Sustainability as Community

Healing in a Japanese Ecovillage

William P. Brecher, Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Washington State University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Article 15 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.


Sociological research has shown that disasters trigger an appreciation for community solidarity and safe, sustainable environments. It does not suggest any correlation between the two, however. Japan’s complex emotional response to the 3.11 disasters is indeed characterised by a greater valuation of community and environmental sustainability. This article finds that these needs are not mutually exclusive. Its study of two ecovillages suggests, rather, that community building and the successful implementation of more environmentally sustainable lifestyles are closely correlated, and that a stable post-3.11 society will need to devote equal attention to each. It uses the Konohana Family (KF) ecovillage as its primary case study to illustrate forms of interdependence between community resilience and environmental sustainability. The Millennium City ecovillage is then introduced to demonstrate the limitations of prioritising environmental sustainability at the expense of community. The article concludes that community solidarity must be a consciously-incorporated component of any strategy for achieving environmental sustainability.

Keywords: Konohana Family, sustainability, alternative communities, tsunami, reconstruction, Millenium City ecovillage.

Japan’s efforts to heal from the triple disaster of 3.11.2011—the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—have been fraught with controversy and confusion. Reconstruction initiatives are slowed by an incoherent vision and uncertain leadership; intense anti-nuclear sentiment has divided the country and overturned its energy policy; and anger toward the Tokyo Electric Power Company and central government has escalated rather than abated.

Not only have official responses to 3.11 sparked controversy, they have done little to address the sense of vulnerability afflicting many Japanese citizens. Historical precedents indicate that the solace and emotional security generated by strong communal support facilitate recovery from great human tragedy. They also suggest that post-disaster reconstruction must prioritise the reestablishment of communal support mechanisms. Daniel P. Aldrich has found, for example, that social capital (social relations) plays a greater role in revitalising local communities than physical infrastructure or economic capital. Examining several noted natural disasters from the past century—the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005—he finds that in each case local populations with strong social networks and more community activities were more resilient and recovered more quickly. Communities that lacked strong interpersonal bonds, even those that had received external infusions of material aid, struggled or failed to recover.1

The events of 3.11 merely extended and catalysed the post-bubble convulsions that had already afflicted the country for two decades. Many saw the economic crash of 1990-91 as evidence that the socioeconomic model upon which Japan relied for a half century had broken down. This was a period of widespread disillusionment manifested as a spate of social problems, from an epidemic of apathy, withdrawal, bullying, and general dysfunction among the country’s youth, to rising rates of depression and suicide among its adult population.2 Such were symptoms of a widespread skepticism toward the promises of modernity, a skepticism that was convincing growing numbers to seek alternative, more sustainable lifestyles outside the social mainstream.

The triple disaster, therefore, only reinforced preexisting concerns over the fractures endemic to modern life, and intensified calls for community strengthening. Post-3.11 surveys conducted throughout the country found that safety, conservation, peace of mind, relationships, and “a sense of togetherness with others” stood out as people’s top priorities.3 Such sentiments explain the explosive post-3.11 expansion of Japan’s Transition Town (local resilience) movement, as well as the growing number of NPOs working to strengthen community self-sufficiency.

While emotional fallout from the 3.11 tragedies has highlighted environmental safety and resource sustainability as urgent priorities, it has also called for healing strategies that restore and animate community resilience. This article posits that community building and environmentally sustainable lifestyles are not only compatible but can be mutually reinforcing, and that a sustainable post-3.11 society will need to devote equal attention to each.

As ambitious attempts to integrate community and environmental sustainability, ecovillages and likeminded eco-communities stand as archetypes that illuminate how such a society may function. Do these experimental settlements indeed achieve an interdependent synergy between community building and environmental sustainability? Are ecovillages that give equal attention to community and the environment more successful? If so, what can they contribute to Japan’s healing process, and what can mainstream society learn from their experience? This study answers these questions by examining the correlation between an eco-community’s success (measured in terms of longevity, membership satisfaction, and progress toward reducing its environmental impact) and the energy that it directs toward community building. It uses Konohana Family (KF), the oldest and most established of Japan’s ecovillages, as its primary case study.4 The privately run Millennium City (MC) ecovillage will then be introduced to place KF within a comparative context. Our findings illuminate the role of community building within the context of post-3.11 Japan’s efforts to secure long term environmental safety and resource sustainability. They also have clear implications for the country’s reconstruction measures, as well as for its future energy and environmental policies.

Contact with KF was initiated in fall 2011 by the author’s Research Assistant, Takahashi Emi, who then travelled to KF to conduct an initial round of interviews. The author then carried out fieldwork on site for a three-day period in July 2012. In addition to working, eating, and sleeping at KF, he toured work sites, fields, livestock compounds, and processing facilities. He also conducted informal interviews with founding members, newer members, and care guests (convalescents).

Konohana Family: What it is and is not

An ecovillage is a “human scale full-fledged settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”5 It has also been defined as an intentional community that balances ecologically responsible practices with a communal support system for the purpose of maximising social and spiritual fulfillment.6 This three-tiered objective—ecological, social, and spiritual enhancement—also parallels the Global Ecovillage Network’s three-legged stool model for ecovillage design.7 In practice, however, the term ecovillage is deployed to represent a broad variety of initiatives ranging from urban planning projects to co-housing startups, religious communes, and tourist resorts. Generally, ecovillages aggregate around a group of core members for whom urban settings and mainstream socioeconomic structures preclude spiritual, ecologically friendly lifestyles.

