An Abundance of Possibilities: Learning from Simple Living in Rural Japan
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Updated: November 11, 2020
Gaylen Nowotarski, KASA Sustainability
“A miracle is something that just cannot be explained rationally. It is the impossible thing, which could not be. If you think about it, isn’t it really impossibly unlikely that we are alive? What explanation is there? It is completely illogical. That’s the definition of a miracle to me. And it is a miracle that we are all still alive with what Bush people in the U.S. are doing, and the other countries too. The contradiction that I cannot abide is the way they are ruining the gene code of life itself. The genes of my children will be destroyed by radioactive waste dumping and atomic energy. If we destroy the gene code, we cannot pass on this miracle to our children.” San Oizumi (Couturier 2017, page 13)
Around the time San Oizumi’s old home was scheduled to be engulfed by a monocultured golf course on all sides, he hopped on his motorbike and went for a ride. He came upon a beautiful old house, and met a very old man sitting within it. The old man told Oizumi¹ he had been waiting for his fortuitous arrival. This estate is where the Oizumi family has cultivated their habitat of pottery-lined shelves, gardens, a small library, a pottery studio, a towering Korean-style earthen kiln, and a fallout-shelter-tearoom burrowed in the side of a hill. However, Oizumi’s journey began long before that fateful motorbike ride.
In the 1940s, Oizumi was coming of age first in a village, and then in the slums during Japan’s war-time period. His father, who made very little off of his poetry and woodblock print trade, was an anarchist and nonconformist who knew English, French, and German, and refused to join the army. Though his family faced scrutiny and hardships, his formative years shaped his appreciation of the arts, of other cultures and languages, of resistance, and of poverty. These considerations are evident in the ways he conducts his life. Oizumi pulls his pottery from the earth, carefully firing each piece in the unpredictable kiln. He avoids high-productivity, automated pottery making because he sees conforming to market trends in the pursuit of maximum profit as unsettling. He has stacks of French and Korean magazines in his library, has spoken at an anti-nuclear conference in France, and tries to connect at the crossroads of Japanese and Korean cultures by studying Korean pottery and listening to Korean-Japanese rock musicians. His activist activities are creative and sporadic; he has organized town halls to raise awareness about the damaging effects of nuclear waste storage, arranged for grains grown in sites earmarked for waste storage to be used in local baked goods to spark conversations in middle class homes, and written a Noh play with an anti-war message. As the opening quote suggests, he embraces the unpredictable miracle of life in his quest to make sense of beauty and sorrow. He is not alone in this.
The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living From Rural Japan is a collection of interview-stories documenting the ‘way of life’ of ten friends and partners living simple, unorthodox lives in the many countrysides of Japan. First published in 2010 and updated in 2017, the author, Andy Couturier, stitches together his experiences visiting with each person featured in this book. The narratives of these people flick back and forth between Couturier’s present perspective during his visits, accounts of the past sparked by conversation or memorabilia, and, with the 2017 follow-ups, reflection on the future and messages to the reader. Photos of his time spent with each person, scans of their artwork, poems, notes, and letters are interspersed throughout these narratives to transport the reader throughout the temporal journey. The book closes with Couturier’s own story that brought him to a life, shared with his partner Cynthia Kingsbury, between the city and a hand-built house in a remote mountainside in California. He reflects on his experiences and closes with the defining message of the book: that diverse solutions to modern dilemmas are abundant.
Looking at the Wider World
Couturier’s purpose in crafting this book is to offer a window into alternative possibilities for ‘ways of life’ and ‘ways of thinking.’ The key problems he sets out to address are stress imposed on individuals by modern capitalist lifestyles, and environmental degradation that is accelerated by extractive wage labor systems, excessive consumption, and apathy towards the natural world that supports our life on earth. The author’s focus for change is primarily on the individual; it is suggested that the solution to these social issues lies in a person’s mindset that can be altered through their intentional way of life. In other words, when one’s way of life changes (that is, behavior, surroundings, relationships, and all that ‘life’ entails), their thinking and perspective change with it, which ideally makes room for active, deep consideration of nature and humanity, and potentially leads to social action. This collection of narratives offers living examples of such profound change.
Upon a cursory glance, most of the people in Abundance have lived rather identical lives. In fact, there is a traceable pattern: growing up and working in post-war industrializing Japan, leaving everything behind to travel in India and/or Nepal, learning life lessons as they adapt to radically new environments, and returning to Japan to live lives steeped in nature growing most of their own food. However, each person offers a different type of wisdom, and every way of life can be immensely different. There are rigorous activists like Oizumi. There are Christians like Atsuko and Buddhists like Murata. There are those raising children together, like Amemiya and Yamashita, and those who live in solitary, like Nakamura. And, naturally, each way of life is paired with a different philosophy, from Gufu’s stoicism to Murata’s passivity and so on. I find that as I read through each inspiring chapter, I decide that this - no, the next! - is the best way to live and think. It is tempting to latch on to an example of one life well lived as if it were a perfect model, but Couturier cautions against this.
