As day breaks near Nasushiobara, a town in northern Japan, teachers, pastors, and school principals from all over Asia, Africa, and the Americas begin their day together with simple chores: sweeping the grounds, cleaning out animal pens, and preparing breakfast. They have each left their home villages to spend nine months at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI), where they learn methods of sustainable farming, community development, and leadership.

ARI is much more than a school. Its work, “rooted in the love of Christ Jesus,” is inspired by a vision for “an environmentally healthy, just, and peaceful world.” As the day progresses, participants work together in the classroom, kitchen, animal pens, and fields, where they produce almost all of the food consumed at ARI. In the evening they gather for dinner, study, and recreation. “Foodlife,” a word coined by Toshihiro Takami, ARI’s founder, reflects the centrality of food to ARI’s mission. Many of the participants come from countries where hunger is a growing problem and where chemical- and water-intensive farming has damaged the land and wiped out traditional farming. After training at ARI, they return home with new methods of small-scale sustainable farming.

Using these methods, they can educate and feed their communities, with the goal of restoring their dignity and self-sufficiency and gaining independence from seed and fertilizer corporations. Because the climate of northern Japan is so different from many participants’ home countries, the emphasis is on learning first principles, not just imitating agricultural methods. Among these first principles are communal decision-making and servant leadership – perhaps the most important lessons graduates take home with them from ARI, according to Takami. Being a leader, he emphasizes, does not mean being the one calling the shots, but the one who can listen and serve in the give and take of community life: