Anthropology professor Barbara King was curious about Japan, and "began scouting around on the internet for recent books involving Japan, and your title came up as I played around with a search engine. I ordered a copy for my friend and another for me."
In the review below, one line I particularly felt moved by was “It’s become thoroughly unremarkable to feel stoop-shouldered with work, [and] glassy-eyed from the assault of information’s flow through electronic outlets ...”
She added, in an email to me that, "As anthropologists we're interested not only in the amazing variation among individuals in any society, but also in thinking about patterns within cultures. My friend felt a different sense of order, and structure, and attention to aesthetics and design, in Japan."
She then chose to review A Different Kind of Luxury in her monthly column. Barbara's website, with her own books is here.
EXCERPT FROM THE REVIEW:
My habit for years has been to sign emails to colleagues and acquaintances with the phrase “Best, Barbara.” I type fast, and usually accurately, but in the last few weeks I’ve been startled to see appearing on my screen the sign-off “Beset, Barbara.”
In some ways I do feel beset: by too much work, and too much challenge in finding time for family, friends, books, films, and quiet reflection. I’m hardly alone in this sense that it takes incredible energy just to resist being engulfed by culture’s great forces. It’s become thoroughly unremarkable to feel stoop-shouldered with work, [and] glassy-eyed from the assault of information’s flow through electronic outlets.
Many of us may seek micro-escapes, fixing ourselves to a spot in our home or yard, or in a nearby park or beach, that invites us to think, read, talk with others, or do something old-fashioned and creative with our hands. In such a place, our vision may clear long enough to daydream a fuller resistance to the prevailing hamster wheel. At such times, a good book to have is Andy Couturier’s A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance.
Couturier, when living in Japan, interviewed eleven people who embrace a differently-paced life.
Koichi Yamashita was once a professor of literature and philosophy and is now a farmer in a remote area of southern Shikoku. His family embraces food self-sufficiency. “I would like to be an artist of farming,” he told Couturier, “to achieve the same level of artistry and creation of beauty as does a novelist or a painter.”
Two comments that Yamashita offered up to Couturier caused me to close the book for a few moments, and simply sit with his thoughts.
When he’s out in the rice fields, Yamashita is, he says, “simply glad. I understand that I myself am living, that I am in possession of a living spirit. In the rice paddy with the plants you just naturally develop a feeling of compassion, of sympathy…”
What I like best about the Yamashita chapter is its direct engagement with the costs of this kind of living: it’s not all mystical meshing with the Earth and its living creatures. Yamashita’s work is hard. He cares also for an organic tea plantation high in the mountains, and the weeds require constant attention.
It’s physically strenuous, it’s time-consuming, and together with the rice-field work, it leaves Yamashita without enough free time. “I do feel,” he notes, "that I don’t have enough time to read and write for myself.” Here we learn that “simple living” does not equate -- as it might in the popular imagination -- to a leisurely freedom.
Yamashita muses about reading and writing books in a wholly fascinating way. Equally engrossing are the fruits of Couturier’s interaction with Jinko Kaneko, a painter and textile artist living in the distant shadow of Mt. Fuji. Couturier describes Kaneko as “one of those rare people who has not only been able to contact the mystic energy in nature but can also communicate what it feels like in the paintings and fabric work she makes.” She embodies, to me, a mix of practical sensibility and airy thinking, and, like Yamashita, a mix too of happy choices and hard sacrifices.
The book reproduces some of her art; even in small black-and-white squares, the trees, flowers, mountains, and skies offer a sense of her fusing with nature as she paints. It’s a kind of slow art, too, in the making. The colors, Kaneko explains, are made from ground stones, and materials like mica, pearls, silver and gold.
Kaneko speaks about the challenges of being both a woman and an outsider. She comes originally from a different region of Japan, meaning that now she’s perceived as beneath not only all the men where she lives and works, but all the women too. “I am at the bottom of the ranking… It’s tiring. The village mindset is narrow, and there are all kind of tasks to do that take me away from my painting. I feel drained.” Yet there is joy, too, in her words, and in her art, and in her choices.
I’ve been dipping, at a graceful pace (and feeling not at all beset), into the nine other chapters in A Different Kind of Luxury. Sitting with the book in my sunroom, the view out to our garden expands, and I imagine I can see much, much farther, even a little way into the lives of people in Japan I’ll never meet.