Such was the case with Konohana Family. Prior to founding the community, Isadon, the group’s spiritual leader, worked as an interior designer and carpenter. Among his clients and others in the community he became known for possessing an unusual sensitivity and ability to detect people’s tensions and emotional needs. A number of clients began consulting him on personal matters. Some then formed a study group and eventually found themselves meeting daily. After several years, twenty members, with Isadon, decided to live together as a single community. In 1994 they moved to Fujinomiya City in Shizuoka, near the foot of Mt. Fuji, and established Konohana Nôen, named after Konohana Sakuya-hime, the Shinto tutelary deity (ujigami) of Mt. Fuji.8

As with most large, successful ecovillages around the world, KF began as an experimental spiritual community that prioritised strong horizontal connections between members.9 Its dual objective of securing interpersonal harmony and living in attunement with nature provided the cohesion critical for the community’s longevity. Organic farming was the natural choice of occupational endeavour, selected more as a requirement for economic independence than for its promise as a source of income. It also afforded the Family a more natural lifestyle. “There were no guidelines or precedents for us to follow; we were pioneers,” Isadon recalls. “None of us were agricultural specialists so we had to learn from our mistakes.”10

Had they looked for precedents, Japanese ecovillages like KF would have found an abundance. For, while they may feel themselves to be “pioneering,” in both principle and practice modern ecovillages resurrect salient features of pre-modern agrarian communities. Edo period (1600-1868) farming villages, for example, achieved self-sufficiency through strict regulations on sources of wood, water, fertiliser, and food. They practiced recycling, water conservation, flood control, soil erosion prevention, as well as crop rotation and synergistic crop pairings. Forestry management techniques like reforestation and rotational felling helped regulate woodland resources. Axes were permitted, but the crosscut saw was outlawed, as it facilitated silent poaching of protected forests.11 Measures carried out in the interests of ecological and social sustainability were complemented by a spiritual appreciation for those resources, and for the natural world generally. As a set of animistic beliefs aggregated from the needs of agricultural communities, Shinto grounded an intimate, respectful relationship between humans and their natural surroundings.

Japan’s pre-modern agrarian communities thus fulfilled the very objectives sought by modern ecovillages. As traditionally practiced, collective farming, along with collective public and private works projects, exist in Japan’s historical memory but are also being preserved within some modern communities.12 Perhaps their most important lesson for contemporary ecovillagers is their understanding of community solidarity as inseparable from individual well-being. What KF’s founding members proposed to do in 1994, therefore, was new from their own perspective, but in important ways was also an excavation of historical practice.

The Family has expanded rapidly in recent years. It acquired eleven new members in the first seven months of 2012 and is expecting more. Currently its memberships stands at eighty-one (33 men, 48 women) with an average age of thirty-two. The fifty-six adult members run the family’s various ventures: organic farming, processing agricultural products, filling and shipping private orders, running an inn for care guests (convalescents) and other visitors, and caring for its young children. Teams of members perform the labour required by these various ventures, while children attend public schools. Each member may be variously assigned to cooking duties, vegetable and paddy field maintenance, livestock, construction, or overseeing the inn. An office team attends to clerical, accounting, publishing, and IT-related tasks. Three nurses provide medical care but also work outside the community. Members have also formed a music, dance and theatre group that gives performances around the country.

Income generated by the inn, the sale of produce, and the Family’s various educational programs is deposited into a single account. Once all expenses are disbursed, any remaining funds are divided among the adult members. In 2011, for example, after living expenses, children’s education, health and pension plans, and other supplies, members’ individual income amounted to about $3,000. The notion of private money, however, is philosophically inconsistent with the community’s collectivist objectives and so typically these private reserves are voluntarily donated back to cover additional community expenses, such as the construction of new buildings.

Operations are conducted using eco-friendly practices that maximise self-sufficiency. Currently the Family produces 217 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including fourteen kinds of rice, on about sixteen ha. of land. The majority of this produce is grown from the Family’s own seeds, which it saves for planting the following year.13 From these crops it also produces processed foods like soy sauce, miso, soba, bread, crackers and cookies. It keeps 670 chickens for eggs, goats for milk, and its twenty-five beehives yield about a dozen varieties of honey. Aside from salt, sugar, and some spices, KF produces 100% of its food. It also makes its own biodegradable soap, hair rinse, and toothpaste. In the past the Family converted cooking oil collected from local businesses into biodiesel fuel for cars and trucks. Now it buys converted biodiesel from a local organisation supporting the handicapped. It has also installed several composting toilets and plans further to expand its use of renewable energy.

While organic farming was an uneven learning process fraught with setbacks, the Family’s agricultural productivity was aided by employing probiotics for an array of functions. KF learned to modify effective microorganisms (EM), a commercially available product containing more than one hundred microorganisms in a concentrated solution, by adding certain curative leaves and tangerine peels to the mixture. This modification not only enhanced its antioxidising capabilities, it introduced indigenous microorganisms that facilitated the mixture’s adaptation to the local soil. The Family now uses this brew, called Konohana-kin (Konohana bacteria), to fortify its crops, soils, and livestock. Additionally, KF has found that spraying its bee hives with Konohana-kin provides an effective means of supporting the bees’ natural immunity, obviating the antibiotics commonly used by the beekeeping industry to prevent disease. The brew’s health effects for mammals mimic that of yogurt, namely introducing lactic acid-producing bacteria into the digestive tract. Mixing Konohana-kin into the food of goats and chickens and allowing it to ferment for a month, members found, results in healthier animals and odourless manure. Not surprisingly, members have also adopted it into their own diets and credit it with the fact that no KF member has suffered a serious illness in over a decade.14

Carbon circulation is another technique used in KF’s organic farming. Generally, the term organic refers to produce grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. When abstinence from these substances yields small, sickly produce that rots quickly, farmers may compensate by applying organic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers. Overreliance on natural fertilisers, however, may attract an influx of insects that feed on the fertilised leaves. KF has again developed an effective countermeasure to this cycle by nurturing microorganisms in the soil rather than feeding the plants directly. Adding sources of carbon such as hay and wood chips to the soil feeds the organisms and insects that in turn produce nutrients and enzymes for the crops. The result is robust produce grown without additional fertiliser.

Pest control is also achieved through strategic planting combinations. Marigolds are grown alongside a variety of crops to repel aphids and other insects. Wheat and peas form a particularly synergistic pairing. Peas are a favourite food of aphids. Moisture on the surface of wheat attracts ladybugs, a natural predator of aphids. The ladybug population then protects the peas from aphid damage. Since instituting this pairing, KF claims, its pea yield has nearly doubled.

Combined with the various initiatives outlined above, KF’s collective living and farming yield an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. In 2007 KF calculated that its eco-footprint—a measure of the amount of land and water required by a population to produce its resources and dispose of its wastes—was 0.8 earths, meaning that if the global population lived in KF it would require 0.8 earths to sustain it. This number is one third of Japan’s national average of 2.35 earths and only 19.7% of the United States’ eco-footprint of 4.05 earths.15 Additionally, in 2009-2010 KF’s annual per capita CO2 emissions were measured at 1,045kg, which is 48.2% of Japan’s national average of 2,165kg.16

As an independent spiritual community, KF has naturally aroused suspicions and prejudices, which calls for a discussion of what KF is not. The Family sees itself as performing a fundamentally Buddhistic mission (to be discussed later) with important applications for society at large. As a spiritual objective, this undertaking was prophesised by the eminent Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh: “The next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community; a community practicing understanding and loving kindness; a community practicing mindful living.”

Despite its undeniably Buddhistic calling, KF has eradicated external evidence of itself as a religious organisation. Other than Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotation, posted in the common meeting room, it exhibits no Buddhist iconography. Members observe a moment of silent prayer before meals but do not openly invoke any specific deity or creed. They also avoid displays or conversations of anything doctrinal and refrain from proselytising and disclosing any form of overt religious agenda. When members do speak of spiritual concerns they use secular rather than doctrinal terminology. Their caution is warranted. The Aum Shinrikyō nerve gas attack on five Tokyo subway lines occurred only one year after the community was formed and was largely responsible for pushing unorthodox forms of religiosity underground in Japan. The Family is also located just a few miles from Taisekiji temple, the head temple of the Nichiren Shōshū school of Buddhism, which until recently maintained a close affiliation with the often maligned Soka Gakkai cult.17 As Japanese grew increasingly suspicious or fearful of religious cults, KF found it prudent to eliminate all overt evidence of religiosity.

Isadon affirms that establishing a comfortable coexistence within the local community has required patience and sensitivity. “There were times when people treated us suspiciously,” he relates. “There is a tendency among people to spread rumors about those who live in collectives… It is common in the Japanese countryside to chase away outsiders. We were spied on. Now that we have been doing this for eighteen years, there are some who support us and others who still don’t understand us.”

KF has responded to these challenges by opening itself to the community. Its15-month long Practical Organic Farming course, subsidised by the municipal government, which understands the benefits of organic farming for the local environment, has nourished relationships with neighbouring residents and businesses.18 Additionally, KF holds eco-gardening courses, runs a paper recycling program, and hosts lectures and workshops at nearby schools. The Family has also taken a leadership role within Japan’s ecovillage movement. Since 2008, KF has offered ecovillage design education and ecovillage support programs for those launching their own ecovillages.19 One of its members also serves as a Global Ecovillage Network board member and as Japan’s representative to that body. In 2011, KF established a Cooperative Agriculture Association, a legal entity that not only allows it to file a collective tax return but also garners additional trust among local farmers. Many of these landowners lack the means to farm their own land, and lend it to KF rather than letting it go fallow. Currently, all of the acreage KF uses for rice cultivation and most of the land used for growing other produce is borrowed free of charge. Outreach activities also attract several thousand guests annually who come to convalesce, study organic farming, learn ecovillage design, or simply to receive an initiation in ecovillage life.

Community building and conflict resolution at Konohana Family

Daily rhythms at the Family are sacrosanct. Members skip breakfast and proceed directly to their designated work teams. The tenor of daily work is relaxed and the pace is unhurried, for it is unfettered by the pressures that accompany gainful work. Agricultural ventures, after all, are carried out primarily for members’ own consumption and to provide them with the capital to purchase material necessities, obviating the need for gainful work. Disconnected from occupational burdens, members also claim no particular desire for vacation. “Nature doesn’t take a vacation,” explains member Furuhashi Michiyo, referring to Family life as a wholly natural experience.20 The fact that members expect no professional advancement, no appreciable salary, and no vacation erases distinctions between work and leisure.

At 12:30 members convene for a large lunch and then rest until 2:00. The after-dinner program includes a children’s meeting time, a musical performance to welcome any guests, and an adults’ meeting.

As a forum for listening, reflecting, and sharing, the adults’ meeting is an essential means of maintaining community solidarity. Residents view it as the most important part of the day, and the Family has never canceled a meeting since its establishment in 1994. Procedures dictating leadership, decision-making, and meeting protocols all foster a supportive environment conducive to open, equitable participation. Every voice is welcomed, heard, and counted; every discussion topic receives respectful deliberation. Tensions, misunderstandings, and annoyances are broached openly and addressed expediently. Epiphanies are also shared. Meeting procedure adheres to an egalitarian, democratic set of rules. The first rule requires that individuals wishing to air a complaint direct that grievance toward themselves rather than others. Reflecting on one’s own reaction to an annoyance rather than blaming another encourages self-study and avoids the “I’m right, you’re wrong” sort of dynamic that can damage collective harmony. Other rules oblige members to give advice with a laugh, speak honestly, listen sincerely, and trust others, all of which help eradicate the sorts of self-interested impulses that can obstruct self-reflection. A team of trained facilitators mediates the assembly and endeavours gently to enforce rules while maximising time efficiency.

Facilitators rotate, and no single person or group is assigned to leadership positions within the Family. Each working group may have an informal leader but those who garner the respect and trust of others are permitted to assume proportionally greater leadership responsibilities by group consensus. Emergent leadership does not interfere with the flexible, case-by-case decision-making methods used at the nightly meetings, however, where resolutions are generally reached through discussion and consensus. Meeting facilitators assess the trajectory of a discussion and, if a formal resolution is necessary, propose a course of action: either further reflection or an informal vote.

Community solidarity is also safeguarded through membership vetting procedures. Prospective members are required to spend one month as visitors, after which they can declare interest in acquiring permanent membership. If so approved, they must then live in KF as provisional members for an additional year. During this trial period they do not share any financial proceeds or receive the benefits of regular members. This thirteen-month probationary phase precludes hasty decisions while allowing members to assess the applicant’s integration into Family life. Full membership includes the symbolic removal of the individual’s surname and adoption of a nickname, both of which help maintain the desired family dynamic.

Community building is also an internal exercise, however, and erasing self-defensiveness is critical to fostering group harmony. Doing so requires continued cognisance that self-interest is destructive to the social fabric. Implicit in this mandate is the eradication of personal desires. There can be no “I want,” no distinction between public and private, no “mine” and “yours.” Members indeed endeavour to eradicate personal concerns and interact free of pretentions and self-consciousness. Warmth, trust, and openness are prioritised as a Family trademark and extended indiscriminately. Hospitality being an unquestioned component of the collective mission, the evening welcome performance has become a part of the daily routine, held for even a single guest. Most startling to me was how four members, after meeting me only hours earlier, proceeded to offer unsolicited accounts of the highly personal circumstances that had led them to join the Family.

Members value this openness. In reference to interpersonal relations within the Family, one member noted: “There are no contradictions here, so I am content.” A second affirmed: “Before, my interaction with neighbours consisted of nothing more than daily greetings, which is really the same as having no relationship at all. It’s much better here.” There is general agreement that, as a third member avowed, “life here is mentally and physically abundant.” The fact that members share an income equally and help raise each others’ children also helps eliminate perceived inequalities and self-interests.

Sublimating personal desires in the interest of group harmony is particularly important now that KF has expanded into a more diverse, multi-generational community. One of the challenges posed by this development is attentiveness to current members’ broader range of personal values and life experiences. Generational and educational diversity also challenges the family to demonstrate flexibility in ways that had been unnecessary previously. The original founding members, none of whom had received a post-secondary education, had sought spiritual growth rather than material or professional development. They had reached a life stage wherein the appeal of collective living eclipsed any personal aspirations. More recent members arriving with post-secondary degrees and professional careers bring an array of life histories that likely include a stronger ethic of self-improvement (through study rather than material gain). Some, particularly the younger members, have comparably greater difficulty overcoming a natural restlessness and may continue to harbour aspirations beyond the spiritual. Diversification also complicates child-rearing, which the Family assumes as a collective responsibility. One evening meeting, for example, was devoted to a request by two teenage members to buy cell phones. The boys attended public schools and needed the phones to contact other members of their school clubs. Discussion over practical need, expense, and phone use protocol lasted nearly two hours.

