The Fate of David Plath’s Japanese Utopian Groups

In the immediate postwar period, several “utopian groups” became quite prominent in Japan. The four outlined by David W. Plath in his article in American Anthropologist 68.5 (1966) are Ittō En in Kyōto, Atarashiki-mura in Miyazaki-ken, the Shinkyō Commune in Nara-ken, and the Yamagishi Assocation in Mie-ken. It appears that all of these received significant media coverage in the 1950s and 60s. However, none of them are exactly thriving today. They have all taken significantly different paths reflecting their uncertain status in Japanese society.

Shinkyō Commune (心境荘苑)

Shinkyō is located in a rural part of Nara prefecture, as can be seen on my map of the area. It was born out of a village feud sparked by a charismatic economist named Ozaki Masutarō. (Ozaki’s life-encompassing and humanist economic, moral, and metaphysical opinions, offered fiercely but never imposed, are reminiscent of Japanese folk hero Ninomiya Sontoku.) What started as a loose coalition of shunned households soon became a commune where men and women bathed together, looked after each other’s children, and eventually even shared their rice–a startling move for a group of farmers to whom rice meant everything. As Japan industrialized, Ozaki started a tatami-weaving business from scratch that, through his good business sense, quickly came to supply most of Japan’s tatami. Despite these close ties, Shinkyō neither legally incorporated nor aimed to write down any doctrine; the name Shinkyō is a complicated pun which was given by outsiders and reclaimed by insiders. It did not publicize any of its remarkable achievements, and only after it was “discovered” by national media did Ozaki’s wife write a semi-biographical account, Sensei and His Teachings, which was translated into English.

Since the 1966 article, obviously, Ozaki has died, and with him much of the motivation that kept the group’s hearts burning (read Sensei and His Teachings for a fascinating discussion of this). Shinkyō halted manufacture of tatami, switching focus to care for the mentally retarded, and incorporated as a “social welfare corporation”. It is unclear to me how successful this program is; only one person has written about it online. One wonders how a charismatic humanist in the style of Ninomiya or Ozaki would operate in today’s Japan, where neither government works nor communes are especially popular.

Ittō En (一燈園)

I visited Ittō En, which has an English website, in the fall of 2008. Ittō En seems slightly strange to me, neither secluded nor inclusive. It was founded along the lines of Tolstoy’s hermitage, and syncretizes some of the symbols of his Christianity with Japanese animist and pantheist concerns, as well as ascetic practice which I will describe shortly. It was actually founded in rural Manchukuo. Along with the use of shared property and burial in a communal grave, this seems to make it a difficult group to break into. In fact, most people in that area of Kyōto had never heard of it before! But it is nonetheless in the midst of a suburban area. Most of the manpower of commune members has been poured into maintaining an elementary and middle school open to the public, which for some reason Plath passes over in his article.

It seems that Ittō En is struggling to stay relevant today. Its founder, Nishida Tenkō, was a brilliant economist, politician, writer, and moral theorist who spent a day every month cleaning out the toilets of area villagers, even after he was elected to serve in the national Diet. In the 1930s when Nishida did this shugyō, toilets were the least sanitary part of a Japanese home. They were usually holes in the ground with no plumbing system; Nishida was performing a great and humbling service to the public with his monthly rounds. But bizarrely, Ittō En continues this practice today, even after most Japanese people have brought self-cleaning Western toilets into their home. Members, as well as kaishain brought to the commune, go from house to house demanding entry so that toilets can be cleaned. As Ittō En is unfamiliar in the area, this is usually met with a frightened refusal. The site of the commune itself has become somewhat of a museum showing off Nishida’s house and a collection of his writings. I imagine the rest of the life at this commune (~90 people, not many children) has been similarly deadened.

Atarashiki-mura (新しき村)
Wikipedia has an article on Atarashiki-mura (“New Village”) written by someone who lived there. It seems silly to duplicate what is written there, and I have never personally been to the village, so I will just add what Plath says about the subject. This project was started by one Mushakōji Saneatsu, an intellectual who was also spurred by Tolstoy. It resembles other art villages, like Lobo, Texas, in that the small number of people who could afford to live on-site were supported financially by other artists who would come to visit for clean-up festivals. As an artistic commune, its membership turnover was quite high, but it became a farming village in the 1960s it became both solvent and stabilized. It also became, I imagine, more boring to outsiders. Wikipedia says that this utopia is currently moribund, although unlike American communes, its members continue to farm under the communal flag and will likely persist for the rest of their lives.

Yamagishi Association (ヤマギシ会)

Now this group is quite interesting, and I don’t think I have a coherent image of it at present. Even though Plath has a lot to say about it, his presentation is contradicted by the modern group’s website as well as outsider police reports. It was founded by Yamagishi Miyozō, a “self-styled anarchist” according to Plath, who created a new style of group decision-making and incorporation called “Yamagishism”. He emphasizes the group’s dispute resolution and anger management. However, most of its growth occurred after Plath’s article and its own self-description seems to move it closer to a communal farm, like Shinkyō. Stranger still, Japanese media describe it as a religious cult which brainwashes its members. Did I mention it has a Korean branch? The only thing any two sources agree on: both Plath and an outsider describe it as similar to a kibbutz. Definitely a more involved look is needed to really understand this group, as it has little English material at present.

Modern Japanese communes

There are still communes being formed in Japan, although they get none of the press that these received. Here are a few: Ecovillage Index, 茗荷村, 獏原人村, モモの家

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Japan