Japan's Hutterites hold on to a dream for community

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times

Otawara — yes, that’s spelled with a “t” — is one of those places few people know and most confuse with somewhere else (in this case with Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture).

However, travel about 165 km north of Tokyo and you’ll find it, tucked away in the northeast corner of Tochigi Prefecture.

There’s little to offer visitors in the way of sightseeing, and the region’s only real claim to fame is that it’s located next to the onsen-rich area of Nasushiobara, which also features numerous quirky theme parks and museums, and the royal family’s summer retreat, Nasu Imperial Villa.

Otawara’s main attraction is that it has none. The fact it lies well off the beaten track was the reason a group of Christians left the bright lights of Tokyo behind in 1972 and chose the area to start the first — and thus far only — Hutterite colony in Japan.

The Hutterites, like the Amish and the Mennonites, are a communal branch of Christian Anabaptists. Their communities are scattered around the western and midwestern regions of North America.

However, take a 40-minute drive from Nishi-Nasuno Station on the Tohoku Main Line, head down an incredibly winding road that snakes through low-lying hills and rice fields and Otawara is where you’ll end up. The colony occupies a natural gully between the hills that has been cleared of trees and repopulated with a few homes.

Greeting guests are the yelps of Hillary, the colony’s resident mongrel. She was brought in to protect the chickens the group raises from wild animals such as boars and raccoon dogs.

“We were initially looking (for land) in Otawara, but the 13 or 14 shrines in the town — which at the time had a population of 1,500 — didn’t want us nearby and nobody would sell us the land we needed (nearer the town center), so we ended up way out here,” says colony matriarch Mariko Kikuta. “At first there was no water or electricity here, and we had some people come and throw stones at us, so we really had a hard time. There were only four of us then, and the little bit of land we were able to buy we had to purchase bit by bit. It was only very slowly that we acquired the land we have now — around 2.5 hectares.”

As property increased, so did the population — the group grew to 40 people. The new arrivals weren’t just a source of manpower, but a raison d’être for bringing Christianity to a largely Shinto and Buddhist region.

Almost completely self-reliant, they made or grew everything they needed on-site. They built their own homes, the church, farm sheds and massive coops capable of housing hundreds of the colony’s prized gotō breed of chickens. The group eventually constructed a communal dining hall and social area, which is crucial to a Hutterite colony.

Religious services took place four times a week in a church largely unrecognizable to many other Christian denominations — Hutterites don’t use crosses in their services and the church hall doesn’t have an altar. Pews — hand built of course — are positioned to face a huge plate-glass window that looks out onto the hillside.

From the start, the colony was under the leadership of Fumio Kikuta and, in line with Hutterite culture, he was aided only by the senior male residents. The group also received Hutterite and Mennonite guests from overseas.

The chicken coops were erected on a minor peak that has been dubbed Egg Mountain. The gotō breed produces top-of-the-range eggs that became well-known outside the colony — so much so that supermarket chain Seijo Ishii started selling them.

“We even had Fuji TV up here once to report on our eggs,” recalls Mariko before indicating her disdain at one of the presenters picking up a chicken and waiting for its egg to pop out.

“Besides the chickens and the eggs, we focused primarily on growing citrus fruits, plums, kiwis and raspberries, which all went into jams,” she adds. “(And) in the winter months, the only option was to switch to yukinōgyō (snow farming), which was mainly cherries, grapes and persimmons for the fruit crop, with broccoli and Chinese cabbage for the vegetables.”

In a small bakery, the members regularly turned out fresh loaves of bread for shared meals in the adjacent dining hall, but there has been no bread since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011; the machine inside the bakery was moved off its foundations and is no longer operational. However, that is the least of the colony’s problems today.

The community of Japanese Hutterites is nowhere near the size it was 30 years ago. Whether or not it was with the arrival of television in 1988 — just in time for the Seoul Olympics — is unknown, but Mariko hints at the allure of the big city on the younger generation.

The population dropped, some members got older and passed away, others lost interest in the lifestyle and moved back to “the world,” which is how these Hutterites refer to mainstream society.

The Kikutas’ four sons, all of whom were raised within the colony, now work and live in Tokyo — at some of the nation’s leading firms, according to their parents. None of them show any interest in returning to Otawara.

Then, in 2007, Fumio had a stroke while carrying out routine maintenance of a heavy-duty tilling machine. He recovered in hospital and eventually returned to the colony, but now requires the use of a cane.

Four years later the March 11 earthquake occurred. That day is usually associated with the tsunami that destroyed the coast of the Tohoku region, but the shaking in Otawara was enough to essentially sentence the colony to a slow and protracted death.

Seijo Ishii canceled its contract with the community for Kikuta eggs due to radiation fears — a sore point with Mariko.

“We still sell eggs to supermarkets in the town of Otawara and elsewhere, but not nearly as many as we used to,” she says.

Bereft of a major financial lifeline, the colony has now seen membership slip to just five people — with a combined age of 372, according to Mariko.

Fumio is the only male resident left, leaving him in charge. However he is mainly confined to his home and its adjacent church, which he visits only for the now-weekly services. The bulk of the work in the day-to-day management of the group falls to its remaining female members.

One of these is the wonderfully sprightly Mrs. Aizawa (who asked her first name not be published). The 83-year-old is still in possession of a rather dry sense of humor — calling me a “gentleman” when she hears I’m from England. The sparkle in her eye is maintained, she says, by collecting eggs every day — no mean feat with hundreds of chickens spread across multiple pens up on Egg Mountain.

Before I make my departure, Aizawa and Mariko invite me to share some herbal tea and a simple meal of French toast and salad.

Made by the colony’s members, the tea is a wonderful respite against the biting wind outside. We take it in the communal hall, surrounded by four large tables with benches that are capable of seating 32. The size of the place can’t help but remind the remaining members just how hopeful things once looked for the colony.

As if reading my mind, Aizawa begins to recall stories from when the crowded tables were laden with food in her brighter, younger days.

When asked whether publicity would help in rescuing the colony now, Mariko chirps in one last time.

“People must come of their own accord to Hutterite colonies,” she says. “Homestays for limited periods are OK, of course, and some people who like farming do come (for this reason). However, people really must approach us on their own.”

And with that, armed with two dozen of the group’s finest eggs and a handful of citrus fruit, it was time to negotiate the perilous access road and return to “the world” outside.

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