Whatever happened to Yamagishi?

Toyosato, Japan - Hideyuki Ikuhara's main responsibility at Yamagishi is feeding the pigs. It's a full-time job, but he expects no salary for his efforts. In fact, he quit his work developing high-tech televisions and gave up all his possessions for this lifestyle — and he couldn't be happier.

Welcome to Yamagishi, Japan's most famous commune, in Toyosato, Mie Prefecture. The Yamagishi quest for happiness takes place in rural communities called "jikkenchi" — roughly meaning "places to realize (Yamagishi) principles" — where people live with a decidedly anti-capitalist twist: no money and minimal possessions.

"When I was a high school student, a teacher talked about alternative societies based on true communism," explained Chinami Seto, who prepares food at Yamagishi. "Years later I remembered his talk when I met a Yamagishi vendor. Impressed that people were putting their ideals into action, I gave Yamagishi a try."

Despite the fact the decision eventually led to separation from her husband, she stayed on, and still believes that the Yamagishi way is the route to true bliss.

Joining Yamagishi takes an enormous leap of faith. In 1956 the founder Miyozo Yamagishi and other original members pooled all their personal assets with the hope of realizing a spiritually superior society where members could attain happiness and change society. Members believe agricultural work and a simple lifestyle supported by other community members will satisfy all their needs, financial and otherwise.

As might be expected of a group that runs so counter to the materialistic culture of modern-day Japan, their practices and philosophy have invited a fair share of criticism over the years, and worse.

One practice that has drawn fire is Yamagishi's requirement for members to "invest" in the community, which effectively means individuals must hand over their personal assets to join this possession-free society. According to Hiroko Katayama, a Yamagishi spokeswoman, the amount new members give is determined through consultation, taking the individual's life circumstances into account. Some may keep half of what they own; others may simply understate their assets. Yamagishi conducts no search of financial records.

The first step into the world of Yamagishi is an eight-day course open to the public called Tokkoh. During the session, which has no teacher, participants "share their ideology, worldview, and wisdom in order to investigate the best way to live," according to the group. For those who complete the course and are still serious about joining, there is a two-week "Kensan" seminar, which is more experiential- than discussion-based.

Yamagishi hit the headlines in the 1990s when a total of 31 disillusioned ex-members filed lawsuits demanding their money back after quitting the movement. One high-profile case involved a woman who sued after "investing" a whopping ¥250 million, claiming she was brainwashed during the training sessions.

Yamagishi had rejected the litigant's membership bid — twice — before accepting her after her assurances that she believed in Yamagishi principles; she had cited struggles with her daughter as a reason for wanting to join. In court, her claim of brainwashing was rejected but she won a settlement. Despite signing a contract that released her claims to her assets, the court ordered Yamagishi to return approximately 50 percent because the contract "ran contrary to public order and accepted social customs." She also claimed her disillusionment stemmed from the "extravagant" lifestyles of the Yamagishi leaders, an assertion the court rejected. The court cases dragged on for years hurting recruitment and its country-wide image. All the litigants eventually received some return on their original "investment," with the average amount awarded being 50 percent.

The Yamagishi image took another hit in the late 90s when the mass media, and television specials in particular, highlighted perceived flaws in the movement's child-raising methods, including their policy of serving just two meals a day.

Children would work in fields to gain experience with agriculture before heading to local public schools, often without having had breakfast. The fact that some kids got hungry before their 1 p.m. school lunch, and others fell asleep, attracted sharp criticism from mainstream society.

"Yamagishi is always looking for the best way to do things," Kazuki Sakai explained, "and we frequently amend our practices. In that case there were some legitimate flaws in our approach, which we've corrected. Kids now only occasionally work in the fields, and we make sure they eat breakfast if they need to." Sakai added that it was ironic that now nearby schools bring local kids to Yamagishi to experience farming while Yamagishi children no longer have set agricultural chores.

Like their views on money and possessions, some of Yamagishi's ideas related to raising children remain unorthodox by traditional Japanese standards. When children turn six years old, for example, they move out of their parents' home on the jikkenchi and into a dormitory with other Yamagishi kids. Parents maintain intimate ties, but kids are from that point treated as part of the community rather than as members of their individual family. Members themselves admit that the results of this system are mixed, although they stress that mainstream society doesn't seem to have all the answers either.

"My three kids, who are now all grown, are all choosing to live in Tokyo rather than the jikkenchi," Ikuhara confided. When asked whether he thought they had regrets or misgivings about their Yamagishi upbringing, he figured they did.

"But they laugh about it. I think their feeling has less to do with being at Yamagishi and more to do with being children. Isn't it common for kids to have misgivings as well as positive memories?"

As in the home, roles at work differ markedly from the world outside the Yamagishi communes. At the workplace there is no hierarchy to speak of. Instead, decisions are made after discussion via the "Yamagishi process": proposal to dialogue to discussion to agreement to re-examination.

It took Ikuhara a while to make the adjustment from his job in the high-tech industry to Yamagishi.

"The only negative point I've experienced since coming here was the overwork when I first arrived," he explained. "There was no boss or set working hours," he said, so he had to learn to work in harmony with his needs and the community's. Since then he has learned to rest when tired — a revolutionary idea for Japan's notoriously overworked.

Yamagishi is often compared to the Israeli kibbutz system, or "back to earth" communes that sprung up in the West in the 1960s. Each Yamagishi jikkenchi is an ecologically sound alternative to a materialistic society: Yamagishi produce is mostly organic; waste water is combined with pig urine to treat seedlings; recycling is maximized while consumerism is minimized.

"We take the straw leftover from the rice harvest and feed the cows," said Yukishige Naruse, a rice farmer at Yamagishi. "Then the pig manure becomes fertilizer for the rice fields. And we're always looking for ways to refine the process."

Despite living a virtually zero-waste ecological ideal, environmentalism is not a tenet at Yamaguchi and members seem to steer clear of any "save the Earth" sort of rhetoric. The application of scientific principles in the quest for happiness is the core ideal, say members, and living in harmony with the environment happens to satisfy that ideal. This scientific approach is what attracted Kunio Nagase to the communal life some 33 years ago.

"Here we strive to figure out what's real, and what's the best way of doing things," he said, adding that personal happiness will lead to societal happiness.

Given Yamagishi's dedication to scientific principles, it's ironic that another common criticism of Yamagishi in Japan is that they are too religious, particularly as no religious teachings or practices from either the founder, Miyozo, or from established religions play a part in Yamagishi life. However, their idealism does have a spiritual flavor.

"Religion is and isn't related," longtime member Masayuki Miyachi said. "We want to change society. We want everyone to realize happiness." This is, of course, the ultimate aim of Buddhism and other religions, but the means is a possession-less community of individuals practicing sustainable agriculture rather than ritual or prescribed spiritual practices.

Several jikkenchi exist overseas, in South Korea, Thailand, Sweden, Australia and the U.S. By commune standards, their 50 years of existence is an admirable achievement, probably second longest in Japan after "Atarashiki-mura" (New Village) in Miyazaki Prefecture, which opened in 1918. While Toyosato jikkenchi in Mie prefecture is by far the largest jikkenchi, with over 400 members, some 32 other jikkenchi exist all over Japan with approximately 800 other members.

However, several jikkenchi have closed in recent years and the number of total members has been decreasing. Is this the beginning of the end for Yamagishi?

"Certainly not," Nagase declared emphatically. "New members will start coming again. I'm sure of it."

For more details about Yamagishi or the eight-day Tokkoh course, contact Hiroko Katayama in English or Japanese at katayama_h@mula-net.com. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp