Course:FRST370/Projects/Community of Taroji, Soni Village, Japan: Reconnecting to satoyama grasslands

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A look at the "co-evolution of interlinked societies and ecological systems through the practice of satoyama" [1]. Addressed by the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability as SEPLS or the "Socio-ecological production landscapes and seascape" [1].


An image of grasslands surrounding the village in the Nara Prefecture.


Nara Prefecture, in central Japan, is divided into seven districts. The Uda district is home to Soni village which is made from many consolidated villages, one of which is the community of Tarōji. Situated in a landscape of semi-natural grasslands, the people in Tarōji have been working towards rebuilding the ancient cultural relationship to their land. Rather than a natural grassland where frequent disturbance prevents any form of secondary succession occurring on the landscape, this grassland area is maintained by human activity that halts succession. Up until the 1960s and 1970s, Tarōji maintained their community grassland, used grass to thatch the roofs of houses, applied green fertilizer for cropland, and raised livestock in pastures. In this case study, we take note of how Tarōji has changed with the advent of non-renewable materials and increased global access post World War II. Much of the grassland all over Japan was transformed into plantations to achieve the goals of post-war recovery issued by the Japanese government to rebuild stock of wood [2].


The concept of satoyama is one that is blurred by a mass quantity of definitions [3]. Ultimately, satoyama involves the communal use and management of a mosaic of landscapes, usually located near some kind of community to maintain it. The maintenance of satoyama is mainly socially and economically based with value put on making the landscape work for human development, cultural heritage, ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, and education [3]. Takahashi points out that the idea of a New Commons is gaining recognition as Japanese communities attempt to rekindle their connection with communally held land under the premise of satoyama [4]. Satoyama multi-functioning landscapes have slowly been lost around the country due to underuse. Without constant human-intervention the biodiversity and ecosystem services managed and gained by the local communities, the semi-natural grassland of the Soni plateau is being lost and taken over by natural succession [5].

The Commons

Generally speaking, overuse and overconsumption are what typically drives this phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons [6]. However, in the case of traditionally modified landscapes, the anti-commons comes about; the landscape is fragmented, and users can exclude each other, creating problems for commonly used resources. Economic returns derived from forest, fish, and farm resources in common landscape abandonment scenarios are not substantial enough to compete with imports and subsequently urge people to sell or change their land.

Meiji Era impact on Tarōji

At the dawn of the Meiji era of 1868, a period of government-encouraged improvement began. The creation of foreign capital through the export of tea and silk was an important goal, and the replacement of grassland with mulberry groves and tea fields was encouraged by the government. Fast forwarding to the 1950s and 1960s, chemical fertilizers became widespread and commonly used, eliminating the need for green fertilizer traditionally collected from the communal grassland, causing these shared areas to shrink considerably [3]. By the 1950s, the transition to oil and gas for primary usage over wood was completed, this also added to the insignificance of grass thatched roofs, where cooking and heating with fire maintained the decomposition of grass and bug populations that inhabited the thatch. Naturally, following this transition of fuel, came the use of non-renewable resources to replace local renewable ones. In 1954 Tarōji community submitted to the changing times and converted one section of yakiyama (literally meaning ‘burn mountain’) to a conifer plantation[2].

In relation to Japan, Nara Prefecture is located centrally.

The cultural importance of landscape and fire

Satoyama landscapes are of significant cultural importance in Japanese life. For the past 35,000 years, human intervention has been connected to landscapes under the idea of commonage and common forest lands or iriai [2][4]. These common grasslands have been tended to by local people to stunt the succession process. Analysis of aerial photos of the Soni Plateau from 1945, 1963, 1970 and lastly 2001, shows evidence of this maintenance for the past 65 years. The Editorial Committee of the History of the Soni Village suggests that up until a century ago the settlements surrounding the area were conducting annual burns [7].

This annual burning of the grassland acts as a regulating and cultural service to the surrounding community. The ash produced from the controlled fire stays on the ground, locking carbon in a stable soil form, providing the regulation service of carbon sequestering[2]. Culturally, the burning of the grassland keeps a part of traditional Japanese culture alive, a chance to marvel at the beauty of wildflowers in a sweeping vista. 

The whole process of regulating the landscape through fire takes several days and a coordinated effort to cut 10-20 meter wide breaks surrounding the entire area of 348,680 meters squared. Once these breaks are cut, the grass must be left to dry out and then burned while the surrounding areas are still damp enough not to catch light [2]. Traditional ecological knowledge allows this practice to be performed year after year, coordinating the time of cutting and burning to the point of precision where the fire does not get out of hand or become extinguished by wet weather. 

An image showing Tarōji community with the surrounding areas of the grasslands and the mountain Kameyama.

