A Thousand Steps to Neoliberalism

Senmaida and Agricultural Tourism

One of the highlights for any tourist visiting Japan’s remote Noto Peninsula is the Shiroyone Senmaida, “A thousand rice paddies” in Japanese, a historic agricultural site. The site itself isn’t unique – there are thousands of rice paddies cascading into the sea around the peninsula – but this one is particularly scenic. While tour busses and rented cars pack the parking lot, I hopped on one of the local busses behind a Japanese punk-rock couple and looked out over the cliffs for this half-hour trip from Wajima. The senmaida on an informal circuit made by most visitors to Noto, and part of a state-produced narrative about place, product, and heritage.
Historically, the senmaida were a common hand-hewn agricultural technique from Japan’s rural coast used to maximize the productivity of otherwise unplowable slopes. Farmers carve these contours and maintain the paddies by hand, which in recent years has threatened the longenvity of this agricultural practice. As the Japanese population ages and moves into the bustling city centers, the embodied knowledge of senmaida cultivation techniques is harder and harder to find. As such, Japanese and international governmental bodies seek to preserve Japanese national identity by preserving agricultural heritage. The UN designated the senmaida as a “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Site” (GIAHS) – an interesting concept that can sometimes run away in practice. Satoumi and satoyama have become the keywords in the regional preservation program, romantic ideas of human-nature relations that might stand in opposition to a more carbon-intensive, climate destabilizing lifestyle.
So when the throngs of tourists shuttle down the steps, if anyone actually makes it past the gift shop, they can wander along the edge of patties. School kids are welcomed to participate in workshops, shaping and harvesting fields. The material processes and products of the Noto region are on display for tourists. The application of local ingredients for consumption becomes increasingly surreal: local sea salt becomes soda, local gold leaf is gently tapped onto soft serve, and the rice from the senmaida is sold in packets with its harvester’s face. The region’s traditional products like laquerware, chopsticks, local foods and fish are intergral to its burgeoning tourism sector and the developing tourism economy in Japan. 

 

Socio-ecological Erosion

Enabled by a new direct-line shinkansen from Tokyo, Japanese and gaijin tourists alike come to Noto to experience the “real Japan.” Local prefectural capital Kanazawa, a beautiful city, brands itself as a hub for local foods, fish in particular. In this context, satoumi and satoyama participate in the branding of a region as much as they promote government priorities in climate change planning and resilience. Agricultural tourism serves to perpetuate “traditional” modes that are now seen as opportunities to resist climate change and “cultural erosion.” In fact, cultural resilience and climate change resilience begin to look, more and more, like the same thing. 

Lovely Japanese couple I met at the morning market!


Well hello there.

Government and university materials promote neoliberal modes of socio-culutral resilience. This is, quickly and casually, policies and practices that enable the continuation of capitalist economies as much as ecological survival in the face of climate change. It is adaptation in the name of maintaining the status quo, not in the service of environmental and cultural longevity. (David Chandler 2014) Stanford Professor of Environmental Biology Harold Mooney praised the satoyama-satoumi model for “the positive economic and non-economic values of the maintenance of these [ecological and social] systems by new policies at the local as well as the national level.” State sponsorship of these traditional resources assists in maintaining the existence of and control by the state, and through its tourism value the Senmaida’s GIAHS designation aids these efforts.

A little disgruntled, perhaps.


I feel a little ambivalent about accusing what is, on the one hand, an effort to rehabilitate a complicated and engaging lifestyle through sustainable agriculture of enabling a state regime. Maybe I’m just frustrated with being a tourist, still, after all this time. When just wanting to see and experience things cans so easily become the easy dollar into the tour bus coffer. But my best moments in Noto…it was all of it. It was walking the morning market and haggling in Japanese with the obaa-san wrapped like a matryoshka doll. It was totally screwing up curing ikura in my homestay kitchen. It was long bike rides along the coast and hiding from the rain on front patios. I hope I can go back, because even arriving in Ishikawa felt a little bit like coming home. 
 
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