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.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What are the stereotypes about Japan that you tried to confront ?

Journalist Anneli Rufus of the  East Bay Express asked: What were some of the main stereotypes -- justified or not -- about Japan that you felt yourself disassembling (or shattering) while researching and writing this book?

      I should first say that the people in A Different Kind of Luxury represent a tiny minority of people in Japan, so I'm not sure I'm addressing the stereotypes (or correct assessments) of Japan as a whole, but I do think that much of what they believe, and have believed for years, is becoming more and more accepted in everyday life among ordinary Japanese citizens.  However, I think there are a number of things I'm trying to bring out that many Western readers (and myself in fact before I came to Japan) don't necessarily see.

Wakako Oe: "It was really hard to
breathe in Japan at that time."
     One is that the rapid "development" of Japan in terms of increasing materialism and growth of the economy did indeed leave scars on people's hearts.  Wakako Oe, in chapter 7, put it 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."

Listening to Wakako now, it occurs to me that when
people lose things very quickly, especially things they feel
are beautiful, it can be bewildering.

She continues, “No matter how I tried—I’m sorry—
it was really hard to breathe in Japan at that time.
I couldn’t keep up. In Japan in the ’60s and ’70s progress 
meant getting rid of old things. 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."

     Another thing I was working against is the idea that all Japanese people are focused on becoming more Westernized.  I found that the people I wrote about were more interested in looking to other parts of Asia, and to the traditions, crafted with such difficulty over the centuries, to try to find answers on how to live their lives today.
"Who am I?"
Calligraphy by Wakako Oe

     A third idea I did also want to counter is that the idea that all Japanese people were hostile to environmentalism.  In fact, I found that in these people's ways of understanding our place in the order of nature was in some ways deeper than much environmentalism I had encountered in the US. Just to choose one example, the way they understood the centrality of growing their own food: they were searching for the meaning of farming, not just the method or even a series of reasons to grow organically.  As the author Masanori Oe wrote in one of his books:

"I believe that we must take a new look at farming
and see that it can be the pillar that will support
the healing and repair of this world. It will
show us how to understand the relationship of
the human and the earth. Nature is the reflection
of our internal spirit, which is the foundation
of our culture and the world."

Here's another quote from him about his form of "Natural Farming":

“With no tractor and no outside fertilizer, this method
we use allows the farmer to learn directly from the wisdom
of the plants . . . and at the same time we reduce our
own sense of superiority. Everyone has seen the mistakes
brought about from humans trying to control nature.
What Wakako and I are trying to do here is to see what
happens, inside of us, when we let ourselves be controlled
by nature.”
Masanori Oe in his rice field

      I guess I'd like to add in conclusion that stereotypes are often basic misunderstandings based on having not enough contact with a group of people.  In the case of Americans and Japan, I think that's partly because Japan is simply very far away, with a different philosophical underpinning to so many life decisions people make, most of the unconsciously.  If there's a fault, perhaps it's through writers and media people not understanding a country well enough before writing about it.  In my case, I tried to approach the subject, the people, their culture, their life choices, all of it, with--dare I say it?--as much love and respect as I could manage, and give to the project as much time as I possibly could.  In that way, I tried to represent both the uniqueness of these people, and the specificities of their culture, highlighting what for me were the most important parts.

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