Some members admit to adjustment difficulties. One mentioned overall satisfaction with life at KF, but also confessed to occasional urges for self-study outside the Family. Another confessed that “it was difficult to give up self—the desire to have oneself and one’s ideas understood by others. Giving up the idea of ownership was also hard; it took me 2-3 years.” A third reported: “At first I felt as if I had no privacy. With communal living one has to adjust one’s pace to that of others, and this can be difficult.” Despite initial setbacks, members convey a cognisance of participating in an important experiment and of making personal contributions to that experiment. Asked about his own level of contentment with life at KF, Isadon replied that his personal satisfaction derived from witnessing the satisfaction of others.

Adjustment difficulties are tempered by the aforementioned policy of erasing religious matters from Family-wide activities. For, while its founding members view KF as a spiritual community, newer members are under no obligation to adopt this outlook. Vegetarianism, organic agricultural methods, and environmental stewardship carry their own purely secular charm. If the earth itself is like an ecovillage, or a family—a closed loop circulatory system as Furuhashi puts it, then, for the non-religious, the benefits of living by the rules of that system need not assume any doctrinal religious significance.

KF’s resonance with outsiders explains the longevity and success of its Natural Remedy Program. Since 2000, KF has offered itself as a place of refuge and rehabilitation for those suffering from depression, addictions, or lifestyle-related disorders. Many of these “care guests” have not responded to psychological counseling and prescription medication. In July 2012, four such guests were in residence at KF, one from Fukushima suffering from depression or possibly PTSD. Several current KF members were initially introduced to the community through this program. One, now happily married at KF, had spent three years in his room and attempted suicide three times.

The Natural Remedy Program treats guests’ afflictions with a variety of cathartic activities. Involvement in collective tasks neutralises anxieties by displacing one’s focus on self. Daily interaction with the Family’s children and voluntary participation in its music and theater groups also help guests decompress. Nightly meetings play a central role in the therapy, for they provide a trusting environment conducive to healing and a safe forum for sharing anxieties. Finally, care guests are invited to write journals that are occasionally reviewed by Isadon. Members claim that the lifestyle—their rhythmic daily routine and diet of natural, high-energy food—is cathartic in itself. This regimen, they report, has proven highly effective in demonstrating to guests how the ego can be responsible for emotional or psychological hardships.

Millennium City

For Konohana Family, environmental successes are tied to community building and member fulfillment. They are achieved without public relations efforts and without newer technologies. This approach is fundamentally different than that of ecovillages seeking greater sustainability without compromising contemporary styling and comfort. Japan’s most notable example of such a venture isthe Millennium City ecovillage (MC), which was launched in 1999 and received NPO certification in 2001. Since its inception, MC trustees have been active in publicising and promoting what is now a network of three separate ecovillage sites. They have conducted over 180 lectures and workshops, as well as dozens of public tours of its facilities. Leaders have also publicised their project at over sixty domestic and international conferences and workshops. The MC project won Japan’s Earth Day Contest in 2001, the Environmental Facilities Design Award in 2006, the Eco-Challenge Idea Award in 2006, and the first annual Buratto (Slow Life Japan) Award in 2007. It has also been featured in the Japanese and international media over one hundred times.21

MC’s three ecovillages include Kurimoto and Asahi in Chiba Prefecture, and Kichijōji in Tokyo. Notably, none of the three sites is currently accommodating fulltime residents. Kurimoto MC and Asahi MC contain completed structures that have temporarily housed small resident groups; Kichijōji MC functions as a collective farming project. The structures at Kurimoto MC were completed in 2003 and consist of a series of glass buildings containing thirty capsule-like sleeping quarters elevated above a common ground-level living and cooking area. Resembling a cluster of futuristic greenhouses, the architectural design and living arrangement are designed to maximise energy efficiency and drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Surrounding deciduous trees, for example, help regulate temperatures by providing shade in summer and allowing direct sunlight in winter.22

Kichijōji MC near downtown Tokyo opened in 2006 and is managed by the member-run Kichijōji Trust, established with the purpose of preserving urban forests and farmlands. Currently the facility consists of 1.5 hectares of farmland on which members cultivate twenty kinds of organic vegetables.23 In the future, the Trust plans to erect residential structures and market its produce as a community business.

The residential structure at Asahi MC was completed and inhabited in 2010 but then damaged by the 3.11 tsunami six months later. Its transparent exterior and sleek, energy-efficient design expand on the styling of the earlier Kurimoto settlement. Here, however, the glass shell encases the wooden frame of a traditional house, complete with a thatched roof, tatami, and shōji. The intention is to enclose the rustic comforts of a traditional Japanese dwelling within a glass exterior that provides both protection from the elements and greater interaction with the natural surroundings. An organic garden and a bank of detached solar panels help augment residents’ self-sufficiency. Construction of an adjoining event hall, restaurant, and other facilities are planned.

The organisation’s principal focus has been to utilise a corporate-style PR strategy to promote the MC vision as a product itself, and in 2003 Kurimoto MC indeed acquired private limited company (yûgen gaisha) status. Following corporate PR protocol, four trustees appeared “for liability purposes” when I visited its Kichijōji headquarters for an interview. The project’s two directors own architecture firms and design the dwellings; other leadership members include designers, entrepreneurs, and academics.24 Accordingly, rather than limiting itself to the grassroots circles typically occupied by NPOs, it promotes itself at venues like the World Congress of Architecture as a cutting edge architecture and design project.25 Its website, brochures, and annual reports are professionally prepared, and its ongoing energies concentrate on soliciting new donors and members. It has even acquired several corporate and governmental sponsorships.26 As its directors noted, Millennium City has become a brand name.

