The Han-No Han-X Movement
By Megumu Ogata & Nina Fallenbaum
In traditional Japan, farming families often practiced arts or other pursuits on the side. For instance, in some parts of Fukushima, farming families passed the long, cold winters by perfecting a type of weaving called karamushi ori. In Oita on the southern island of Kyushu, a type of pottery called onta yaki is famous and provided both diversion and welcome income for farming families. On the Japan Sea, fishing was and is a natural accompaniment to farming. In this historical context, Han-nou Han-X is nothing new. But it is a response to some very 21st-century conditions.
What is “han-no han-x?” In its Japanese spelling, han is a prefix meaning “half,” and nou is a prefix meaning “agricultural.” So han-nou means “half-agricultural” and the “x” in han-x can be really, anything.
The term was first coined by acclaimed Japanese environmentalist Jun Hoshikawa, a writer, activist, and translator who is now the director of Japan’s Greenpeace organization. Inspired, writer Naoki Shiomi wrote “How to Live Han-Nou Han-X” in 2003. The book took off and is credited with inspiring a wave of Han-nou Han-X enthusiasm among the Japanese environmental movement. Shiomi defines han-nou han-x like this: “Han-no Han-x means that we grow what we consume, in a small scale, meeting minimum human needs. We seek to meet basic needs without waste. The “x” part refers to an activity that you enjoy doing, and therefore can contribute to society.”
Another factor driving the expansion of the han-no han-x movement is Japanese concerns about food safety and quality. Scandals involving imported produce and packaged foods have piqued interest in self-sufficient farming, which is how the bulk of rural families once lived. Today, this traditional practice is seeing a resurgence.
The agricultural ministry has also sounded the alarm with some very real demographic realities: more than 60 percent of Japanese farmers are over 60 years old, and 3 million farmers are charged with feeding 127 million people. The reasons are many: rapid aging of the farming sector, falling food self-sufficiency ratios, and a general curiosity among urbanites to escape to the countryside to grow eggplant and cucumbers into the sunset. But wait – how to make money?
There are many examples of “x” activities. For example, one woman creates subtitles for films, while another is a web designer. Others are interested in environmental problems, so they work for environmental NGOs. Han-nou Han-xers often see farming as their food source and grow subsistence staples, like rice and vegetables. Others sell their crops and thereby combine both aspects of their lives.
Akira Goto is one young “han-no han-xer.” He was born in Hokkaido and raised in Tokyo, and contacted the Sloth Club and environmental activist Tsuji Shinichi in 2003 while working on his graduate thesis in sociology at Chuo University. He was interested in slow food and environmental movements. After finishing graduate school, he started working for Noubunkyo, one of Japan’s largest book and magazine publishing companies focusing on agricultural topics. For two years he traveled to over 5,000 farming households all over Japan, promoting Noubunkyo publications and meeting rural people in all corners of Japan. Seeing the challenges of very old men and women whose farms were struggling, few young people were engaged in farming, he began thinking about relocating to the countryside. At the same time, he was impressed with the richness and community feeling of rural life.
In 2005, he quit the publishing company and moved to Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. He moved to a village called Akamura, or “red village,” where he was almost the only young person, and started farming. By trial and error, and with the help of local people, he built a farm of rice, vegetables, and other crops
“There is a difference between Han-No Han-x and baby boomers who just want to retire in the countryside and relax. There is a social movement aspect implied in the ”x” portion of our identity,” said Goto from his farm in Kyushu. To support his monetary income (since his crops are grown mainly for his own consumption), he works at a fair trade coffee company and café based in Fukuoka.
Like many han-no han-xers, Goto originally thought his “x” job should be completely independent, like freelance writer, editor, translator, or artist. He now sees things differently. “By cooperating with local people and having jobs based not on the individual but on company and community, we can grow this movement more widely,” he says.
He acknowledges difficulties in melding ideals with reality when making the rural transition. While there is an abundance of empty lots and houses in rural Japan, strict village policies and insular attitudes can make it difficult for an outside to enter — even if they are Japanese. Connections are paramount, and Goto is still working to cultivate those relationships with his neighbors. “About half the people in the village still treat me as an alien, but politely,” he says with a laugh.
In some cases, Han-no Han-x people have given up on rural life for various reasons and returned to the city. This can generate resentment among local people. But Goto is determined and pleased with the life he has chosen. “I cannot imagine returning to a crowded city. I can hear roosters and many wild birds crying in a morning, I can grow vegetables and some staples such as rice and soy beans. I don’t feel like I’m getting tired by working on some unnecessary task; my work directly supports my life. Even if I only make $500 a month, I feel incredibly happy. That is why I want to promote this way of life to more people.”
Shiomi’s book acknowledges the challenges of this lifestyle, but tempts readers desperate to escape the urban rat race: “People who try to do han-no han-x enjoy their life, and try to live conscientiously and simply. We drink tasty wine, listen to good music, and have abundant quality time in nature. We often hold house parties with music performances for each other. At our potlucks, almost all the food is harvested from our own farms and cooked by ourselves… Everyone dreams of a society where people can live by doing what they like. This society is possible through han-no han-x.” Only time (and economic conditions) will tell if this movement will grow enough to affect mainstream life. It seems that the current han-no han-xers don’t really care, though. They’re just happy with their little farms and fresh soybeans, living off the grid in a rapidly changing Japan.
“Han Nou Han X Yoiu Ikikata” Naoki Shomi, Sony Magazines, 2003