For Urban Farming Wisdom, Look to Japan


Azby Brown

My neighbors are farmers. They regularly bring us cabbages, cucumbers, bitter melon, tomatoes, eggplants, persimmons, and other local specialties, and their arrival on our doorstep with a box of fresh-picked produce is as much an announcement of the changing seasons as the color of the sky or warmth of the wind. Our conversations often turn to rain, mulch, tools for tilling, and fruit yields from the old but still-productive trees they tend. They offer advice on reviving my stunted tomatoes, and we debate the relative merits of baseball caps for working the fields under the hot sun as opposed to the traditional straw kasa . None of this would be remarkable except that we live in the middle of Yokohama, a progressive city of 3.6 million people, and our houses are so densely packed that they almost touch. My neighbors are Japanese urban farmers, and have been for decades.

Urban development in Japan often leaves small farm plots, rice fields, and other rural features intact while houses and apartments spring up all around them. When American housing developments are built on farmland, nothing of the farm remains. The land is bulldozed and flattened in large multi-acre chunks, the ground cover scraped away to be re-sodded later, new drainage and roadways built. In contrast, the Japanese pattern is generally more piecemeal, old households remaining in place while new dwellings are erected on selected plots.

The farmers in my neighborhood belong to families that, like my Japanese in-laws, have been here for generations. They are mostly elderly now, but the group includes a few younger men who discovered a knack for growing vegetables early on and have temperaments that compel them to do it. Their farming is something deep and rich—an anchor to the land, and a means of reinforcing social bonds. When Masahiro shows up unannounced clutching a bag of persimmons in his calloused hands, saying almost apologetically, "Oh, we picked a lot this year, you'd be doing us a favor by taking some," we feel like we've received a sincere gesture of regard, the fruit of the actual labor of his family.

We also know that the farmers in the neighborhood are monitoring the health of our environment, and can share an excellent perspective on the weather and other conditions that stretches back decades. And "farm time," when we procrastinate by loitering around the fringes of the plot, is an occasion for discussions that can veer productively into deeper shared concerns, political ones perhaps, or interpersonal, or even philosophical, as well as for teaching the local kids a few things about food, water, the weather, or insects. It's an activity that binds generations in a way few others do.


Azby Brown

This particular plot is only about 10 by 20 feet, but its significance and positive impact on all of us are far larger than its dimensions suggest. And it is only one of dozens within a several block radius, each with its own story. Japanese urban conditions are nearly unique, of course, and it might seem difficult to draw lessons from their experience that will resonate with Americans. Urban farming initiatives have taken root in most American cities, but the trend towards increasingly dense urban space in the U.S. seems likely to continue, and many cities may even witness population explosions that could sharply reduce the number of available vacant lots. Yet even now, in situations where little land is available for food production, the Japanese approach can stand as an excellent model.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the farm plot in my immediate neighborhood is how it takes advantage of the peculiarities of the site to make maximum use of available sunlight. It is actually a trapezoid, hemmed in by houses to the north and east, and by a high concrete railway embankment to the southwest. The only access is a narrow, winding footpath that leads eventually to the street. The railway ensures that sunlight is blocked only when trains pass, and though this is every 10 minutes or so, for all practical purposes the sun exposure is perfect. On the other hand, the trains generate large gusts of wind, so the farmers have planted hedges, shrubs, and mulberry bushes around the plot as windbreaks. They have even erected a waist-high paling fence, marvelously ad-hoc, made of old twigs and branches, odd lengths of bamboo, broken umbrella poles, and a few lengths of steel rebar, all tied together with baling wire. They have encouraged vines to engulf it—legumes mostly, like peas and a Japanese variety related to the fava called sora mame . In the best Japanese fashion, this fence serves two purposes at once, providing extra windbreak and maximizing growing area by going vertical.

At first I was concerned that the large Japanese persimmon tree and mullberry bushes almost due south of the plot were seriously interfering with the sunlight. I could see that the persimmon shaded the house from the western sun, while a large shii tree—a broadleaf evergreen that provides edible acorns—shaded the house from the south. But the persimmon seemed wrong in relation to the plot itself. When I brought it up, the farmer pointed out that the space under the spreading branches of the tree and protected by the mulberries has special characteristics ideal for other plants, particularly a wild vegetable called fuki . This microclimate is noticeably shadier, cooler, and moister than the surroundings most of the year, cool and moist enough for moss even in the summer, and in the winter, when sunlight counts most, the tree loses its leaves and lets a little more sunlight in for the winter vegetables.

There are many lessons to be absorbed from this tiny farm plot: read the site, work with what's there, make peculiarities work to your advantage, pay attention to the wind as much as to the sunlight, and go vertical when necessary.



Presented by

Azby Brown, the director of the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo, is the author of Just Enough:  Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. More

Azby Brown was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry (1995), Small Spaces (1996), The Japanese Dream House (2001), and The Very Small Home (2005). An associate professor of architectural design at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology since 1995, he is currently in the Department of Media Informatics. In 2003, he opened the Future Design Institute in Tokyo, of which he is the director.

In his new book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan (Kodansha International, February 2010, $24.95), Brown points to Edo Japan to show how we can live happy, fulfilled, and responsible lives today.

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