Where is the spirit?

In reflecting about the Japanese government’s highly admirable pursuit of the Satoyama Initiative, I am wondering where is the discussion about culture, about community, about the underlying spiritual worldview of the satoyama and satoumi cultures. The underlying worldview of embeddedness in nature, of oneness with the environment, is clearly what undergirded and made possible the establishment and evolution of the original satoyama socio-ecological production landscapes.

Now, however, for all of the well-intentioned efforts to revitalize satoyama for the sake of biodiversity and cultural preservation, I have yet to see mention of what I believe is that glue that holds it all together. So far, I’m seeing a modern scientific worldview trying to recreate the recognizable pieces of a historically complex social and environmental ecosystem. And as we all know, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

What is that intangible quality that supersedes this piece-meal summation? What is it that is necessary for the government and NGOs to be fully conscious of if they are to succeed in their endeavors? I believe the invisible glue is the worldview of the residents themselves. A worldview of oneness, of spirit. To be sure, this worldview is ancient, but not archaic. It isn’t reflected in the modern scientific paradigm (save for quantum physics) but it is alive and well nonetheless. Growing in recognition and influence in fact.

And unless this is properly recognized as the requisite underlying reason for being of these mature satoyama landscapes, no amount of technical innovation, capital expenditure, rural revitalization efforts tied in with modern scientific knowledge, etc., will suffice in re-establishing viable, sustainable, resililient satoyama communities.

Community fabric, embedded worldview, spiritual connection to the land, and other inherently feminine qualities are largely absent from modern discussions, but for relocalization and revitalization goals to work, they must become part of the planning equation and conversation.

Of course, I’m not Japanese and I’m not in Japan, so perhaps the conversation is happening and I’m just not privy to it, or not looking in the right place. However, if the learnings of the Satoyama Initiative are going to be offered to the world in the hope that the Japanese experience can be brought to bear elsewhere, then it seems to me that an explicit discussion of worldview’s importance would be beneficial.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lorenz Poggendorf, Ph.D. on July 14, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Dear Alan Zulch,

    thank you for this valuable contribution and thoughts. As me, you are not Japanese, however, it seems that sometimes Japan needs the view from outside in order to understand their own culture. Nevertheless I wonder that I hardly find Japanese people with your perspective. Your title hits the nail on the head: “Where is the spirit?” points directly towards what I am missing in the satoyama debate. I also believe that satoyama is linked to wabi-sabi culture and has a spiritual backbone that is hardly mentioned in latest Satoyama ecosystem research. I am a landscape planner from Germany, but wrote my doctoral thesis about the landscape of local Shinto shrines in Japan. I am also an expert of Japanese gardens, therefore know and admire the book of Leonard Koren (Wabi-Sabi). Congratulations to your interesting and inspiring blog. If you have any hints for me on this topic (Satoyama and its spiritual backbone), please let me know. Thank you very much.
    With kind regards from Tokyo,



    • Dear Lorenz,
      What a pleasure to receive your kind and affirming note. It is certainly a rarity for me to find someone who recognizes the connections as you do. Your landscape planning background and doctoral thesis involve areas I would love to learn more about. I think the hints on the topic that you mention could easily be coming from you, rather than me, but I’d certainly enjoy further dialogue with you. I’m very pleased you took the time to write a comment.
      Warm regards,


  2. Posted by Lorenz Poggendorf, Ph.D. on July 15, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Dear Alan,

    thank you for your kind reply and interest! What just comes to my mind today is: Do you know the ”Final Straw movement” that is also engaged in Satoyama reactivation with an attitude of ”living wih the land”? They refer to Masanobu FUKUOKA from Shikoku, who first introduced organic farming and a different attitude towards nature in Japan. Unfortunately, this great man already died six years ago, but I had the luck to have been able to meet him on his farm for a day in autumn 1995.
    Anyway, I am invited to give a presentation during a Satoyama symposium in Hyogo Prefecture this autumn, and I will definitely include religious and spiritual aspects into my speech.
    If you come to Japan and if there is a chance or time to meet, please contact me, if you want. Apart from this, I would be happy if we find a way to keep in touch and exchange our findings and news about this important topic.
    Thank you very much again.



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