Eco-Heroes in Japan
By Diana Leafe ChristianHuehuecoyotl Ecovillage in Mexico, Penny Velasco of Pintig Cabiao Ecovillage in the Philippines, and I were the “overseas guest” keynote speakers at the second International Ecovillage Conference held in Tokyo, November 23-24, 2007.
It was a fabulous experience. The downtown auditorium was packed with environmental activists, progressive university professors and students, and Japan’s “green press.” Speakers included professors of architecture and engineering, innovative housing developers, environmental activists with special projects in rural areas of Japan, and the three of us.
The Japanese Ecovillage Conference
The conference was a wonderful opportunity for us to learn about Japanese colleagues doing similar projects. We were told that people in Japan once had a powerfully developed sense of community and connection to neighbors, in their thousands of rural villages as well in city neighborhoods. They also had an ancient, even sacred, sense of connection to nature, especially trees and forests. (They’ve preserved 66% of their island nation in forest, which is impressive, given the pressure to cut forests to get more arable land to feed their population of 127 million.) But nowadays most Japanese in urban areas live in tiny box-like apartments in concrete high-rises, with little connection to neighbors or nature. Land is so expensive that few apartments include gardens or landscaping. So the projects presented at the conference, while not “ecovillages” per se, were nevertheless inspiring to the audience, in that they introduced a connection to neighbors and to nature once again.
They were inspiring to us overseas guests, as well—we enjoyed learning about Japanese colleagues doing projects similar to our own. For instance, Ikuko Koyabe, architect and Professor at Japan Women’s University, presented case studies of what the Japanese call “collective housing”— and what I would call “cohousing.” She described projects in Sweden, Denmark, and the US, and then introduced us to the Kankanmori cohousing project in Tokyo, which Giovanni and I later visited.TeamNet company: Kyodo no Mori and Keyaki House, which I later got to visit. Each is a concrete multi-story apartment building with rooftop gardens and vine-covered vertical surfaces and balconies. The three-story Kyodo no Mori features passive solar heating and cooling, a rooftop wetlands for greywater recycling, and a solar-powered water pump. It was described as Japan’s first cohousing community in Graham Meltzer’s 2005 book, Sustainable Communities. Keyaki House is a five-story building whose residents use the original traditional house on the property as their shared common space and meeting room.
My favorite presenter was Professor Yasuhiro Endoh of Aichi Sangyo University in Nagano. An older man with an amiable expression and an unmistakable air of warmth and friendliness, Professor Endoh travels the length of Japan advocating “collective housing” through his nonprofit, “Team of Green Growth.” He showed slides of a successful 22-year-old collective housing development in Kyoto, “U Court.” The project, completed in 1985, consists of 48 units in three buildings of from three to five stories each. The buildings are arranged around a south-facing “U”-shaped courtyard surrounding tall trees and a patio. U-Court doesn’t have a common kitchen/dining room. However, with a shared meeting hall, all stairwell entries facing into the courtyard so people meet their neighbors daily, open and shared ivy-covered balconies that serve as outdoor hallways running along the courtyard side of the buildings, and parking out of sight in one corner of the property, it sure seemed like “proto-cohousing” to me.
Professor Endoh emphasized the importance of trees and the natural environment in creating community. U-Court residents debated whether to plant trees in their central courtyard, which would have been expensive for them, but finally did plant trees. The presence of these trees later made all the difference in cooling the building, adding a beautiful, shady outdoor place for neighbors to gather in spontaneous as well as planned meetings, picnics, and celebrations. U-Court residents also all grew ivy up the sides of the buildings and especially across their shared balconies. At first they couldn’t get flowers and shrubs started along courtyard walkways because their toddlers would gleefully rip them out. So U-Court parents waited until the children were slightly older and asked them to plant flowers and shrubs and water them. The kids leapt into the project and proudly cared for the landscaping for years, later noting how important it had been for them to return from school everyday and feel welcomed home by natural beauty. The parents also considered building a small round pond for the children to wade and splash in. While some were concerned it would be unsafe, they finally did build a pond, and it became the centerpiece of the children’s experience of the courtyard as they grew up. “You can’t believe the happy memories people who’d grown up at U Court had when they came home from school only to find that one of the men had gotten drunk and fallen into the pond again,” Professor Endoh explained, showing a photo of a man half-lying in a shallow pool, submerged up to his armpits, a silly grin on his face. Nature, ponds, and water are so important to Japanese people that one pair of neighbors created a small fishpond on their shared balcony and stocked it with koi.