MC’s stated objective is environmental restoration through the establishment of a network of connected, technologically advanced ecovillages. It describes this vision as a five step process. The first is to catalyse a “paradigm shift” in public values away from the accumulation of wealth and toward the integration of forests and farmland into urban areas. The remaining steps involve “self-building,” or self-empowerment for the purpose of refashioning desirable living environments; community design that connects people and enhances communication; fostering environmental restoration and symbiotic relationships between urban, forested, and agricultural areas; and creating a regional (but ultimately international) network of self-sufficient but mutually supporting cities.

The 3.11 disasters and the ensuing evacuations from the Fukushima area inspired the latest incarnation of this vision: the development of mobile architecture. During natural disasters, it is explained, mobile towns consisting of dwellings that are transportable either on wheels or by ship would prevent massive loss of life, homelessness, as well as an enormous volume of material wreckage. This mobile town idea was inspired particularly by the experience of a promising ecovillage located near Fukushima that had to evacuate after finding itself in a nuclear fallout hotspot after the meltdown.

Given its focus on actualising a society-wide paradigm shift and establishing a global network of ecovillages, MC clearly functions more as an ecological urban design initiative than a practicing venture in ecological living. The impossible breadth of its vision has hampered progress and required its leadership to focus on public outreach. Even amidst the chorus of post-3.11 calls for new paradigms of socio-environmental sustainability, therefore, MC remains a largely theoretical community model. It currently claims about four hundred dues-paying members but no permanent residents. MC Kurimoto and MC Asahi are rustic and cold in the winter, usable only as secondary or vacation housing.

Nor has the project been immune to interpersonal strife. The most damaging such conflict involved one member of the MC leadership attempting to use the MC brand name to sell solar panels for personal profit. Such a venture violated NPO regulations and contradicted the organisation’s fundamental objectives. The individual then collected and pocketed funds donated by MC members to finance the development of an electric vehicle. When he then took sole possession of the MC Asahi building, MC leadership filed litigation to have him evicted. This series of setbacks had a divisive effect on the organisation, which had no established framework for either deterring or addressing these sorts of disruptions. Although an MC Charter had been drafted in 2007, the document did not clearly outline conflict resolution or decision-making protocols.

MC boasts an attractive product and charismatic leadership. Its progressive, ambitious, and optimistic vision also capitalise on the current popularity of environmental ventures in Japan. Despite these strengths, however, it remains highly abstract. Its leaders cannot claim to have fulltime ecovillage living experience, and currently cannot offer this to prospective donors and members. They may also have difficulty attracting support for their vision of developing mobile communities, which present a spectrum of logistical questions and currently remain beyond any likelihood of implementation.

Conclusion: Sustainability as Community

Calls for public safety following 3.11 emanate from renewed attention on the communal aspects of living spaces and personal wellbeing. Individuals, regardless of their residential settings, are connected by water, power, sewage, disposal, and food supply infrastructures. Wellbeing also hinges upon certain locally-provided forms of social and spiritual support. To this extent, personal needs are tied to groups needs, and self interest is tied to group interest. Communal living, then, is simply an enhancement of the interconnectedness endemic to mainstream residential life.

As is evident from KF’s example, it promises broad-reaching benefits. Group interdependence helps maximise efficient use of space, materials, energy, and monetary resources. It also enables communal works projects—like farming—that would pose overwhelming challenges for the individual. The practical and spiritual support from membership within a close community is also an obvious corrective to the interpersonal fragmentation endemic to many mainstream living spaces. Efforts vested in community-building, moreover, receive immediate returns in the form of mutual amity.

Communal life also poses an array of challenges. Economic concerns, incompatible objectives, undefined responsibilities of leadership and followership, lifestyle differences, and interpersonal conflict are all potential sources of discord that require deliberate and preemptive mitigation. Ninety percent of ecovillages fail, Diana Leafe Christian reports, often because members do not give due attention to decision-making and conflict resolution protocols. Being proactive about preempting conflict, she argues, includes being mindful of harmonious coexistence as an ongoing priority and allowing collective efforts to become a source of solidarity.27

As case studies of community-building, KF and MC lend clear support for this proposition. KF’s process consciously employs the principles of ecovillage design formulated and promoted internationally by the Global Ecovillage Network. It also endorses GEN’s Community Sustainability Assessment, an internationally recognised ecovillage auditing tool. While KF is distinctive within Japan and its members may indeed be “pioneers,” therefore, its successes do not derive entirely from members’ own innovations. Compared to Millennium City’s highly original, award-winning reinvention of eco-housing, its appearance and organisation seem dully traditional.

The futuristic designs of MC’s structures indeed carry greater aesthetic appeal for individuals seeking sleeker, more cosmopolitan living spaces. Despite its innovative architecture and impressive public relations efforts, however, the fact that MC was launched without prescribed membership vetting, community-building, or conflict resolution procedures has proved debilitating. These oversights have hampered its ability to address members’ interpersonal needs, and ultimately to put its vision into practice. Innovation in this case neither measured nor guaranteed success.