Couturier persistently reminds the reader that there is no one way to live, and each person must craft their own ‘way,’ processing their personal mental library of collected information. A quote from Yamashita in his message to the reader sends home this point: “Don’t imitate our life. Please learn from our life. Build up your own new life. Just be as much like yourself as you can be” (page 328, original italics). The characters of this menagerie are apparently not very interested in selling you their lifestyle; they have simply adopted what feels best to each of them. Many exude the sentiment put into words by Nakamura: “I choose this kind of existence [a solitary life of self-reliance] as an experiment, as a way to discover the best way for me to live my life” (page 58). While the tone is a positive push towards exploring possible ways of life, it is also important to consider the narrow themes of these examples and the broader context that the text sits within.
Though certainly not new, the ambiguous ‘natural lifestyle’ is trending in new ways among ecologically-minded peoples. From veganism to zero waste to cottagecore, these trends of modern romantic primitivism represent refreshing imaginations of ‘ways of living,’ yet flirt with the commodification of their aesthetics and principles. Even in their idealized forms, there are limitations to the many models of ‘natural living.’ The people represented in Abundance are able to live their lives under specific spatial-temporal conditions, like rural flight and a growing number of akiya: old homes that remain empty. As Nakamura points out, if everyone were to move to the area where he lives, he would have to out-compete others to collect wood for cooking and heating. The ways of life that they have now might not exist without these specific conditions. In other words, these lives are not universally reproducible. It cannot be overlooked that these seemingly ‘self-sufficient’ folks still live and operate in a social milieu, and face different challenges as different individuals. Considering these stories as inspirational but fundamentally imperfect, their value can be interpreted by every reader in an infinite number of ways.
Listening, Learning, and Looking Towards the Future
While there is endless insight to be gleaned from this text, there are important ideas that have stuck with me through perennial re-readings. First: I cannot buy my way to an ‘eco’ or holistic way of life. Many of the people in this book emphasize through words or suggest through their actions that consumerism makes us chase after the ghost of a ‘good life.’ Often people expend their time working for a wage to perhaps feed cravings for objects and services that are promised to improve their quality of life. Conversely, these interviewees only make what little money they decide that they need in their current circumstances - for rent, to pay for university for their children, to buy food that they can’t catch or grow - and nothing more. The richness of their lives doesn’t come from trying a new hip restaurant every weekend or buying a 25% more ‘sustainable’ sweater, but from relationships, art, and deep contemplation - things important to them. Second: a ‘good life’ isn’t achieved independently, but interdependently. This concept is a subtle theme throughout the text, but, coming from the digital generation of isolation and disaffection, a reminder is much needed. Third: there is intrinsic value in my daily practices. These ways of life are not parables of battling with inconvenience. The work of chopping wood or growing rice is itself referred to as meditative. This tells me that an ideal ‘way of life’ is not about armchair philosophizing, and it is certainly not action without consideration. In other words, we must think with our bodies. While these lessons have been meaningful for me in my journey, they also open up a Pandora’s box of thought.
Here are some follow-up prompts to this open-ended world of possibilities: How do we translate these philosophies into urban settings where people currently have limited capability for self-sufficiency through farming and gathering? How can people with disabilities or chronic illnesses try living a simple life in the countryside if they want to? What place does The Digital have in our imaginations of a ‘good life’? Who do we leave behind in our escape to the countryside? How do we decolonize the settler mentalities intertwined with many ‘natural living’ trends? And, perhaps most importantly, how does everyone get ‘there’ - to a rich, satisfying life in cooperation with nature?
Faced with the impossible dilemmas of life within the institutions of global neoliberal capitalism and a convulsing global climate, Couturier asks us to re-fortify and renew our passions for constructing a better way of life. I am stubbornly optimistic that we will find a plurality of solutions to these crises by tapping into our collective wellspring of exemplified possibilities.
When a Japanese person is referred to, it is typical to refer to them by their family name and add the respectful suffix “-san.” Couturier chooses to refer to each person by their commonly used name, so some interviewees are referred to by their given name or family name according to preference. For the sake of continuity, I have chosen to maintain this naming system.
Couturier, Andy. The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan. North Atlantic Books. 2017.