A Healthy Way of Life? [part 2]

The Tale of Typhoon Jane

One subject that is extensively taught from external sources, however, is Yamagishi’s history.

As the legend goes, Yamagishi-ism has its roots in Typhoon Jane of 1950, a violent storm that hit Japan especially hard around the Kyoto region. The Uji-gawa river subsequently overran its banks and flooded a number of rice fields, including those belonging to one Farmer Yamagishi [Miyozo].

Once the storm subsided, a government official from the Department of Agriculture was dispatched to survey the damage and was surprised to find Mr. Yamagishi’s rice paddies completely intact, while those of neighboring farms were devastated.

Farmer Yamagishi proudly attributed this feat to his unique farming and chicken-raising techniques. But more than that, Farmer Yamagishi reportedly explained, was the environment in which the products were cultivated: within the framework of this ‘ideal society’ where humans work the land in total harmony with nature and the rest of the universe.

The government official’s curiosity was naturally aroused, as the story continues, and he started visiting Farmer Yamagishi on a regular basis. Other farmers joined in the occasional gatherings and in March 1953 the Yamagishi-kai (Yamagishi Association) was officially founded.

On January 12th, 1956, 162 Yamagishi supporters held their first
tokkoh, an abbreviation for ‘special workshop’, at Kyomo-ji [temple] near Kyoto. The original idea behind the workshop was directing the participants’ inner energy toward the kind of ‘happy society’ Yamagishi offered. The special workshops have been held ever since.

The workshop is an integral part of the village lifestyle even now because it is more or less the only way an outsider can get his foot in the Yamagishi door. The workshop is an eight-day retreat spent atop a mountain in nearby Yokkaichi. Yamagishi staffers deliberately avoid giving out any details of the workshop, except to say that it teaches one “how to find oneself.” As Hans says, those who take part in the eight-day session find themselves afterward with lit-up faces, a fresh outlook on life, and a sense of mellowness in their being. The cost for such enlightenment is ¥38,000 per periodic workshop.

That’s the first required step any potential villager must take before being accepted into the Yamagishi clan. Of course, those who decide not to join after completing the workshop are free to go their own separate ways. But for those who
are intent on becoming a village person, there is a second two-week workshop for ¥15,000. After that, the Yamagishi doors start to open and a new life begins.

Epilogue: Yamagishi the Enigma

K.T.O. readers are wholly encouraged to check out Yamagishi for themselves. The surrounding scenery is beautiful, the air is unpolluted and the fresh food is absolutely delicious. Personally, I found that a brief trip there raised far more questions than it did answers. Thus the reason to include a fourth category to fill readers in on some of the more puzzling — and sometimes contradictory — aspects of Yamagishi that a visitor is likely to encounter.

A good place to start is that Yamagishi is not completely open to visitors, despite the image it promotes. My polite requests to walk around freely and unescorted were flatly refused. One veteran villager explained, “There are some places you shouldn’t see — dangerous places” (a diseased chickens area was cited). “Children’s World” was also said to be strictly off-limits to visitors. Perhaps most surprising was that mine was [said to be] the first such request ever by a visitor to Yamagishi. So readers who intend to visit the Mie site are encouraged to ask lots of questions for themselves.

That goes for the highly touted ‘workshops’ as well. Yamagishi staff declined to give details on the special workshop that outsiders must enroll in to become potential villagers. One would think that for ¥38,000 a pop, Yamagishi could be a little more specific about what the customer is paying for.

Yet Yamagishi’s logic is that details only turn off possible attendees and lead to misguided, preconceived judgments about what the eight-day workshop entails. Yamagishi spends a lot of effort trying to persuade people to sign up for the workshop, so again, interested readers are encouraged to get as much information as possible beforehand.

There were other minor but noteworthy pieces of the Yamagishi puzzle that didn’t quite fit into place during my stay. One was a lack of people. It was hard at times to believe that 700 people lived in this compact village, since I didn’t see more than 50-75 people a day during my two days there. The village often resembled a ghost town, even during the most beautiful day the Kansai had seen all winter. Villagers were either busy working indoors or out driving trucks, I was told.

Another paradox existed in the assertion that each and every village person is equal in status, that no leaders or bosses are to be found there. I chalked up my doubts to typical journalistic skepticism until I overheard a Japanese mother of two children giving Yamagishi reps a rough time during her visitor’s briefing. Her complaint was something to the effect of: “You mean to tell me that there’s nobody in charge of 700 people? What happens if a major problem comes up? Do 700 people hold a meeting and then decide how to solve it?!” Many other aspects I noticed led me to conclude without a doubt that Yamagishi indeed does consist of people who are higher up in rank than others, despite its vehement claims to the contrary.

Lastly, there is the question of Yamagishi versus the Western concept of a commune. That issue was never really resolved in my mind. It seemed to be a matter of semantics; the Yamagishi members were insistent that they were running a ‘village,’ not a commune. Yet I saw little there in two days that differentiated it from what most Westerners would generally imagine a commune to be, except that maybe Yamagishi has more advanced infrastructures. It was a vicious circle: if there was something distinguishable about Yamagishi’s system, I was not allowed to observe it for whatever reasons.

Despite all this, if you don’t mind paying a visitor’s fee of ¥5,000 per night to be guided around to pre-chosen sights, then by all means take a day or two to visit Yamagishi. Visitors are sure to be treated to a comfortable, private guest room, not to mention the liberal meals of tasty natural foods.

And who knows? You may even be put to work sorting eggs, wrapping broccoli or driving a forklift at shipping time.