KAMOGAWA, Chiba Pref. (Kyodo) In a tomato patch in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, Kazumasa Umehara, 58, an engineer at an information technology-related firm, took a deep breath of satisfaction.
“I feel relieved,” he said. “It’s like I regained a lost lifestyle.”
The field is part of Kamogawa Ecological-minded Kingdom, a farm set up in 1981 by Toshio Fujimoto, the late chairman of the radical three-party National Federation of Student Self-Government Associations who was arrested for leading violent demonstrations and released from the Tokyo Detention House in June 1969.
Violent strife within the federation intensified during his eight-month imprisonment, and Fujimoto, who married popular singer Tokiko Kato while in detention, left the student movement and tried to wage an ecology campaign against pollution.
The farm he founded gives agriculture and forestry lessons several times a year.
Kato, 62, said in an interview that her husband felt saddened by the student movement and launched the ecology campaign, reportedly wanting to throw himself to the ground and start everything anew.
She said the number of young people interested in farming is on the rise, and young couples have rebuilt old houses near the farm in Kamogawa to engage in agriculture while teaching surfing.
“I see a new trend in the actions of young people,” she said, noting she does not believe success in life goes hand in hand with money. “I am pinning my hopes on them.”
Last spring, Umehara’s company asked him to retire early, because younger people could not be promoted as division directors with him around. While he understood the request, he was deeply divided over whether to look for re-employment or try a different lifestyle.
Around that time, he heard about the farm. And although he ultimately took a new job, he was also moved by his experience at Kamogawa.
Staying two days on the farm, he learned how to harvest tomatoes and make tofu. The tofu he made and the vegetables he reaped appeared on the dinner table.
When digging ditches at the farm, he learned how far removed his earlier life had been from physical labor. But he said: “It was not painful. It suits me to live in nature.”
Hands-on farm training is available in various parts of the country, including Hokkaido, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano and Wakayama prefectures, with support from agricultural cooperatives and local governments.
In 2002, the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives and the Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union jointly created the Furusato (hometown) Return Support Center to provide information about various small towns via its Web site.
Industrialists, confronted with changes in agriculture, have also shown strong interest in the “hometown return” campaign. One of them is Satoshi Iue, 73, chairman of Sanyo Electric Co. and an executive of the National Congress to Make Japan Vigorous through the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Industries, created in June 2004 and headed by former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.
Iue said that during Japan’s era of high economic growth, the agricultural sector both provided the labor force and became the market for household electric appliances.
“It was the support from the agricultural sector that made development of the industrial sector possible,” he said. “Now, we have to think about repaying the agricultural sector for its help.”
Iue said he hopes to ask workers at Sanyo’s plants in agricultural areas to spend half of the week at the factories and engage in farming for the rest of the week.
The “return-to-farming” campaign, which sprung from ecological activities, is now poised to involve the business sector, agricultural cooperatives and local-level administrators.
It is not only middle-aged and elderly people who are visiting Kamogawa. For Akiko Osawa, 24, of Tokyo, being surrounded by nature is a fresh surprise. To cut down trees, she climbed a mountain behind her living quarters. “Physical labor tires me, but on the other hand nature makes me feel invigorated. It’s strange.”
Akihiro Numata, 30, who sits behind a computer screen at his foreign-affiliated employer, hopes to learn skills that give him job flexibility.
His memories of the spate of bankruptcies at large firms, including Yamaichi Securities Co., around the time he entered the work force in 1997 are still fresh and cast the impression that companies may not be able to ensure his future.
Numata said, “I would like to get enough skills so that I can change my job anytime.”
But he admitted he is unable to give up his convenient life in the Tokyo area. “I wonder if I could work in the city center for a few days a week and spend the weekend farming.”
Umehara is also unsure about rural life. It would be difficult for him to move permanently to a farming village without his family’s support.
“But (the experience at Kamogawa) makes me think about the relation between nature and mankind, and the importance of agriculture,” he said.
“If I do quit my job, I hope the move would lead to a more comfortable life. I want to do what I like, and I want to grow some of my own food.”