Tenure arrangements

As the government campaigned to build timber resources and domestic capital, every community in Soni village complied, converting their grassland to coniferous landscapes, except for Tarōji. In the 1960s, community members wanted to plant on the rest of the mountain Kameyama, prompting Tarōji community, Soni village, and Nara prefecture to agree to conserve these unique landscapes. In 1971, Nara bought the grassland from Tarōji, the original, long-term owners of the land. Some portions of satoyama were under private ownership while others fell under de facto iriai ownership meaning they were collectively managed. Those with access to the land, iriaiken, had the rights to use the resource of the iriaichi. Misuse of this resource resulted in their iriaiken being taken away as the community members acted as resource users and stewards [8] A particular problem for the ageing and emigrating community becomes apparent with iriai rights. Iriai rights are held by household, and all rights holders must live within the village and community borders; upon leaving the community, you must forfeit your rights to the land[2]. As young people move away from the way of life in the countryside, the population is left with a high proportion of older members, further enhancing the abandonment of the grassland.

History of tenure

The story of iriai rights begins with the changes in ownership that occurred in the Meiji period in 1874. Iriai forests began to be nationalized in an attempt to create a new ownership system and increase land tax revenue. While many forests were nationalized, others were merged into municipal woods, and there still existed non-national forests under prefecture/municipality, individual or association ownership. Small-holders who refused to give up their land found other ways to claim their iriai forest ownership; “associations, public corporations, individuals, groups of individuals, shrines, and temples” became de jure owners and recognized by the government as de jure private forests [9](467). According to Yamashita et al. these forests, in reality, were de facto iriai forests not yet modernized into an Authorized Neighborhood Association (ANA) or Forest Producers Cooperative (FPC) [9].

Once these forests were considered modernized, under the Civil Code of 1896, two types of iriai rights stand and the difference between which is the exclusivity of the rights. Either a group of “local people have collective use rights over iriai forest owned by individuals or other entities” or “a group of local people have exclusive ownership and use rights” otherwise known as customary rights [9](466). When it comes to the sharing of the actual benefits from the forest or collective land, this process can be determined according to customs under iriai practice. Once transferred to an ANA or FPC, this benefit sharing amongst the community is stricter: ANA benefits will be used exclusively for collective consumption, and FPC benefits will be divided among the members according to their investment made and contribution to forest management activities[9].

Administrative arrangements

Nara prefecture recognized the source of value in the grasslands of the Soni Plateau and in 1971 bought the grassland from Tarōji and exchanged memorandums stating that Tarōji could continue their customary land use and would provide financial compensation for their upkeep of the semi-natural grassland. Tarōji decided to set out rules for the annual maintenance to maintain the grassland: each Tarōji household must provide one worker on days of joint work and at least three of these days would happen per years. Absentees from the community work would be charged a penalty. This form of governance lasted until 2007 when some people in the community did not like the co-operative work, not understanding the necessity of this hard labour. This disbandment formed the Soni Highland Preservation Society, a community-based volunteer association, ultimately abolishing the absentee fine, directing the money from Nara and Soni to the people who did the work, and quelled ill-feelings in the community[2].

In other communities, people organized themselves under an Authorized Neighborhood Association (ANA) which held corporate status and gave iriai rights holders the opportunity to become legal owners under the 1991 Local Autonomy Law. By registering as an ANA, some villages to overcome the problem of free-riders on the benefits of community resources and reduced specific bureaucratic processes, such as registration of ownership, which took time and money[2].

Affected Stakeholders

People living in the Tarōji community support the idea of communal management of these valuable resources. These people would like to see the success of their community for years to come and depend on the income of the land, from the financial support of the prefecture to tourism. The community has some of the highest power in the situation as they control who joins the committee and how the money is distributed between parties.

The children of current landholders are also affected, stakeholders. These people have ancestral ties to this piece of land, and although they may have left to work in a city or live in an urban area, they may still have feelings of connection to the Soni grassland. 

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The interested stakeholders in this case study include the Nara prefecture and researchers.

The Nara prefecture knows the worth of the grassland through the ecosystem services it provides, and they appreciate the management performed by Tarōji community, this is observed through the payments made to Tarōji and the memorandum between them.

Researchers with interest in the history of satoyama landscapes can also be included here. These may be people unrelated to the landscape itself but are there to study the landscape and the cultural and environmental benefits of maintaining communally held land. 

Hiking tourists in the area also enjoy the benefits of conserving and maintaining the grassland of the Soni plateau, enjoying scenic hikes, lights, and wildflowers.

Table 1: Analysis of stakeholders interests
Stakeholder groups Interested Affected Summary of actions
Tarōji people with iriai rights who support co-operative work X Each member participates in the maintenance of the grassland and benefit from that maintenance financially and culturally.
Tarōji people who disagree with sharing work and responsibility X Dis-enchanted and disconnected with the purpose of tradition, but their values are supported by the community members organizing themselves into who participates and who does not.
Government of Japan X They would receive taxes from the community if those with iriai rights decided to register themselves as an FPC
Children of landowners in Tarōji who want to return home at some point X If they are away from the countryside for some time, they will not easily be able to return to their land if their relatives are deceased or have also left. They must give up rights.
Nara Prefecture X Finance Tarōji community members to maintain the grassland.
Researchers in the field of ecology/ community forestry/ satoyama landscapes X They enjoy the land as a place to research, but can leave as quickly as they come with little affect.
Hiking tourists X Present to appreciate the beautiful landscape.
City dwellers who benefit from regulating ecosystem services X Without these ecosystems specially from the grassland, they would still be able to live healthy lives or afford to move and leave.


