Many of us know at least one person who is resistant to the attractions and complications of modern, frantic, high tech, commercial life. Some people take action – small, achievable steps like growing some of one’s own food, joining a food co-op, riding a bicycle or walking to work, using less electricity, and so on. A few go even further in taking themselves “off the grid.” Subtitled “Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance,” Couturier’s lovely and valuable book – based on articles he wrote for The Japan Times – profiles eleven men and women who have given up contemporary Japanese urban life and found more sustainable alternatives living in the countryside. Most of these eleven people share characteristics, aside from the fact that most of them know (and, in a couple of cases, are married to) one another. Most of them are artists. Many are political activists in areas like the environment and nuclear power. Most have traveled widely, finding especially formative experiences in India and Nepal. Most are farmers who produce their own food, avoiding the use of pesticides and other chemicals, and live without electricity.
Some had traditional jobs at one time. Painter, bookbinder, and student of traditional literature and crafts Akira Ito was an electrical engineer until his late twenties, when he decided to move to the country and embrace the hermit-like life of the old Chinese literati. “When I quit my job, I knew if I didn’t do what I really wanted to do then, that when it was time to die I would be left with regrets.” Among his projects was a volume on woodblock carving and paper making in Nepal, where he lived for many years. Many of the people featured in A Different Kind of Luxury contributed to that project, and became lifelong friends as a result.
Masanori Oe was a well-known filmmaker who helped document the American counterculture and anti-war protests of the 1960s. Also the author of some ten books, including a translation into Japanese of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oe came to find that he valued these creations less and less. “Being here, in the mountains, I feel that there is nothing missing at all … We think, living in society, that we are lacking all kinds of things. That’s why we make movies and books and all kinds of material objects, creating more ‘civilization.’ The whole time we are chasing desperately after some nourishment elsewhere.” With his wife Wakako – a calligrapher, puppet carver, painter, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who is also profiled here – Masanori went to India and Nepal. Despite the poverty they encountered in India, they also sensed a vitality that wasn’t evident in Japan. Wakako attributes this difference to spirituality, which was plainly on display in India but which she felt had become secondary to economics in Japan: in India, “because the eyes of the gods are on you, you become visible to yourself; you reexamine who you are.”
Spiritual matters, unsurprisingly, are of importance to everyone in this book. Kogan Murata spends much of his time working in his rice paddies, and playing the flute – not the familiar shakuhachi, but the longer, deep-toned kyotaku – up to eight hours a day. But he plays just seven older tunes, rejecting new writing or improvisation and finding full satisfaction in repeatedly playing his limited repertoire. For Murata, flute playing is a sort of meditation. Couturier points out that the tones of the flute embody Buddha’s teaching of the transience of life – the tone is there, then it’s gone. Couturier sees Murata as a komuso, an itinerant begging monk once commonplace in Japan, who brings together Buddhist concepts like the importance of the breath, sutra chanting, walking (in the sense of pilgrimage), and alms begging. As Murata says, “The reason to play the flute is to advance your ability to better perceive emptiness.”
While most of the people featured here are artists of some kind, a few are also scholars. Koichi Yamashita, a former teacher of Japanese literature and language at Shantiniketan University (founded by Rabindranath Tagore, a formative influence on many of the people in this book), earned his Ph.D. in Hindu philosophy and wrote books on Japanese grammar, researched festivals and folk religions in India, and gave talks on subjects like “The Yogic Critique of Buddhism.” But he gave all that up to move back to Japan and become, as he puts it, “an artist of farming.”
His farming method uses no pesticides, and he only cuts back weeds without entirely eliminating them. He objects to the notion that he raises crops. “Vegetables raise themselves. We simply lend them a hand.” He applies the same philosophy to the education of children. “Similarly, we have to shift the emphasis in teaching away from what we do and go back to the child … if we tell them what to do too much, or if we exert our will too much and meddle, we destroy their originality and their personality.” Raising children in such an environment provides its own challenges, but also new opportunities. Although Atsuko Watanabe’s two daughters attended school, one of them was allowed to drop out for a time. Japanese schools are notoriously restrictive, discouraging nonconformity. “We have to find a better place for children who don’t fit in the system,” says Watanabe, “and give that to them. It must be a place that is comforting and nurturing and free.”
Financial, material, and conformity pressures are at least as great, perhaps even greater, in Japan as they are elsewhere. While the alternative lifestyle depicted here involves a lot of hard work and sacrifice, Japanese who choose this approach do have the advantages of a national health care system and a relatively inexpensive life in rural areas that have been depopulated with the wholesale move to the cities. While the many benefits of this life are extolled at length in A Different Kind of Luxury, the drawbacks are not slighted. Long hours of hard work are necessary to grow one’s own food. Then there are the natural challenges: typhoon rains, weeds, and wild animals like boar, deer, crows, and moles. But the sheer physical labor has its positive side, as Couturier says: “How funny it is that one of the fundamental definitions of being ‘modern’ is the ability to avoid physical labor, when it might be that very thing that could provide us with such depth of connection to ourselves and to the world.”
One’s relationship with time changes in the circumstances within which these people live. “Time is what we have in this life,” says Couturier, “and how we use it determines what our life is. Why is it that so many people start to value money so much that they trade in most of the hours and years of their life in order to get it?” Osama Nakamura gives the same sentiment an ironic twist: “Doing nothing all day – it’s difficult at first. Being busy is a habit, and a hard one to break.”
Commercialism, the accumulation of “stuff,” becomes an obstacle to a fulfilled life. As batik artist Asha Amemiya observes, “If you don’t have a whole lot of unsatisfied people, the economy stops dead, doesn’t it? And then the entire society is in trouble.” One of the banes of modern life is this necessity for money. But as potter San Oizumi learned, “even if I have very little money, that’s not the end of my life. I know I can still have an interesting life without it. I don’t want to be someone who is completely reliant on money, someone who is used by money.”
Some compromise their values slightly. Jinko Kaneko is a painter and textile artist who also runs a curry restaurant within sight of Mt. Fuji. In talking about her desire to create more art and not spend so much time on her restaurant, Kaneko reflects, “This restaurant is my Buddhist training in patience, my burden to bear.” Printmaker and sculptor Osama Nakamura works at a crafts village for a month or two a year to make the $4,000 or so he needs to live for that year. But he accepts no payments for the works he takes more seriously, as “it might spoil the enjoyment I get from carving them.”
Some of the valuable insights of this book have nothing to do with its overarching theme. For instance, potter Gufu Watanabe, whose creations reflect his interest in the art of aboriginal and tribal people, says that such work “doesn’t reek of human interpretation.” “Somehow,” he says, “aboriginal art is distanced from the human character, impersonal. Their figures are almost expressionless, but not quite. It’s really fascinating.” He is not a fan of refinement or over-developed technique or the decorative in art. What he is after is a quality that in Japanese is called kiritto: “it means sharp, strong of spirit, not mushy or sentimental.” As he puts it, “I’m practicing being talentless.”
Not all of the experiments in living depicted in A Different Kind of Luxury have been successful. But the lives these eleven people have created for themselves are fulfilling in a variety of ways. And sometimes it’s the decision to make a change that is as valuable as the result. As flutist Kogan Murata says, “It is the making of effort that has meaning; not becoming something, but just making effort toward it. Just to continue; that’s the only purpose. It’s not what you have done, the important thing is what are you trying to do. The result, that will be OK, you can just forget about it.”