Production in Hokkaido

Complementary biological and archaeological perspectives offer insight on ecological strategies, both intentional and unintentional, by small-scale communities in early northeastern Japan. A brief outline of millet domestication and its cultural and ecological setting through time starting in China is provided. A case can be made for plant domestication, as well as plant and landscape management developing as early as 8000 to 9000 years ago in parts of North China and, arguably, not long afterward in Japan but with differing consequences. The Chinese trajectory leads to intensive agriculture while the Jomon trajectory did not. The initial steps marked the beginning of at least four millennia of a resilient agroecological adaptation in North China. Jomon adaptations were resilient without the same investment in domesticated crops as their North China. A brief overview of what can be discerned from specific plant ecological data from North China and the southwestern Hokkaido Jomon provides a foundation for a comparison with the ancestral Ainu Satsumon culture and their rain-fed agricultural system that was, in all likelihood, similar to Medieval northeastern Japanese agroecology although adapted to Hokkaido conditions. How archaeological data, particularly data derived from archaeological botany, can contribute to the agroecology discourse in Japan is an underlying theme in this presentation.

Session 2

Taisaku Komeie, Kyoto University 

Understanding Changing Roles of Plants in Swidden Landscapes: Cultivation, Forestry, and Ecological Succession in Early Modern Japan

In early modern Japan, yakihata or swidden agriculture brought about secondary vegetation growth that included useful plants. How the cultivators deliberately influenced this ecological succession and came to be agroforesters is best illustrated by farming practices in the Kii Mountain range. Swidden fields produce not only millets during the cultivation season but also edible wild plants, grass to thatch roofs, and trees for fuel during the fallow season. Plantations of some trees for tea, lacquer, and papermaking in the swidden fields, reflect a practice that began in the seventeenth century. The inhabitants knew how to add useful low-growing trees for ecological succession. It also provides an important context to the introduction of taller trees that could be used for timber, such as sugi or Japanese cedar, to swidden agriculture in the eighteenth century. While the practice of forestry decreased the diversity of plants during the fallow period, it also needed new local rules to control the use of swidden fields. This suggests that the inhabitants tried to operate mountain fields both socially and ecologically.

Junko Habu, UC Berkeley 

Food Diversity and Traditional Subsistence Practice in Mountainous and Hilly Areas of Japan: Continuity and Change from the Jomon Period to the Present

In this presentation, I argue that comparative studies of archaeological data from the prehistoric Jomon period (ca. 14,000-500 BC) and ethnographic data in mountainous and hilly areas of northeastern Japan can help us understand the importance of subsistence diversity and environmental management for long-term sustainability of food systems and human-environmental interaction. Mountainous regions of the Japanese archipelago, in particular the northern Tohoku region, are rich with ethnographic records of the use of wild food resources, other subsistence activities and their seasonal cycles. While rural communities in northern Tohoku are typically classified as agricultural villages, traditional practices in this region emphasize subsistence diversification, storage of starchy food, preparation of famine food, and social alliance, many of which may go back to the Early Jomon period (ca. 5000-3500 BC) when Jomon hunter-gatherers started to intensify their subsistence strategies. The appearance of starchy “staple” food was an epoch-making change in human history in many parts of the world with both positive and negative consequences. Using approaches of historical ecology and agroecology, this presentation argues that the reevaluation of the strengths of traditional food systems at the landscape level may be key when proposing alternative food systems.

Margaret Anne McKean, Duke University 

Traditional Management of Shared Resource Commons (iriaichi) in Japan as a Source of Flexibility and Sustainability in Agricultural Livelihoods

Beginning in the medieval period, Japanese villages developed claims to the uncultivated forest and meadow around the village, using these resources for materials to supplement household needs and for inputs to agriculture on their dry and paddy fields. During the Tokugawa period, largely through the process of taking disputes to court, village households firmed up their claims to shared resources and to decision-making power over how to use those resources, and won legal rights to these claims from both local courts and feudal lords. Villages used the resources on their shared lands as sources of joint income, as building material or fuel, as supplementary food, and as a source of fertilizer. They could use their grasslands as fodder for horses, or as fuelwood coppices, as sources of mountain vegetables (sansei), or for establishing orchards or long-term timber production. The villages that successfully made rules to govern themselves and their resource use were able to manage their commons with sustainability in mind – using mutual regulation to cap their aggregate use of resources within environmental limits. We will look at the variety of uses for the commons and at the kinds of rules villages made to promote sustainability. Japan is one of only a handful of countries with a substantial written record revealing how they used commons in resource management, offering valuable lessons for joint restraints on consumption and living with a richer appreciation of the natural environment we depend on.