Konohana Family’s environmental success, therefore, hinges on its attention to community building, while the obstacles confronted by private ecovillages like MC derive largely from not doing so. One need not join a collective like KF to practice organic farming, vegetarianism, and spirituality, all of which are easily practiced individually. Rather, it is inclusion within a likeminded cohort that completes the satisfaction derived from those endeavours. For care guests who find greater psychological relief through a temporary stay at KF than through prescription drugs or psychiatric counseling, it is collectivity itself that is most therapeutic. A fully shared life is the only part of the KF experience that people cannot practice and achieve by themselves.

The Japanese government’s Eco-Town Program further confirms that community-building and ecological sustainability are mutually reinforcing. In this case, as well, generous funding and administrative leadership failed to guarantee success. Throughout its several incarnations since 1997, the program has funneled billions of dollars into select urban renewal projects.28 After fifteen years its initiatives have yielded isolated infrastructural advances and scenic green areas but done little to alter the lifestyles or environmental footprint of their respective communities. Unable to foster grassroots solidarity, the program remains a largely invisible, top-down straw horse.

While calls for community sustainability have taken on greater urgency following the 3.11 disasters, initiatives that treat sustainability as an exclusively technological, infrastructural, or financial challenge have encountered difficulties. Within this context, more communities are pursuing social and environmental sustainability independently. Weakness at the top has fostered strength below in the form of increased networking among NPOs and new grassroots empowerment initiatives. As illustrated by Japan’s Transition Town movement, it has opened spaces for greater local resilience. (Between the summer of 2011 and the end of 2012, the number of Transition Towns in Japan jumped from fourteen to thirty-seven.)29

The triple disaster has elicited emotional and practical needs that invalidate the self-obsessed mai hoomu, mai kaa (“my home,” “my car”) culture that has defined modern Japanese life. Few Japanese are transplanting themselves in ecovillages like Konohana Family, yet KF’s longevity, its explosive expansion, the near universal happiness of its members, and the effectiveness of its Natural Remedy program all indicate that its underlying principles are growing increasingly intuitive. Based on Aldrich’s copious evidence that social capital plays a key role in post-disaster recovery, particularly its restorative impacts on local communities, core aspects of the Family’s lifestyle are now more commonsensical than ever. And indeed, as its public image shifts from marginal religious cult to utopian, sustainable collective, the Family finds itself falling into closer alignment with contemporary Japanese common sense.


Aldrich, Daniel P. Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Brecher, W. Puck. An Investigation of Japan’s Relationship with Nature and Environment. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

Brecher, W. Puck. “Post-Disaster Japan’s Environmental Transition.” In Jack Appleton, ed. Values in Sustainable Development. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Christian, Diana Leafe. Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003.

Dawson, Jonathan. Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2006.

Edahiro Junko. “How Japanese Lifestyles and Awareness Changed after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.” Japan For Sustainability Newsletter 11 (November, 2011).

Funaki, Kentaro and Lucas Adams. “Japanese Experience with Efforts at the Community Level Toward a Sustainable Economy: Accelerating Collaboration Between Local and Central Governments.” In Woodrow W. Clark, ed. Sustainable Communities. New York: Springer, 2009.

Global Environment Centre Foundation. “Legal and Other Support Systems for Eco-Towns in Japan.” September 2006.

Kasper, Debbie Van Schyndel. (2008). “Redefining Community in the Ecovillage.” Human Ecology Review 15:1, 12-24. Retrieved from

Michiyo Furuhashi. “Creating Harmony.” Permaculture 61 (Autumn 2009): 27-30.

Michiyo Furuhashi. “Organic growing for Community Self-Sufficiency.” In E. Christopher Mare and Max Lindegger, eds. Designing Ecological Habitats: Creating a Sense of Place. Hampshire, UK: Permanent Publications, 2011.

Pendergrast, Mark. Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World. Nature’s Face, 2011.

Sano Junya. “Ekobreji undō no kanōsei: Jizokukanō na shakai-zukuri ni muketa raifusutairu to kachikan.” 21 seiki shakai dezain kenkyû 9 (2010): 5-19.

Litfin, Karen. “Gleanings from the Harvest: Learning from Ecovillage Experiments around the World.” Paper presented at the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) 3rd Workshop, Vancouver, BC, Canada. March 9, 2012.

Moon, Opkyo. From Paddy Field to Ski Slope: The Revitalization of Tradition in Japanese Village Life. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Ogawa, Yoshinao. “The Eco-Model City Project and Future Directions.” Regional Revitalization Bureau, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan. March, 2010.

Tokutei hieiri katsudō hōjin Mireniamushiti [Annual Report of the Millennium City]. Vol. 11. November 23, 2011.

Tokutei hieiri katsudō hōjin Mireniamushiti. Kokusai kyûjo toshi. [Annual Report of the Millennium City. International Saving City]. 2012.

Zielenziger, Michael. Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.


[1] Daniel P. Aldrich, Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). For a second study on recovery from the 1995 Kobe earthquake, see Rajib Shaw & Katsuichiro Goda, “From Disaster to Sustainable Civil Society: The Kobe Experience,” Disasters 28:1 (2004): 16-40.