Housing developer Akinori Sagane described his project to support the economic revitalization of remote mountain villages by encouraging sustainable forestry practices and a return to using wood as a building material. Other speakers presented about ecovillages in Denmark, a Japanese aid project providing wind generators to communities in East Africa, Camphill Kimberton Hills in the US, and plans to revitalize Japanese villages in the Goshima Islands and the city of Hokkaido-Date.
Giovanni Ciarlo, Penny Velasco, and I
Giovanni, a cofounder of Huehuecoyotl, is Mexico’s representative to ENA and a Board member of GEN. He showed photos of successful ecovillages in Latin America, including Huehuecoyotl and Las Cañadas in Mexico, Sasardí Nature Reserve in Colombia, and ABRA 144 in Brazil. He also got everyone moving in their seats and tapping their feet when he played guitar and sang some of his original songs in Spanish.
I gave two slide show presentations of ecovillages, with photos of projects worldwide, focusing especially on Damanhur in Italy, Tlholego in South Africa, IPEC in Brazil, Auroville in India, Findhorn in Scotland, Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, and Earthaven in North Carolina, where I live.
Giovanni, Penny, and I were interviewed for media such as “Green-Power TV” and various student publications. Sometimes the students’ questions were heartbreakingly naïve. For example: “I think the ecovillage movement is the answer for human beings to solve all environmental problems, including global warming and the loss of endangered species. How do you think?” I tried to respond in a way that respected their idealism yet was not overly simplistic. It was hard!
Our Friends at BeGood Café
Jun Shikita, the founder-director of BeGood Café, is a dynamic man in his 50s who every day sported a dapper bow tie. A former fashion industry executive in Tokyo and Milan, Mr. Shikita saw the need for a transformation of his industrialized, consumerist, environmentally destructive culture and asked himself what he personally could do about it. As a result he founded BeGood Café in 1999—not as a café, but as an organization to share and promote practical environmental information. Now BeGood Café produces the ecovillage conference, an ecological products fair, and musical events, and hosts workshops in cities across Japan on alternative health, permaculture, natural building, ecovillages, and similar subjects. BeGood Café also operates VIVA, a sustainability education center in a rural area near Mt. Fuji. We were also quite taken with Akemi Miyauchi, the ever-helpful, seemingly indefatigable speaker coordinator, who took care of everything we needed before, during, and after our visits.
Shikita-san, whose vision and enthusiasm were contagious, hosted us royally, taking us overseas guests and the BeGood staffers out to dinner each night. We three all gamely used chopsticks and sampled all the delicacies. And I, normally a teetotaler, and assuming no tiny thimblefuls of warm sake could have much affect, nevertheless returned to the hotel tipsy three nights in a row.Konohana Family community near Mt. Fuji; Giovanni, Akemi, and I visited Kankanmori Cohousing in Tokyo; and Akemi and I also visited Tetsuro Kai’s two collective housing projects, Kyodo no Mori and Keyaki House. I enjoyed the conference and the communities I visited, and was quite impressed by the Japanese eco-activists I met. They are heroes to me. They’re “breaking the mold” relative to contemporary Japanese culture, where people tend to not go against the status quo. From Shikita-san and BeGood Café to Professor Endoh’s “green community” to Tetsuro Kai’s collective housing projects, we met eco-spiritual innovators who touched our hearts. Like eco-activists in the West, they were focused on making the world a better place. Once, when I told Akemi-san how much the three of us appreciated all she did for us, she replied in her soft Japanese accent, “It is my pleasure: it is for the Earth.”