Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are the people in your book modern or traditional?

Journalist Anneli Rufus from Oakland, CA asks:

“Even though the people in your book are doing things that seem (and actually are) "traditional" -- Oizumi in Chapter 1 using charcoal, Atsuko in Chapter 3 cooking over a wood fire -- they are at the same time radically modern. Is this a function of living in such an old society -- that sometimes, being ahead of the curve in such societies means reaching way back into history?”

There is something fundamentally modern in being able to choose different aspects of a way of life and put them together in a manner that makes sense to us. What I think gets people in our current society so trapped is that there are so many options available, and we don't have the internal fiber to make the choices based on a consistent and strongly-held set of principles or values. That's one of the things I found so completely inspiring about these people.

It’s not so much that Japan is such an old society, but that the change from a non-cash to a cash economy was so rapid after the war. Wakako (Chapter 7) talks about her experience in this way:

"You see, I was born after the war. When I was little I saw people planting rice barefoot, but by the time we went to India, Japan was all about high-speed growth, especially of the economy, what they called ‘modernization,’” she says, as if in the presence of something on the verge of frightening. “The scenery that I was used to as a child had all changed so rapidly. No matter how I tried—I’m sorry—it was really hard to breathe in Japan at that time. I couldn’t keep up. But when we got to India, it was all heading in the opposite direction—they treasured their past. I felt a big sigh of relief coming out of me."

And if we imagine how many years it took to develop certain "traditional" ways of doing things, and how many millions of trials and errors went into them, is it such a big surprise that our fascination with all things new and shiny doesn't always work out?

The people in A Different Kind of Luxury are demonstrating a new style of modernity in the very conscious nature of their choices: What is the real priority of being a human being, alive? Here's a passage where Atsuko and I are talking at her dining room table, at her old farmhouse, late into the night. She says:

“What I really want is more time.” I look up at the clock. We’ve been talking now for almost four hours. I compare this with how hard it is for my English students to make time for even a one hour lesson, once a week. People are insanely busy here.

Then Atsuko adds, “Long ago people probably didn’t have time either.” I imagine rural life of two centuries ago, peasants struggling all day long, every day, just to provide enough to survive. “They were really busy; they couldn’t realistically expect or seek having more things or time. Now, as long as you don’t desire too many things, you can have some time.” I recall now what Atsuko said years ago when I first met her, that her priority has been to have the time to muse and reflect and really think about things. She’s been making this her priority for years. The results, I speculate, are the subtlety of her thinking, and the deeply considered nature of her choices. Perhaps it is simply about making sure that you have time for yourself. She adds, “Most people have directed their attention toward having things more than time, and that’s why they are always running.”

So we modern people have the opportunity to set up our lives in such a way that there's time to contemplate, but the ability to constantly stimulate ourselves, and the enticements to do so, make it difficult because our brains are wired to chase after the next new stimulation. It’s harder to make time to actually think about the important things about being alive. So what the people in A Different Kind of Luxury have done is to take the opportunity that modern material abundance gives us, and not try to just chase after the symbols of success, but to cherish the opportunity to live really rich lives.

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