Here in Japan today, February 2, the life and lifework of an extraordinary figure is being humbly honored and celebrated: farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. The 100 years of his life are being commemorated today at The Museum of Art, Ehime, in the southern Japanese city of Matsuyama — not far from the family farm where Fukuoka lived and worked most of his life — with a symposium, musical tribute and video messages.
Though I can’t be there for that official event, I would like to commemorate Fukuoka on my own this weekend by reflecting on his life and remembering how, in his way, he helped changed the world. It would be no exaggeration to say that at least in the field of agriculture the world over, certainly in the so-called “organic farming movement” that has grown so dramatically the past few decades, Fukuoka has been a leading light and a huge inspiration to many people.
During a time of massive industrialization of agriculture in Japan after World War II, Fukuoka stood out from other farmers by advocating instead a saner, healthier relationship with nature in every way — physically, mentally, spiritually. He rejected the corporatization and government-supported mass production of food and predicted early on how this would come back to haunt us someday in a big way.
As a farmer, Fukuoka practiced what he preached by following the ancient, time-honored patterns and laws of nature, not of man, in what he called shizen noho (natural farming): no pesticide, no weeding of crops, no fertilizer and no cultivation (that is, no tilling or plowing of the land). In other words, he said, we need to let nature do its work instead of humans trying to control the course and results of nature. His methods proved to be more sustainable in the long run than the industrial-style farming practiced on his neighbors’ rice farms and by other farmers around Japan.
Most importantly, the foundation of Fukuoka’s farming practices was a strong sense of spirituality. In the true Buddhist way, he believed in the interrelated of all things in nature and in human society, and saw the only real way forward for the human race as being a return to and a reliance on nature, just as indigenous societies have done since the beginning of human time on this planet.
In 1975 Fukuoka laid out his philosophy and farming practices in a Japanese book titled Shizen Noho: Wara-ippon no Kakumei（「自然農法・わら一本の革命」）, literally, “Natural Farming: The One-Straw Revolution.” As luck would have it, Fukuoka had young volunteer farmhands from around Japan and from foreign countries helping him out on the ground at the time.
One of those visiting farmhands, Larry Korn from the United States, helped get that Japanese book translated and published in 1978 in Fukuoka’s name as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. The book introduced Fukuoka’s farming methods to a new audience beyond the borders of Japan, and reportedly went on to be translated into more than 25 languages internationally. The One-Straw Revolution is considered today a key literary contribution to the sustainable farming movement worldwide.
With the international publicity that came from his English-translated book, Fukuoka went from being a little-known (if not eccentric) farmer in a small corner of Japan to being a respected voice in the growing movement of organic farming worldwide. Over the years he traveled to various countries and shared his farming practices and spiritual philosophy; he was always warmly welcomed, especially in India. With great passion Fukuoka took up the cause of what he called “greening the deserts” of the world, in Africa and elsewhere, using the same kind of “natural farming” method and philosophy that he had proven successful back in Japan.
Fukuoka’s proposed “revolution” was not only in the way that we humans treat nature but also in how we view nature and live with nature in our daily lives. There was a lot of radical talk in Western societies of “revolution” back in the 1960s and 1970s, but what Fukuoka proposed from an Eastern perspective was a major change literally from the ground up and from deep within us. As he wrote in The One-Straw Revolution: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
Fukuoka passed away in 2008 at the age of 95 in Iyo, the small town where he had grown up and spent much of his life. By that time, organic farmers around the world had taken up what they call “Fukuoka farming”, adhering not only to the practices of tending to the land that Fukuoka espoused but also doing so from a spiritual base. There are today a number of such Fukuoka-style farmers in Japan and around the globe. I call them “Fukuoka’s Children” since they are carrying his message and life’s work into a new generation, something we sorely need today.
Two years after Fukuoka’s passing, in May 2010, I (as a mere backyard gardener) decided to make my own personal pilgrimage by visiting the original Fukuoka Farm in rural Shikoku. After arriving, I was quickly put to work by helping to harvest the citrus fruit that grew abundantly in the steep, mountainous orchards — not an easy job!
I imagined then how Fukuoka had planted those very same trees himself in what he once admitted were near-impossible conditions so many decades before. When I was there, though, the ripe, beautiful-looking citrus fruits were so abundant that they would occasionally drop off the trees and roll down the mountainside as we were picking and hauling them back to the warehouse for sorting and packaging. Later I helped out with the chores at the warehouse and prepared the fruits and vegetables then in season (citrus and kiwi fruits, and mushrooms) to be shipped out by small trucks.
In just the two days I was there, I saw how Fukuoka’s vision of sustainable, healthy-minded farming was alive and well, long after he had shared those practices with farmers the world over. I returned home by bus tired but profoundly inspired.
So today, on the centenary celebration of Masanobu Fukuoka’s birth, I remember the man and the message. I honor his life and his achievements, many of which you can read about in the links below. Take some time, reader, and find out who Fukuoka was — and in doing so, be reminded that one person’s life can indeed make a positive difference in this world.
I honor the light of Life that Fukuoka has shined in these desperate times, and am filled with hope and optimism that there are many people in various countries and cultures who still carry his vision forward, even as we speak.
Fukuoka-sensei, wishing you a very happy 100th birthday today!
■ Mother Earth News: “Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘The One-Straw Revolution’” 
■ Mother Earth News: “Masanobu Fukuoka: Japanese Organic Farmer” 
■ Video documentary: “Natural Farming with Masanobu Fukuoka” 
■ The Gandhi Foundation: “Masanobu Fukuoka and Natural Farming”