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Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008

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Coordinating human life


While I was in the city the other day, I saw a sign on a building that described a certain company, in English, as "human life coordinator." I suppose life is something like a pant suit — you've just got to coordinate it.

In a country like Japan experiencing depopulation, and where a large number of people are busy coordinating their deaths (funerals, wills, inheritances, etc.) this company would thrive if it moved out to the countryside, countryside where dying is almost an obsession.

After all, why is it that the depopulation rate is highest in the countryside where people actually live longer? If we could coordinate life a little better, we might be able to avoid death completely.

If you walk into the city hall on our island there is a running tally of the population, which when I last checked seven weeks ago was 696 people (313 men and 383 women). As of Sept. 9, it was 689 (310 men and 379 women).

"That's not entirely accurate," says the lady who works in the "city hall" (I've never quite located the "city" on this island). "Not that many people are actually living here."

No, hardly living here, but definitely dying here, I thought.

"Some people live on the mainland but they never changed their address, since their ancestral home is here," she said.

I wonder if that includes people who are technically still on the island, but just moved from their old home to the one in the graveyard on the hill overlooking the Inland Sea. They ought to give those graves mail boxes.

Depopulation wouldn't be quite so noticeable if they didn't make announcements over the island PA system every time someone died. It's almost like the horse races: "Amano-san around the bend and Harada-san gaining. Amano-san, Harada-san, Amano-san — . . ." as if they are going to bring them out in roll-away beds and rush them to life's finish line.

Indeed, in the country, life is so at odds with itself that it almost cancels itself out as it focuses more and more on the dead. For example, here they still live by ancient rules such as if one relative in your family has died in the past year, you cannot participate in any festivals for that year. As a result, we are not just experiencing depopulation, but de-festivalization.

Between the people who are dead, those about to die, and those who can't participate because someone else died, means there just are not enough people to carry the mikoshi portable shrine at our island's Fall Festival anymore. The dead are literally taking the festivals with them. Maybe we just need to change location. Except it would be even harder to get the mikoshi up that long stairway to heaven.

Interestingly, the government's answer to depopulation in the countryside is to try to get more retired couples to move here. Other prefectures are following suit, trying to interest older people in farming and living in the old Japanese-style country houses. My question is, do we really need more people dying here?

What we need is young families who love nature and who want to bring up their children in a natural, pollution-free environment. A place by the sea where kids can grow up swimming, sailing, and fishing. Where they can learn about the moon and the tides, the stars and the planets. Where they can hike in the mountains and watch wildlife at play every day.

We need parents who want to be at ease about their children walking to school alone and whose children will fill up the new elementary and junior high school that was built. Yet no one ever promotes the countryside as a favorable place for young families. And not many parents want to live in such a place in exchange for a 30-minute commute to the mainland.

At our neighborhood meeting the other night, we were discussing whether we had enough people to pull the mikoshi at our Fall Festival this year. Of course, everyone knew we didn't. I raised my hand and said, "I'll bring 10 foreigners." Everyone looked at me.

"Well, that should be enough," said one of the fishermen. A few more nodding of heads and the chair of the meeting said, "It's decided then. We'll bring out the mikoshi."

It was shortly after that when I heard some interesting news about the island. One of the Japanese-style inns on the beach is closing next year. They've decided that instead of running an inn on the beach, they're going to turn their place into an old folk's home.

I guess it's back to the horse races. "Amano-san around the bend and Harada-san gaining. Amano-san, Harada-san, Amano-san . . ." A dead heat.



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