Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Gender and Organic Farming
Kana and other organic farmers meet with various ambiguities and challenges as they create alternative identities in the midst of Japanese life, especially Because organic farming combines residual and emergent forms of resistance. Nowhere is this clearer than in gender relations, an issue that has remained tangential to the main goals of JOaa organic farming but is important to many of the members, especially younger ones. Kana's relationship with her father-assistant is a case in point.
If the household is taken as the unit of self-sufficiency in the ideal of JOaa organic agriculture, Kana's father's help fits the ideal lifestyle of organic farming. Originally the aim of the JOaa was to reinvigorate the ideal of the multi-generational farm household, which in the 1960s and '70s was fragmenting as people were encouraged by economic circumstances and the government to leave rural households and work in the cities—or to farm part time and get another job near the farm. The JOaa leaders were firmly against these trends, wishing to maintain strong, full-time farming households that they believed would sustain values of group cooperation, empathy, and respect, as well as people's personal care for the land in an environmentally sustainable way over generations. Indeed, their ideas fit with mainstream ideals in postwar Japan around selected values of agricultural households, which were often envisioned as the backbone of the Japanese value system. In this sense, Kana and other organic farmers were delving back into Japan's traditional past in order to reshape and revitalize the values of the present so that they would be more focused on personal rather than economic relationships (Block 1990). They felt they were providing a path back to core agrarian values, which were still taught in schools and which shored up Japan's vision of itself as psychologically and socially unique even if the nation had been badly tarnished during world war ii (allen 2004; Befu 2001). Thus, from this point of view, strong kinship ties between father and daughter that function to support a household economically (as in Japan's history) are not out of line with JOaa goals and endear these goals to mainstream Japanese.
But the relationship between Kana and her father was tricky and shed an interesting light on the delicate balance between residual and emergent values in this alternative lifestyle. Kana and others in this movement were looking back toward an idealized picture of the agricultural household, but that picture did not necessarily take into account male-female and age hierarchies. In the past, young women obeyed their fathers. In taking on her father as her assistant, Kana drew on past kinship traditions but simultaneously challenged them: her father was an older male whose experience and knowledge should be respected by his daughter, although his retirement signaled a gradual shift in power relations. In 2008, i watched the relationship of the two of them with interest. At one point, they had a disagreement about whether the compost pile that was ripening in a wood-lined cage against the barn needed to be turned or not. He said, “it'll be okay; just leave it.” The turning required the cooperation of the two of them to take down the wooden walls. Kana replied, “Definitely not,” and started to take down the walls by herself. The father said nothing, silently pitching in and helped her dismantle the wood, corrugated metal sheets, and tarp, later wielding the hoe to loosen the compost while she turned it with a shovel. Even i could see that the texture was changing as she stirred it. The tension was eased when he commented, “ah, this turned out well.” Later, the father said to me, “she knows about organic agriculture. There has to be a leader or there is no production. I give guidance, but 80–90 percent of the time, she is right, so i back off.” Kana also said of her father and her, “we get along well. He knows about farming because he grew up on a farm.” She was willing to give him credit for being better than she at estimating the weight of a bunch of vegetables, for all vegetables had to be weighed so each person's box was given an equal amount. He would pick up a bunch and say “300 grams” and be very close. If they misjudged by too much when picking, vegetables would go to waste.
In short, Kana and her father were working out a new style in their father-daughter relationship that actively denied the traditional hierarchical relationship and put her in the driver's seat of her organic agriculture business yet gave him respect as well. In this sense, this alternative lifestyle was using old ways to forge new ways that fit the ethos of the contemporary era. It satisfied her wish to actively change Japan and his wish to have an active retirement.
Part of the ambiguity of both resistance and identity in this alternative lifestyle is that the expressed goals of the organic movement are not clear about gender relationships. The goals are explicit only in terms of the producerconsumer relationships, which should be non-market and personal. That said, people who have come into this movement over the years have carried with them the ideas of other movements for social change, including that of more equality between men and women. The couple in northeast Japan who were mutual friends of Kana's and mine wanted to change the gender system as well as the food system. They could not marry if they maintained separate names in protest of the law, which does not allow married people to be on the same household register unless they both have the same name. At forty, they have had three children and are still not legally married. Their neighbors in Rural iwate Prefecture do not like this arrangement, but they ignore it because they like them and value having younger farmers in the neighborhood. “we thought the law would change long before this and it is still under discussion, but . . . Sometimes it gets difficult for us,” they said. They get implicit support from their JOaa friends. What is hard for them now is to maintain their ideal of equality between man and woman while the woman births and breast-feeds children. Although they try to make decisions together, he tends to spend more time in the fields.
The modern gender relations sought by another of Kana's friends, emi, a woman in her mid-thirties, are also a contradictory combination of new and old ways. Emi interned for a year with a tokyo organic farmer, then married a fellow JOaa member who was already farming in Chiba. Taking advantage of inheritance customs in order to own farmland in the area, he had arranged to be adopted into the family register of a farmer's widow who would soon die. He would get the house and land and in return would carry on that family's name in the village and care for the family's ancestors, graves, and neighborhood relationships. Thus when emi got married, she took on the name of this family rather than that of her husband. Emi said, “it's a bit strange having this last name that doesn't even belong to my husband, but i am adjusting to it.” Because of their responsibilities, they were expected to enact the gender relations customary to the village; emi's husband was assumed to be the household head who represented the household in village and shrine organizations. Although emi had her own independent consumer group, he was viewed as the farmer, and they had to actively resist this external prejudice within their own relationship.
Kana was struggling with her own decisions about how to negotiate a marriage relationship in 2012 because she was determined to stick to her oppositional ideals to the extent possible in terms of gender and organic farming. After we had settled into her kotatsu (low warming table with heater underneath and blanket under the tabletop to keep in the warmth) in her small house, she surprised me with the news that she herself was going to be married. Now thirty-eight, she had indeed surprised herself by agreeing to marry a local man who was a salaryman, not a farmer, to whom she had been introduced and had grown quite fond of. “i didn't want to marry a salaryman—someone who didn't really like his work. And i don't want to quit farming. But i realized he was honest and good and didn't mind that i don't like to decorate myself or my house much.” They had talked at length and come to various agreements. She would continue to farm, and they would live in this village near her barn and Biggest field, though in a bigger house. They would each keep their own bank accounts and share tasks at home.
Her biggest decision was whether to have children or not, but she was finally convinced to do so by the words of one of her organic farmer friends who said, “i understand not wanting children, but people who don't want to have children want to remain as a child. They want to be treated as a child.” Kana said, “that hit me hard,” as she punched her fist into her forehead. “in thirty minutes i decided to have children.” Her husband-to-be was glad, as he wanted children, but she requested that he take time off from his company for child leave—guaranteed for men by law. He asked and his company would give only six months rather than a year, but she was satisfied with that.
Kana is now looking at models of other women farmers who farm at a lower level and sell their goods mainly at special events rather than through a weekly consumer group. Her future husband has not yet offered to help her in the fields, but she realizes that her father's strength is an important part of her operation, and she hopes she will get some weekend help from her husbandto-be if and when needed. Her organic friends wager that in the long run, he will become interested and help her.
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