Ecotopia Author Callenbach Discusses Lessons from Communal Living Arrangement in Japan

<em>Ecotopia</em> author Ernest Callenbach speaking at Saint Mary's on Oct. 17.
Ernest Callenbach, whose 1975 novel Ecotopia envisioned the West Coast as a potential ecological utopia, told an Oct. 17 Saint Mary's audience that the Yamagishi community movement in Japan presents intriguing ideas about living in greater harmony with each other and the environment.

"The Yamagishi offered the most different way of thinking and living that I've ever experienced," said Callenbach, whose works have had a significant impact on the modern environmental movement.

Drawing from a journal article he wrote in fall 2006, Callenbach described his experiences in the Yamagishi community of Toyosato, where more than 500 men and women live in close communal quarters and practice large-scale agriculture.

"It looks very much like a college campus," said Callenbach, noting that buildings are large, densely situated and include common dining and sleeping areas.

Central to Yamagishi community life, Callenbach explained, is tokkoh, an intensive educational experience where facilitators pose questions with no simple answers.

"They are Zen-like koans like ‘To whom does this belong?'" Callenbach said. "It made us realize that ownership is a very problematic concept when you're living in a collective."

This spirit of inquiry guides Yamagishi life, which is characterized by ongoing community discussions and an emphasis on consensus. The community's goal is for each member to reach a "zero position" - a state of pure detachment where all elements of self-concept are wiped away.

Callenbach noted that the Yamagishi community at Toyosato is in many ways unique - it includes a significant number of highly educated people who chose to leave Japanese corporate or academic life - but says that the community still has lessons to teach others.

"Could Americans in any sizeable numbers learn to be so democratic? Learn to trust each other? As life gets harder, we might have to."

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications

Photo by Gabrielle Diaz '11