Tokyo's Satoyama Cultivate Connections with Nature

Aiming to embrace the satoyama culture, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government launched the "SATOYAMA" project in 2015 to organize nature-oriented programs for all ages in conservation areas around western Tokyo's Tama region.
People harvesting rice; rice paddies surrounded by thickets are common sights in satoyama.

Programs for Participants of All Kinds

Farming and forestry were once cornerstones of everyday Japanese life, bringing people into rich, intimate relationships with the nature surrounding their communities. These satoyama areas, where nature and humanity coexist in proximity, were also habitats for a diverse array of plant and animal life. Satoyama areas each have a unique personality all their own. One mountainous satoyama is the wooded area in the Ome City, Kaminariki Forest Environmental Conservation Area. The forest absorbs rainwater, making it a "water source" forest that helps regulate the flow of the nearby river. Others are hilly, like the Yokosawairi Satoyama Conservation Area in Akiruno City. These types of satoyama are home to gently rolling hills dotted with rice paddies, fields, and thickets on the periphery. Then there are upland satoyama; one is the Kokubunjisugataminoike Green Tracts Conservation Area, which evokes an age when thickets, coniferous forests, fields, and orchards painted the backdrop of community life. 

"Tokyo has a lot more nature than you'd think," a representative from the Tokyo Environmental Public Service Corporation says. "Lifestyle changes have made it harder to connect with nature in the city center, but there are plenty of efforts to preserve as much nature as possible. Through an ordinance on the protection and restoration of nature, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) designates high-quality natural environments and forests that are parts of important historical sites—whether they're on public or private land—as conservation areas." While these government-designated conservation areas help safeguard nature in Tokyo by regulating land improvements and other development activities, they face their own set of serious challenges. A completely hands-off approach leaves areas prone to deterioration and expose them to non-native species, threatening their ecosystems. 

Conserving Satoyama through Volunteer Efforts

Volunteers observe species during regular maintenance.

The SATOYAMA project aims to help meet those challenges. With the help of volunteers, the initiative drives efforts to thin thickets, clear underbrush, tend to rice paddies, and perform maintenance throughout the conservation area. "There are active efforts going on in 39 of the 50 government-designated conservation areas, and local volunteer organizations are behind most of the work," the representative says. "But we also get a lot of help from all the people who take part in the 40 or so SATOYAMA experience programs we put together every year."

The experience programs draw many from central Tokyo.

Nurturing Nature and People

While clearing underbrush in thicket areas is far from glamorous work, it improves the environment by giving the ground surface more light exposure. Programs in rice paddies, meanwhile, give participants a firsthand grasp of how rice farming is a yearlong process: one that starts with tilling the soil and then goes on to planting, weeding, and harvesting. "What participants actually do in the programs is simple, basic work, but the initiative is about more than that—I want people to see how fun conservation activities can be and understand how human life has always been intertwined with nature," the representative says. "A lot of our programs focus on extending the actual tasks into something bigger. Instead of just having people cut trees and grass and then calling it a day, we give them chances to turn what they've cut into firewood or tools. There's so much to learn from the ways people of the past used thinned wood and other natural resources in their day-to-day lives, and I hope our crafting workshops keep helping people do that." 

Participants make wreaths with branches and berries at a workshop after a conservation program.

Since many of the SATOYAMA experience programs involve tasks that are simple and straightforward enough for first-timers to do, participants range from families to senior citizens. Other government-driven efforts making an impact along similar lines include Tokyo Greenship Action and the Tokyo Green Campus Program, where private companies and universities collaborate with NPOs and the TMG on nature-conservation activities. "Tokyo Greenship Action is playing a valuable role in corporate efforts to make progress on the SDGs and train employees," the representative says. The corporate activities also serve as a springboard to other opportunities, with the experiences inspiring some participants to sign up for SATOYAMA programs with their families. 

In Tokyo's conservation areas, volunteer groups play a big role in sustaining biodiversity. Their involvement helps address needs that the government cannot cover fully. But Japan's aging society has also thinned the volunteer ranks, prompting the creation of a group of conservation area supporters. Founded in 2021, the group is a new pathway to conservation engagement: for past participants in SATOYAMA programs or similar activities who want to keep deepening their knowledge and skills without limiting themselves to membership in one volunteer organization or a specific location, the supporter group is a perfect fit. "I want people to know that you don't have to go far out of the city center to find nature and see biodiversity up close," the representative says, "and I want to nurture a bigger, broader community to pass the natural legacy of satoyama and other areas on to future generations. That's crucial from both an environmental and a cultural standpoint." Across the centuries, people worked to keep satoyama alive and well. Reviving those precious places for the people of today—and tomorrow—might be one of the best ways that those of us here in Tokyo can push progress toward the SDGs. 


Operating on a concept that envisions green urban development for the next 100 years, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is pushing initiatives to protect, cultivate, and utilize Tokyo's greenery.
Working to conserve areas rich in nature, forming spaces for conserving biodiversity, and engaging in greening activities with local residents are some of the many efforts through which the initiative aims to transform Tokyo into a sustainable city that exists in harmony with nature.

Interview and writing by Kubodera Junko
Photos courtesy of Tokyo Environmental Public Service Corporation
Translation by Tom Kain