As Shimada states, the primary source of knowledge on Tarōji and whom I reference throughout this case study, suggests that the future of the community is not clear[2]. Many members have plans to evolve and grow grassland management the same way the forestry industry here in British Columbia, Canada is continually innovating. Something mentioned in a handful of studies is the emphasis to motivate younger generations to live on the landscape and find their economic and livelihood niche within the community rather than leaving for an urban area. 

An important part of the reason to continue supporting this shared region is the benefits gained. Ecosystem services provided by grasslands are critical to the maintenance and provision of certain cycles. These grasslands act as significant carbon sinks and are more effective at recycling greenhouse gases than some agricultural soils[10]. They also provide air purification, water regulation, and reduce soil erosion; benefits that have been used in Europe for centuries now through their form of communes and anthropogenic shaping of the natural world. 

Key to the progression of environmental sustainability around the world is human involvement with the land. By shifting more land into many hands, the management of our common pool resources can be divided amongst many interest groups, hopefully leading in the direction of sustaining fruitful life for the next generation. Rural depopulation can be seen as an equal crisis to overconsumption. The reason being, as we remove ourselves from the land and space where a tree is planted and grown and cut down to make paper or any other resource consumption similar, we move further away from understanding what it takes to produce food and material goods for the growing demands of the world. Therefore I see it as a very healthy and beneficial exercise to support the local management and support for rural livelihoods in a time where connecting to the ‘hidden’ cost of things may save us from our constantly moving, producing, consuming and innovating selves. 

Assessment and Recommendations

To my knowledge, there isn’t a dramatic upper-handed power dynamic here. The community seems to be working towards supporting those who want to be involved in the grassland as volunteers and avoiding an upset from community members who do not agree with communal effort. The municipal government of Nara prefecture and that of Soni village support Tarōji out of acknowledgement to the excellent services their management of the last grasslands provides. 

If there are any recommendations to make on the progressive work of Tarōji community and surrounding similar communities, it would be asking for help from the government to support the return of a younger generation into the rural landscape. Potentially with increased and reduced price transportation to these areas, interests would be piqued. For these livelihoods to be supported there would also need to be some way to stimulate a local, regional market for these goods produced small scale, not en-masse. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 Leimona, B., Chakraborty, S., & Dunbar, W. (2018). "Mainstreaming incentive systems for integrated landscape management: Lessons from Asia". Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Shimada, D. (2015). "Multi-level natural resources governance based on local community: A case study on semi-natural grassland in Tarōji, Nara, Japan". International Journal of the Commons, 9(2), 486-509.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Indrawan, M., Yabe, M., Nomura, H., & Harrison, R. (2014). "Deconstructing satoyama – The socio-ecological landscape in Japan". Ecological Engineering, 64, 77-84. doi://
  4. 4.0 4.1 Takahashi, T., Isozaki, H., Oikawa, H., Oyama, K., & Kunimitsu, Y. (2012). "What and how effective have the main responses to address changes in satoyama and satoumi been?" In A. K. Duraiappah, K. Nakamura, K. Taeuchi, M. Watanabe & M. Nishi (Eds.), Satoyama-satoumi ecosystems and human well being: Socio-ecological production landscapes of Japan. United Nations University.
  5. Shimada, D. (2018). "'The tragedy of the commons' by underuse: Toward a conceptual framework based on ecosystem services and satoyama perspective". International Journal of the Commons, 12(1), 332-351.
  6. Hardin, Garrett (13 December 1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science. 162 (3859): 1243–1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
  7. Inoue, J., Nishimura, R., & Takahara, H. (2012). "A 7500-year history of intentional fires and changing vegetation on the Soni plateau, central Japan, reconstructed from macroscopic charcoal and pollen records within mire sediment". Quaternary International, 254, 12-17.
  8. Hasegawa, M., Pulhin, J., & Inoue, M. (2013). "Facing the challenge of social forestry in Japan: The case of reviving harmonious coexistence between forest and people in Okayama Prefecture". Small-Scale Forestry, 12(2), 257-275. doi:10.1007/s11842-012-9210-6
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Yamashita, U., Balooni, K., & Inoue, M. (2009). "Effect of instituting “Authorized Neighborhood Associations” on communal (iriai) forest ownership in Japan". Society & Natural Resources, 22(5), 464-473. doi:10.1080/08941920801985833
  10. Egoh, B. N., Bengtsson, J., Lindborg, R., Bullock, J. M., Dixon, A. P., & Rouget, M. (2016). "The importance of grasslands in providing ecosystem services: Opportunities for poverty alleviation". In M. Potschin (Ed.), Routledge handbook of ecosystem services (pp. 421-441). London: Routledge.

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Phoebe Ayer.