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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

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Austerity — we've embraced it in the countryside


Austerity. It's a word steeped in meaning. No one is more aware of a stagnant economy than the Japanese people, who are spending less and learning to relish cheap, imported goods.

"Maybe Japanese people will start moving back to the countryside," says an American friend of mine, referring to the more affordable lifestyle it offers. I look into her wild excited eyes and see galloping horses headed westward across Japan, closely followed by four-wheel drive Toyota trucks full of futons, rice cookers and toilet slippers — a Manifest Destiny of Japan — snaking along the Tokaido to Osaka like Golden Week traffic, and continuing all the way to Kyushu through the verdant rice fields of Japan's countryside — a mass movement of people returning to their roots.

Doting grandmothers in aprons, with pots full of miso soup bubbling away in their kitchens, stand outside waiting for the oncoming furusato stampede of grandsons and granddaughters finally coming home to the good life.

But it just ain't gonna happen.

In all my years living in Japan's countryside, I've never seen any significant return to the rice fields. Most people are lucky to make it back to their ancestral home once a year for O-bon on a 300 kph bullet train.

People don't want to live in the countryside and work in the rice fields. In some ways, it's understandable. In other ways, it's short-sighted. Many people leave the countryside to go work at factories in the city. But is going to work in a factory every day really that much better than going to work in the rice fields? Especially when the countryside offers a better quality of life, especially for children.

"Japan is hopeless," says my neighbor, referring to Japan as if it were a foreign country. But life is still good here in the countryside, where they have always embraced austerity. I believe that is why there is far less stress here. Put it this way: In the countryside, you'll never find anyone living out of a cardboard box.

To the contrary, people in the countryside are far more recession-proof. And happy. When austerity brings such inner prosperity, it makes you wonder if low income, more work and less pay — traits usually associated with a lower standard of living — are always such a bad thing. In reality, the person making a decent income working at a factory in the city may be happier running the local farmer's market at half the salary. The already austere life in the countryside often stimulates creativity (new ideas to create jobs and tourism), encourages risk (starting new businesses) and promotes individual freedoms (more choices on how to spend work and leisure time).

I understand that no one wants to live with hardships. But consider this: Modern-day hardships have only become so through reflection. When we look back on working in the rice fields, we see it as a hardship only because we don't have to do it anymore. Only when things get easier do the old ways become less desirable. It's like email. We wonder how we ever survived without it.

Kids these days say they could never live without the Internet, cellphones or iPods. But those of us who grew up without them just smile. We're happy to have these modern conveniences, but whether you see life now as better or just different, is up to you.

When I first came to Japan, I lived in a six tatami-mat room in the city and went to the public bath every day. The one-room apartment cost me just ¥10,000 per month. As a full-time university teacher I could have afforded a much nicer apartment for ¥60,000 per month, like most of my colleagues. But don't think for a moment that my lifestyle was austere. I can assure you, there is nothing austere about banking ¥50,000 per month.

Next, I moved to the countryside, where the rent was (gasp!) ¥20,000 a month for an entire house. Twice the price and four times the amount of space.

"When I was a kid, we used to have to walk 5 km to school — in the snow!" your grandfather bellows, furious that his grandchildren are complaining about having to take the bus.

The reason he is angry is not just that his grandchildren are spoiled little brats who take everything for granted. It's much more than that. You see, granddad loved his 5 km walk to school. He kept an eye on the subtle changes of the seasons, he talked to the birds, and he learned to tell the difference between rain clouds and storm clouds and knew exactly how many minutes he had to run like hell before the downpour. He is sad that his grandchildren will never get to experience those beautiful crisp mornings when your boots make a crunching sound in the snow all the way to school, or the thrill of rescuing a bird caught overnight in a farmer's netting over his watermelon patch.

And where do we get the notion that we shouldn't have to walk 5 km to school? Wouldn't it be great to have that much time in a day to walk 5 km, while being absolutely positively sure you shouldn't be doing something else?

Human relationships are said to be at the core of Japanese society. Now is when we need them more than ever. No point in wallowing in discontent; far better to overcome it. Good old neighborhood nabe parties and social get-togethers have very little to do with whether the economy is teeming along or not. And contributing to your local community (and network) is the best way to foolproof your savings. You can suffer in your own imagined world, or you can go do something about it.

So let's get genki and party on! We can still enjoy life. Rediscovering fulfillment from within is the smartest thing we can do for our budgets. In Japan, as long as we help take care of each other, no one is going to starve to death or languish at home. We're all going to survive — and we're going to become smarter, and happier, for it.

Austerity — bring it on!



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