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Eco-Heroes in Japan

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By Diana Leafe Christian

Giovanni Ciarlo of Huehuecoyotl Ecovillage in Mexico.
Giovanni Ciarlo of Huehuecoyotl 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 conference was hosted by BeGood Café and the Permaculture Center of Japan, two nonprofits dedicated to promoting ecological sustainability in Japan.

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.

The entrance to Keyaki House in Tokyo, with the massive Keyaki tree in front.
Housing developer Tetsuro Kai showed slides of two collective housing projects in Tokyo created by his 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.
Professor Yasuhiro Endoh of Aichi Sangyo University told us about U-Court in Kyoto.

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.

Once they were old enough, U-Court children became responsible for flower plantings along the paths.
Professor Endoh’s longitudinal study of the young adults who’d grown up at U-Court indicated that they had loved the natural environment there as well as their sense of safety and connection to so many adults who served as substitute aunties and uncles. Like kids raised in community anywhere, they were much more confident and socially developed than their counterparts who’d grown up in conventional housing. And, not surprisingly, they wanted to move back to U-Court when it came time to raise their own children.

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.

Penny Velasco of Pintig Cabiao Ecovillage in The Philippines.
Penny Velasco is an environmental scholar, representative from the Philippines to GEN-Oceania/Asia, and director of the nonprofit, Happy Earth. She showed slides of the new ecovillage she is helping get started, Pintig Cabiao in Manila. I was especially moved by her presentation, which called for sustainable ecological and economic development in the Philippines. Wearing traditional Filipino hand-woven skirt and pineapple-cloth shawl, she told us about the social and economic situation in her country. Ninety percent of Filipino families are fragmented, she said, with one or more family member working overseas, often in low-paying jobs, in order to earn money and send it home. Those who remain behind are disempowered by both the loss of their overseas family member and the overwhelming cultural assault of Western media. In a country where most people are poor, environmental destruction is increasing and environmental activism is fairly new. It’s not uncommon for the family members of relatives who are off earning money elsewhere to spend their checks from those relatives overseas—not on clean water or organic food, but on the latest Terminator video. Penny, who is well educated and currently working on her PhD in environmental community development (and who’s versed in bio-statistics as well as the works of Ken Wilber and Thomas Berry), has expertise in organizational development, fund-raising, and promotions. Her family-owned business, with offices in Manila and California, offers services in communications media: printing, videotapes, teleconferencing, and so on. Penny is using her brains, skills, connections, and resources to bring people in her country the inspiration and practical applications of ecospirituality, permaculture, ecological sustainability . . . and ecovillages.

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

BeGood Café staff and friends celebrating after the conference. Front row (left to right): Penny Velasco, Pintig Cabiao Ecovillage, The Philippines; Akemi Miyauchi; Chiharu Sakamoto. Back row: Ecovillages editor Diana Leafe Christian; BeGood Café director, Kiyoshi Shikita; Kaori Takata; Uechi Takeuchi.
The three of us grew very fond of the folks at BeGood Café, the nonprofit that organized the conference, which was a beautifully produced event, running like a finely tuned mechanism.

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.

We became very fond of BeGood Café’s speaker coordinator, Akemi Miyauchi.
After the conference Penny visited the 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.”

Diana Leafe Christian, editor of this newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.


Related articles:

The Ecovillage Movement Today — May ’08
Finally, Ecovillage Activists Gather in the US — May ’08


Also in this issue — May '08


Coming in Future Issues:
  • Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
  • Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
  • First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
  • Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
  • Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
  • ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)
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Newsletter Staff

Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US