[2] For a comprehensive analysis of youth crisis, suicide, depression, and other social problems in 1990s Japan, see Michael Zielenziger, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).

[3] Edahiro Junko, “How Japanese Lifestyles and Awareness Changed after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake,” Japan For Sustainability Newsletter 11 (November 2011): 1.

[4] An ecovillage is a community designed to facilitate more natural and environmentally sustainable lifestyles. I do not define agricultural communes like the Yamagishi community in Toyosato (established in 1968) as ecovillages, as their primary goal is not sustainability per se.

[5] The Gilman Report cited in Jonathan Dawson, Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2006, p. 13.

[6] Debbie Van Schyndel Kasper, “Redefining Community in the Ecovillage,” Human Ecology Review 15:1 (2008): 13.

[7] Sano adds an economic component to this three-legged model. See Sano Junya, “Ekobreji undô no kanôsei: Jizokukanô na shakai-zukuri ni muketa raifusutairu to kachikan,” 21 seiki shakai dezain kenkyû 9 (2010): 7.

[8] Sano, pp. 13-14. The name Konohana Family was adopted in 2007.

[9] Other ecovillages that followed this pattern are Findhorn, Scotland, possibly the first Western ecovillage, and Auroville, India, another of the world’s largest and oldest ecovillages.

[10] Here and below, unannotated quotations from Konohana Family members are drawn from interviews conducted, separately, by Takahashi Emi and the author. 

[11] W. Puck Brecher. An Investigation of Japan’s Relationship with Nature and Environment (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), pp. 15, 19.

[12] For a comprehensive study of traditional communal activities preserved within a modern agrarian village, see Opkyo Moon, From Paddy Field to Ski Slope: The Revitalization of Tradition in Japanese Village Life (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1989).

[13] Saving seeds is necessary, KF feels, because Monsanto, DuPont, and other agrochemical companies are buying Japanese seed suppliers in an attempt to secure a global monopoly on seeds. 

[14] Karen Litfin, “Gleanings from the Harvest: Learning from Ecovillage Experiments around the World,” Paper presented at the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) 3rd Workshop, Vancouver, BC, Canada. March 9, 2012.

[15] These metrics are drawn from the National Footprint Accounts, 2012 edition, compiled by the Global Footprint Network. Ecological footprints are calculated through eighteen criteria from five categories: food, residential energy use, consumption of other goods, transportation, and miscellaneous ( 

[16] KF conducted its CO2 emissions survey in August 2009 and January 2010 and followed the Global Ecovillage Network’s methodology for performing such audits.

[17] Soka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist organization deriving from the Nichiren School of Buddhism. The main temple building at Teisekiji had been built by Soka Gakkai, but the temple removed it in 1998 when the two sects severed relations.

[18] Furuhashi Michiyo, “Creating Harmony,” Permaculture 61 (Autumn 2009): 30.

[19] These courses are certified by the UN Institute for Training and Research (Sano, pp. 13-14).

[20] Furuhashi Michiyo is a resident of KF, the Japanese representative for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), and President of GEN’s Oceania & Asia branch.

[21] Tokutei hieiri katsudô hôjin Mireniamushiti: Kokusai kyûjo toshi [Annual Report of the Millennium City: International Saving City], 2012.

[22] Future construction at Kurimoto has been slowed by the process of acquiring permissions to rent government-owned land. Unannotated information about MC was acquired through personal interviews conducted by the author in July 2012.

[23] This land is owned by relatives of Iguchi Hiroshi, MC’s Chief Director and lead architect of the various MC structures.

[24] MC leadership designs the structures but does not do the construction.

[25] Tokutei hieiri katsudô hôjin Mireniamushiti: Kokusai kyûjo toshi [Annual Report of the 

Millennium City. International Saving City], 2012.

[26] Tokutei hieiri katsudô hôjin Mireniamushiti [Annual Report of the Millennium City], vol. 11 (November 23, 2011): 15.

[27] Diana Leafe Christian, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003), p. 5.

[28] The Eco-Town Program was established by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry) in 1997 to promote local initiatives toward environmental conservation and energy efficiency. The program was backed with a subsidy budget of some 100 billion yen each year for approved local Eco-Town projects. Direct subsidies were complemented by tax breaks and loan systems for qualifying projects. In 2008, the project was resurrected under Prime Minster Fukuda’s Panel on Low-Carbon Society and renamed the Eco-Model City Project. Thirteen cities, many of them recipients of the former Eco-Town program, were selected to receive subsidies, but following the 2008 economic collapse only a few subsidies were granted. After the Democratic Party of Japan unseated the long dominant Liberal Democratic Party in 2009, it set about recasting its own version of the agenda, now renamed the Future-Model City program. For more, see Funaki and Adams; Global Environment Centre Foundation; Yoshinao Ogawa; and Mark Pendergrast. 

[29] For a full discussion of the Transition Town movement and post-3.11 grassroots networking, see W. Puck Brecher, “Post-Disaster Japan’s Environmental Transition,” in Values in Sustainable Development, ed. Jack Appleton (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).

About the Author

William P. Brecher is an Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies, as well as the Japanese Section Coordinator, at Washington State University, in the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures.

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