An American In Tokyo | Part 1

Back2Life
5 min readAug 18, 2021

Featuring Jack Lichten, a PhD Candidate of Environmental Sociology at the University of Tokyo

Photo Credit: Kurumi Hamanaka

Earlier this year, our team at B2L was fortunate enough to sit down (virtually) with Jack Lichten, a doctoral candidate in the department of Environmental Sociology at the prestigious University of Tokyo.

Lichten, a native New Yorker, has an ecological history in philanthropy in the United States with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and GrowNYC, while completing his undergraduate degree in Film Art and East Asian Studies at Connecticut College. After getting his feet wet within the world of environmentalism, he decided to pursue his masters in Japan.

While he initially came to study the anthropology of labor, the great Tohoku earthquake of March 11th, 2011 shook the nation only a week after the commencement of his program at Sophia University. This tragedy moved his original trajectory into one that shined a light on one of the most hard-hit regions of northeastern Japan. Through a connection with an English-speaking professor in Sendai, Lichten was able to utilize his scholastic talents to shed light on the struggles of local educators after the tsunami through his academic research.

Image property of the Asian Rural Institute.

After his work in the Tohoku region, he was offered a position with the Asian Rural Institute and their “servant leadership” program. The program, based in Tochigi, aims to teach students a more “group-oriented, decision making process through organic farming… targeted towards rural leaders, such as community organizers and church leaders”, said Lichten. Within this program, the group of students learn how to communally produce food for the entire group, sustain themselves for the duration of their nine months, and maintain the land enough for the next cohort of students to continue with the same work of producing agriculture through collaboration.

It was during his position at the ARI that Lichten found a new way of approaching life and the environment. The northern, rural area of Japan became a welcome landscape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan life he had in Manhattan and Tokyo, while the collaborative decision-making process set off a different way to make beneficial choices for everybody.

Prior to his doctoral candidacy, Lichten worked at Narisawa, a high-end Japanese food company for three years as the international relations specialist and translator. However, after working in the big-budget, high production environment, Lichten made his return to the world of environmental academics — now with a focus on urbanization and agriculture.

As of spring 2021, he is residing in Chiba while pursuing his doctorate in the department of Frontier Sciences at the University of Tokyo with a specialization in environmental sociology and ethics.

Image property of The University of Tokyo

FARMING IN JAPAN: The Then and Now

Being a farmer is a little different than what one might imagine in the US. Instead of the daily rooster call to work, Japanese farmers traditionally only “work” on their farm a couple days out of the week, with their main income coming from other careers such as factory work. These farmers are joined by other farmers in groups called Japanese Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), which consolidate their produce into one and send them to typical supermarkets. According to Lichten, this gave the farmers more security in being able to maintain their agricultural lifestyles by having a consistent place to sell the literal fruits of their labor. But with this security came the strict requirements established by the JA, in order to stay within these cooperatives.

Requirements that lean heavily on chemicals.

“You have to grow as they say, how they say it.”

The younger generation of farmers in particular found these traditional cooperatives more difficult to work with, as the multitude of regulations stifle individuality and new, creative methods of agricultural production. Especially when there are more lucrative ways to make money than farming. While noting the declining population in Japan, Lichten stated that there is still urbanization occurring around the metropolitan areas, which in turn would further lead to decreasing farmlands. And despite some tax policies and deductions that benefit farmers and the agricultural industry, the younger generation of Japanese people still find that converting farmland into suburban areas is the more profitable move. This, Lichten said, can be partially attributed to the more entrepreneurial and independent nature of the new generation.

However, these new characteristics are also why these young farmers are kick starting new ways to grow and distribute their goods while keeping some of the security they get through the JA organization. This led some farmers to band together and create their own cooperatives in order to mimic a similar security in numbers. With these smaller, agricultural groups, farmers aim to find a compromise between the demands of the highly-regulated distribution and the maintenance of agricultural autonomy and laborious dignity.

This new sense of autonomy is also related to the growing interest in organic produce, as the idea of organic farming is being rebranded from a political stance to a health-conscious and ecologically-sound practice.

Image sourced here

Lichten discussed some of the political history behind the organic movement in Japan and how that became a hindrance to the organic idea. Referencing the knowledge of fellow academic Chika Kondo, the organic movement in the 60’s and 70’s were in response to the severe air pollution within cities all over post-occupation Japan. The general public became fed up with these suffocating living conditions that, consequently, led to green-focused candidates being elected. These green candidates then led the way to revitalize these cities into a more livable place, which meant reduced chemicals in all parts of life — especially the food. The idea of “organic” now became inextricably linked to politics.

As time went on, the political pushes of the 60’s and 70’s eventually lost steam in the 80’s during the Japanese tech boom. The cities didn’t return to the Dickensian denizens of decades prior, but the people and politicians didn’t have the same vigor for being “anti-chemical”. According to Lichten, this coincided with certain cultural shifts that decreased the amount of outwardly showing political involvement and associations. In short, it became more polite to not wear your political heart on your sleeve. Thus the organic revolution in Japan went into hibernation until the 21st century.

Until March 11th, 2011.

Join us Sunday, September 4th 12pm EST for Part 2 of “An American in Tokyo”, where we will discuss the effects of Fukushima, the culture of “organic” and the differing agrarian philosophies of Japan and the US. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more photos and updates!

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Back2Life

Promoting global Food Education, Sustainability, and Traditions for our Modern World. Based in Tokyo, Japan.