When deadly floods damaged her family’s home in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, in 2018, Tokyo resident Alumi Senoo knew her time to leave the metropolis had come.
Joining her mother, who had been living in the home alone following her husband’s death several years prior, Senoo began helping out with tasks including post-disaster cleanup and growing vegetables in the adjacent fields. Meanwhile, she continued running her freelance graphic design business out of the front room of the house, where her paternal great-grandfather and grandmother had long worked as pharmacists for the local community.
The move also helped Senoo to reconnect with relatives, who sometimes reminisced about family history. When a cousin told her that their grandmother had once hoped to run a community gathering space, Senoo recalled her father’s longstanding dream of running his own coffee shop. It then occurred to her: Why not honor both of their memories by turning her home office into a cafe and meeting place for cyclists, another one of her passions?
Organic farmers in Japan operate amidst flux in food, agriculture, personal values, market, and governance. This study analyzes experiences and perceptions of organic farmers in their 30s and 40s and their struggles to navigate the risks and uncertainties of organic agriculture in neoliberal Japan.
I propose that young organic farmers practice ‘edgework,’ a concept developed to explain the perceptions of extreme sports practitioners taking chances at the edges of life and death in an era when the pressures to become consumer–entrepreneurs are strong. Edgework is ‘work carried out on ourselves by ourselves as free beings’ (Lyng, Citation2005, p. 45). In this sense, young organic farmers practice ‘occupational edgework’ that plays with normative boundaries (Lyng, Citation2005, p. 26) such as mind/body, nature/culture, urban/rural, and economic/moral. As educated urbanites doing hard field labor using traditional, organic techniques in dispossessed rural areas, they transgress neoliberal truths of the ideal, privileged citizen, not so much rebelling as breaking free of binary rigidity by crisscrossing boundaries (Foust, Citation2010). Organic farmers are positioned on the in-control end of the edgework framework, creating lives in the boundary zone of dominant and alternative logics, sensitive to their environments as they connect morality and reason (Milavanovic, Citation2005).
In this border zone, their agency transgresses various binaries—binaries that have shaped these farmers’ perspectives throughout their upbringing, education, and adulthood; these binaries stem from public discourses on sociocultural aspects of the postwar political economy, the contemporary consumer market, local village traditions, and the organic agricultural movement itself. As this paper shows, young farmers flow fluidly through these binaries that appear as contradictions. For example, although they are passionate about using the forces of nature against the degradations of industrial agriculture, they reject monolithic protest against market and government practiced by their forbearers in the organic movement. They wed rational knowledge of science and market with emotional beliefs, straddling strategies of neoliberal consumer–producers and ideals of pioneer organic farmers. They spurn crass consumerist values, yet they desire enjoyment in work, community, and food. They disdain postwar, corporate-defined roles, and in some ways are champion neoliberal subject–entrepreneurs, yet they rebuff neoliberal entrepreneurship for profit only, preferring independent livelihood earned with nature, family, and human relations. They accommodate aging farmers and their traditions in rural villages while scanning for channels and networks in the larger neoliberal world where they were raised.
Thus, these young farmers employ flexible, hybrid approaches that pour across normative lines established by various forces. In the ‘neoliberal situation’ of Japan, privatization, market, and government monitoring make subjects responsible for themselves, yet discourses alternative to the social conditions of neoliberal economics, such as creative self-making, are articulated. Japanese historical values for cooperation and selflessness are active along with global values of individuality and entrepreneurship (Takeyama, Citation2010). Discursively and materially, these farmers bring together past traditions, neoliberal subjectivities, and edgy self-making.
Young organic farmers perceive organic farming as a way to make selves in neoliberal society—to exceed being subjects of a consumer imperative by making spaces and activities to try to construct themselves as subjects (Leitner, Sheppard, Sziarto, & Maringanti, Citation2007). Search for self and experience of ambiguity or uncertainty around this is found among many people in Japan (Rosenberger, Citation2013). Organic farmers take a firmer, more alternative trajectory than most, refusing the company life of winners and the so-called loser life of temporary work that a third of workers now do (Honda, Citation2006). Through organic farming in Japan’s margins, they create subjectivities and lifestyle occupations with the potential to include nature, emotion, sociality, and freedom of a kind different than that offered (Rose, Citation1999). Theirs is an uncertain life, but they negotiate boundaries consequential to humans (Lyng, Citation2005).
This research is an exploration into the following questions: (1) Based on conversations and observations with young organic farmers, what do their thoughts, experiences, and actions offer to our understanding of contemporary Japanese life? And (2) how does edgework as an active approach to risk and uncertainty increase our understanding of their alternative approach to life, occupation, and self?