TSU, Japan - As birds chirp in the soft morning sun, a dozen high-school girls wearing baggy indigo trousers plant onions. Boys harvest spinach in a nearby greenhouse.
The farm is the centerpiece of the Yamagishi-ism Society, a fast-growing community whose followers share their harvests, renounce all personal possessions and claim to strive for the common goals of friendship and harmony.
But the rapid growth of the society is generating discord outside its membership. It is renewing concerns about the popularity of cults, just a few years after leaders of the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth) cult masterminded a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways in 1995. A dozen people died and thousands were sickened.
Rural utopia, or cult?
The Yamagishi-ism Society has 35,000 members in Japan, 5,000 of whom live on 40 communes throughout the country. The group also has communities in Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, Thailand, Australia and South Korea.
Miyozo Yamagishi, a chicken farmer, established the society in 1952 with the aim of creating a rural utopia. The group strongly denies being a cult and does not profess any specific religious beliefs.
"We are like a big family," Yamagishi spokesman Yoshiaki Hori said.
Not all agree with that.
Sociologist Kimiaki Nishida, a professor at Shizuoka University and an expert on cults, said Japan's prolonged economic slump has created the perfect climate for cults. Disillusioned by harsh economic realities, he said, people are more willing to join cults or tightly organized groups outside of the mainstream.
Yamagishi is not new. It has long been a well-known name in Japan because its dairy products and vegetables are sold widely from the back of vans or in the food section at upscale department stores. Yamagishi's annual sales total nearly $170 million.
Allegations of abuse
A series of former followers have come forth recently saying the utopian image the group tries to cultivate is a sham.
They say members are tightly controlled and forced into a life of secrecy, subservience and often abuse.
Followers must leave their family and donate all their savings, real estate and other assets to the commune to earn full-fledged membership. Children age 5 or older are separated from their parents and live in dorms, where they sleep two to a bed. Half of the members living on communes are children.
After nine years of education at public schools, most are assigned to tend fields or raise cattle on a commune. Boys and girls are strictly separated.
No one is paid for their work, and everything in the commune is free.
Long-simmering tensions with villagers near Yamagishi projects burst into the open this summer after Yamagishi asked government approval to build a school inside its Toyosato commune on the fringes of this rural city in central Japan.
The request brought a wave of protests from social activists, and led to public hearings and a government investigation into allegations of child abuse.
In March, a group of lawyers said they had found evidence that some 30 children living at a commune in Hiroshima were abused.
The children were sent to work in the fields without breakfast before going to school, and constantly complained of hunger during class, Hiroshima Bar Association Chairman Hiroshi Kurata said.
Some teachers at their school allegedly saw the children chewing fish bait and rubber bands.
Kurata said children were also put into solitary confinement, slapped in the face or kicked in the legs for minor offenses. Letters to the children were inspected, and their contacts with relatives were restricted, the bar association said.
`I live in paradise'
Yamagishi denied all allegations.
"People may say many things, but that is totally untrue," said spokesman Hori.
Yamagishi's communes are not closed to the media, but tours are strictly guided and screened.
During one recent tour, Hirokazu Shinohata, 31, was presented to a reporter as a typical commune member.
He said he joined the commune a year after quitting his engineering job at a major construction company.
"I constantly suppressed my feelings to perform company duties," he said, adding that he was disgusted by the industry's bid-rigging and bribery scandals.
"Now I seldom get mad," he said. "I live in paradise."