Session 3

Kazumasa Hitaka, Ehime University; Osamu Watanabe, Shinshu University 

Restoring Resilient Landscapes: Understanding the Roles of Living Traditional Ecological Knowledge at the Intersection of Satoyama Landscapes, Foodscapes and Agrobiodiversity

In order to increase the resilience of agroecosystems, it is critical to promote several agroecological principles. Above all, we need to identify and revive extant traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and associated techniques that contribute to maintaining a resilient landscape that includes multiple equilibria states both spatially and temporally. For example, Japanese satoyama landscapes, with their historical evolution, exemplify important agricultural heritage, in which farmers and other residents have strategically managed relatively small-scale patchy mosaic of vegetation stands to secure food and other critical resources. While the popular image of the satoyama landscape is dominated by irrigated rice paddy fields and surrounding forests, the importance of fire use should not be overlooked. Critical roles of fire include controlling weeds, clearing plant residues, such as stems and leaves, and arresting vegetational successions in local agroecosystems. Historically speaking, in mountainous areas, where it was difficult to intensify agricultural land use, the role of fire was particularly important in converting forests into grassland and facilitating the acquisition of a wide variety of resources.

From the perspective of agroecology, prescribed burning plays a critical role to remove plant residues and slows down the progress of plant succession. In mountainous areas, where the land is not suitable for rice farming and other types of intensive agriculture, prescribed burning is particularly important to convert forests into grasslands with rich resources. Prescribed burning is an anthropogenic intervention in the environment, through which people can control the spatial extent and the timing of burning. For example, villagers in the Kaida highlands in the Kiso area (Nagano Prefecture) practice prescribed burning every year in April to remove plant residues on pathways that run between crop fields as well as in empty lots. In this area, prescribed burning to convert forests into grassland has a long history because of the production of an indigenous horse breed, the Kiso horse. It has been known that prescribed burning near crop fields encourages the sprouting of warabi bracken, which is typically harvested and consumed by each household. While warabi bracken is known to be poisonous to horses and cattle, people have actively utilized warabi as a valuable food resource. In the Kaida highlands, where prescribed burning has traditionally been practiced to secure grasses as food for horses, the common presence of warabi as a byproduct is worth noting. Traditional agricultural practice in this area reveals the types of vegetation that flourish after cultural burning takes place.

The status of small-scale agroegological systems in Japan that utilize edible wild plants and local varieties of millets is endangered. For our sustainable future, it is critical to actively incorporate TEK-based practices, including the active use of non-mainstream crops and mountain vegetables, as part of multi-stable agroecosystems within the Japanese satoyama landscape.

Joji MuramotoRick Flores, Alex Jones, Justin Luong; UC Santa Cruz 

Utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Tend Geophytes on the Central Coast of California

Edible native geophytes such as Indian potatoes and wild onions were food sources for indigenous people throughout much of California. However, geophyte populations are declining possibly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and lack of traditional ecological management. Using grasslands on the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus, goals of the 3-year project are to 1) examine the effects of traditional ecological management practices on geophyte populations in grasslands, 2) assist with the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program,  a program aiming to assist the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in the relearning of native plant identification, ethnobotany, and cultivation and stewardship of native plants, and 3) educate UCSC undergraduate students about traditional ecological practices. For goal 1, treatments and the type of geophytes to be monitored will be selected based on geophyte populations at UCSC grasslands. Potential treatments include fire using burn-boxes, replanting small geophytes, and untreated control. The effects of treatments on the populations of representative geophytes such as Brodiaea spp. (brodiaea), Chlorogalum spp. (soap plant), Perideridia spp. (yampah), and Triteleia spp. (wild hyacinth) will be monitored at pre- and post-treatments for 3 years. For goal 2, this research project will be integrated with the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program assisting to accomplish the goals of the program. For goal 3, UCSC undergraduate students will assist with the project in collecting and analyzing data. Additional collaborators including conservation ecologists will be sought. Outcomes will be presented to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, local communities as well as at academic meetings. This project is a part of a larger project entitled "Agroecology, Sustainable Food Production and Landscape Conservation: International Collaborations between Japan and the Americas" funded by the Sumitomo Foundation, Japan (PI: Junko Habu (UC Berkeley, Archeology), co-PIs include Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls (UC Berkeley, Agroecology), 12 researchers of Japanese universities, and Joji Muramoto at UCSC).

Session 4

Sanae Sawanobori, Keisen University

Changes Surrounding Japanese Agriculture and Issues of Food and Agriculture

In Japan, where the land is small, small family-owned agriculture has traditionally been practiced. People who put agriculture and agricultural life at the center of their lives make up the rural areas, and the loose connections between these people have maintained and sustained the autonomy of the rural areas. Agriculture is not just an industry, it provides food, clothing and shelter, which is the foundation for people to live, and provides a place where all members, including children, the elderly, and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, can live in good health, was there. However, what Japan has been promoting for the last half century was agriculture as an industry. Recently, agricultural policies have been reviewed, and attention has been focused not only on production but also on the multifaceted functions of agriculture and rural areas. However, as globalization progresses and free trade is being screamed, "profitable agriculture," "large-scale, internationally competitive agriculture," and "export-oriented agriculture" are also being promoted. Among them, problems related to human rights of workers and social justice, which were unthinkable in Japanese society, are rapidly becoming apparent.

Japan is an island nation, and Japan has been thought to be unrelated to the problem of cross-border illegal workers as seen in California. However, the situation is changing as the environment surrounding Japanese agriculture and society changes drastically. With the decrease in the number of successors to agriculture and the aging of farmers, the labor force could not be covered by the domestic government alone, and the Japanese government revised the law and established a technical intern training system including the agricultural field. According to the law, it is said that they have the same pay for equal work as Japanese people, but the reality is that they often come to Japan as technical intern trainees with a large amount of debt and work under extremely harsh conditions. In other words, the revision of the law has become a means for legally bringing low-wage foreign workers to Japan.

On the other hand, as the relationship between producers and consumers is weakening, more and more people do not know how what they eat is produced. The Japanese government enacted the Food Education Basic Law in 2005 and started education to nurture eating, and in 2006 the Organic Agriculture Promotion Law was enacted. Although there are concerns about eating a balanced diet, using pesticides and fertilizers, and whether there is radioactive contamination, few people even ponder the people who work there. Environmental education, food education, and food and agriculture education have come to be conducted at educational institutions. Even though more and more citizens are interested in food safety and its relationship to the environment, very few people are interested in the human rights and social justice of those who work there. This situation is much the same in agricultural education and research at universities. Agriculture is in the academic system of natural sciences, even if there is a point of contact with business administration and economics as to how to make it a management. As an agricultural system, there are very limited opportunities for interdisciplinary joint research and discussion, and it is extremely rare to pay attention to issues such as corporate flag justice.

The authors have been practicing an educational program based on organic vegetable cultivation called life gardening for many years, and by incorporating the diverse perspectives of agroecology into this program, students are aware of food, agriculture, and the environment. We have confirmed from the results of questionnaires that there is a clear change in.

In order to construct a sustainable society, it is necessary to incorporate into education the social justice in the food production system, and it is necessary to incorporate it into the garden-based education, as it has been practiced in Life Lab at UC Santa Cruz for many years. It is an urgent issue to develop environment and food and agriculture education based on the concept of agroecology in Japan.

Keiko Tanaka, University of Kentucky 

Framing Agrifood Justice in Sustainable Rural Japan: Explorations of challenges and opportunities

As one of the oldest concepts in human civilizations, “justice” or what is “just” has been debated over millennia in many fields. Recently, justice has become a critical component of agrifood sustainability discourse and initiatives in the U.S. In Japan, many consumers recognize “fair trade” (公正な貿易) labels as the products that produced and delivered through alternative supply chains. Yet, justice (正義・公正) is still a relatively unfamiliar concept for Japanese scholars and activists when applied to frame potentially desirable future trajectories of the Japanese agrifood system and rural communities. This paper extends my conceptual thinking that problematizes the two sets of juxtaposition commonly used in the discourse of agrifood sustainability: (a) “tyrannies” vs. “justices”; and (b) “neoliberalism” vs. “community”. I explore how this conceptual framework can be applied to investigate the challenges and opportunities for linking “justice” and “sustainability” in the context of rural Japan.