Business | Satoyama Consortium Special

Satoyama offers a chance to narrow economic gaps

by Kosuke Motani

Chief Senior Economist, The Japan Research Institute, Limited

Satoyama is an ecological term that comes from Japan.

In Japanese, satoyama describes the mountains, hills and woods adjacent to rural communities all over Japan. This meaning has evolved recently to be, “Satoyama encompasses the mountains, woods, farms, fields and rivers surrounding rural communities, which have a stable position in the ecology through the dwellers usage and maintenance over the long term.” Human activity, most of the time, is harmful to the sustainability and recovery of the natural ecosystem. However, in satoyama areas, ecological diversity increases thanks to human activity over many years. In other words, if satoyama loses the human hand, the ecology will start to lose the richness it accumulated over the years. In satoyama, humans are one of the forces that urge the cycle and reproduction of nature.

I have been an advocate of “satoyama capitalism” since 2013. This is a subsystem of the modern economy where anyone can exchange anything using money and success is assessed by the amount of money, more or less. Satoyama capitalism fills the gap of truly money-centered capitalism by putting more weight on the value of cashless exchange, including self-sufficiency, bartering and gifting, in addition to exchanging goods with cash. This new concept also values collaboration over competition, social risk sharing over self-responsibility, securing economic stability after retirement over scrambling to save while working. Conventional capitalism widens the economic gap between people by urging the rich to pile up their wealth, causing stagnation of demand that repeatedly causes the collapse of bubble economies. Piles of immovable assets are left in the aftermath, at the expense of natural resources, which otherwise would have been passed on to the next generation. In contrast, satoyama capitalism, replicating the human participation in the sustainability and recovery cycle of the Japanese satoyama, ensures the circulation of resources and cash through economic activities and promotes the rejuvenation of younger generations. Values that cannot be secured by money such as relief and trust can be gained through the practice of satoyama capitalism.

Satoyama capitalism is not a new principle. It revisits and appreciates the lifestyle of the elderly who live in declining agricultural and fishing communities. The rural areas of Japan, compared to the Western world or even neighbors such as China and Korea, have abundant rain, rich soil and diverse vegetation which allows cooking on stoves using firewood as fuel and growing your own food in the garden, even today. Contrary to large-scale agriculture in the U.S. or Australia dominating the global market, which exhausts the soil and groundwater, satoyama ecology provides water, food and fuel for free, to a certain extent, without destroying the natural cycle. The satoyama ecology has very high sustainability. Elderly people living in urban areas lose any means of income after retirement and stay haunted by future possibilities of pension cuts. However, the elderly populations in rural areas, who support some, if not all their lifestyle with satoyama capitalism, have less fears in aging. I suppose that the essence of satoyama capitalism can be introduced in urban life to recreate the safety and security provided in rural areas, by utilizing idle resources available due to the reduction of the working population. Using idle land as allotment gardens, promoting the use of solar and woody biomass fuel, rebuilding the culture of mutual aid based on a barter economy are some ideas.

My proposition is often criticized by people who say, “The amount of fuel and food obtained from satoyama is negligible from the national perspective.” To this, I would like to say that I am not proposing for a 100 percent self-sustained economy. I am saying that “all Japanese people do not have to depend on 100 percent of their livelihood on money. Even allocating 1 percent of your economy to cashless trade would make a difference.” Zero is not the only alternative to 100. Ninety-nine is also quite different from 100. Businesses that sell and buy goods can include elements gained by self-sufficiency and bartering in their first cost and this will provide leeway in their work. Satoyama capitalism and its promotion is more like an insurance plan that would fill in the gap of conventional capitalism when it fails. Continuing to pay the premium, however small, would help in emergencies, such as large earthquakes and other disasters. Moreover, since the population living in satoyama areas are very small, moving to isolated rural areas from urban areas would allow a self-sufficient lifestyle for one, if not all.

Not including satoyama as an economical insurance and throwing away all other options to pursue “international economic competition,” saying “making money through economic growth is the only solution,” is just another children’s comic that encourages reckless effort without strategy to win in sports. An exit strategy, as well as many options, is crucial in making any project successful. Little by little, urbanites in their 20s and 30s are leaving cities to rural areas to have a whole human life. Younger generations are leaving cities, where child-rearing is a challenge and birth rates are dropping, to move to agricultural and fishery communities. These people are prone to have more children due to the cost reduction effect satoyama has by shrinking daily costs through the provision of its resources. Satoyama capitalism is spreading silently and becoming a hallmark for those who still have hope in stopping the rapid population decrease and increasing sustainability in Japan.

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