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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

Take it slow — but only if it suits you


Slow Life Japan is a sort of movement, or rather an antimovement, that sprouted here and there in the 1990s, little islands of quietude amid the ultra-fast life that had come to seem as unquestionable as modernity itself. Production, consumption, growth, activity, exhaustion — all very well, but what for, after all, what for?

The first to balk officially was Iwate Prefecture. In 2001, it issued a "Gambaranai Sengen" ("Take-it-easy Declaration"; gambaranai being the negative form of the ubiquitous exhortation gambare — go all out, give it all you've got).

"Let's make our life in the new century more human, more natural, and more simple," the declaration urged. Conservation, harmony with nature, the nurturing of local culture, an emphasis on fulfillment over competition and quality over quantity: such were the watchwords.

The following year, Kakegawa in Shizuoka Prefecture declared itself a "Slow Life City." Its "Slow Life Declaration" proclaimed a break with "the fast, cheap, convenient and efficient life that brought us economic prosperity" but whose side effects included "dehumanization, social problems, environmental pollution." The "things of the heart" were withering. Maybe it was time to start tending them again?

In an unrelated but not irrelevant development, Japan last month ceased to be what it had been since 1968 — the world's second-largest economy. Chinese growth and Japanese stagnation had long made the torch-passing inevitable. No one was surprised. Some Slow Lifers were even gratified. Waseda University literature professor Norihiro Kato, writing last month in the Sunday New York Times, celebrated Japan's fall as a sort of rise in disguise; the onset of a "new maturity."

"Japan," Kato writes, "doesn't need to be No. 2 in the world, or No. 5, or 15. It's time to look at more important things" — like the dimensions of life that got swamped when production and consumption became the be-all and end-all.

"Freshly overtaken by China," Kato concludes, "Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. In a world whose limits are increasingly apparent, Japan and its youths, old beyond their years, may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth."

But is it so? Spa! magazine last month subtitled a feature on Slow Life "Tragedy Country Life" (the English is Spa!'s own). Is there a flaw in the idyll?

The article begins promisingly enough: A poll of Tokyoites aged 20-39 shows 57 percent with a more or less strong desire to quit the city for the country. Well, naturally. The economic rat race, the endless commutes, the sense of life slipping by in frenzied pursuit of pointless goals in a choking environment: Who wouldn't want to get away from it all? In the country is fresh air, free time, leisure, elbow room: slow life, in short.

But speaking to some who have taken the plunge, Spa! unearths "tragedy." You thought country living was cheap; well, rent is, and vegetables are, but otherwise, you're better off shopping in Tokyo. Traffic? For lack of public transportation, everyone in the countryside owns a car, so that "on weekends you can spend an hour waiting for a parking space" — so says a 31-year-old who's had it with rustic paradise. At least in the urban nightmare you can get the latest videos.

There are other gripes of this sort, trivial day-to-day annoyances that add up and add up until life comes to seem more burden than gift. Then there's the really big issue: country intimacy versus city anonymity. The latter is lonely, the former stifling. Choose!

Masayoshi Tada (a pseudonym) chose the gambaranai heartland, Iwate Prefecture. His new part-time post office job netted him a mere ¥1 million a year, but who needs money in Iwate? And with a canoe — for he is a hobby canoeist — why, you can really go places!

In small towns, moreover, people really care about each other. They take an interest. You're not alone, as you're apt to be in the city, living cheek by jowl with total strangers who don't even nod good morning. Ah, but might not the communal embrace seem a touch suffocating to those not used to it?

So it proved for Tada's wife. The neighborhood ladies' association, supposedly instituted to take care of local business, had in fact become a gathering place for middle-aged women gossiping about their online sex encounters. Ms. Tada wanted no part of it.

"Well, don't go," said her husband.

"I have to," she replied. "If I don't, they'll start rumors about me."

She eventually stopped attending, but it cost her dearly. Now she can't bear to leave the house, for fear of what people might be saying about her.

They'd better go back to the city. Slow Life isn't for everyone, and Japan as a nation hasn't lived it in 150 years. If Japan's economy has in fact reached its natural limits, "outgrowing growth," as Kato puts it, will require learning how to gambaranai gracefully.



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