Japan: The Slow Life
Tune in, drop out, grow rice
BY Jason Cohn
November 22, 2005
Jason Cohn is an independent television and radio producer living in the Bay Area. He previously produced "My Old Haunts" for FRONTLINE/World in Romania, with correspondent Andrei Codrescu. Jason lived in Japan for four years and can't wait to go back for a hot okonomiyaki and a cold beer.
Nearly half of the world's population now live in cities. A hundred years ago, only 14 percent were urban dwellers, 200 hundred years ago a mere 3 percent. It's a phenomenal change in world demographics, and it has transformed the way we work, our lifestyles, even our relationship to the food we consume.
Tokyo is an icon of the world's new megacities -- with an official population of 12 million, one out of every 10 Japanese lives there. The greater metropolitan area may contain as many as 26 million inhabitants. The result is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
Tokyo's "bright lights, big city" energy is a beacon to foreign tourists and Japanese alike. In fact, the lure of the city is so strong that it has depopulated many rural areas in Japan.
FRONTLINE/World reporter Jason Cohn, who has lived in Japan and speaks the language, understands the adrenaline rush of Tokyo, but prefers the quiet island of Shikoku, which is, in his words, "the spiritual center of the nation, the farm country." In this week's edition of Rough Cut, we present Cohn's window into this other Japan, outside Tokyo where people live "the slow life."
"Out there in the big city, the pace is really fast, and I found it really difficult to keep up," says Misa Ichikawa, who left Sapporo, another of Japan's hectic cities, to seek the quiet life in rural Shikoku. "I'm a country person, a country mouse, so I think it suits me."
Not that the slow life is an easy life. Ichikawa's husband, Sean Burgoine, another refugee from urban stress, has chosen to become a rice farmer, with all the backbreaking labor that requires.
"People will tell you straight out that you're mad," says Burgoine. "You can't make a living as a farmer these days."
And therein lies another twist to Cohn's unusual tale. Burgoine is a young Australian who has adopted Japan as his home and rice growing as his profession, even though his mentor, a successful Japanese farmer teases him, "Unfortunately, I think you are hopeless."
But the farmers of Shikoku have welcomed Burgoine and other college-educated refugees from the cities because they fear their world is vanishing. Government subsidies and protectionist tariffs guarantee that veteran Japanese rice farmers can prosper, but their sons and daughters are not following in their footsteps. They have left for the cities. The average age of the Japanese farmer is now 60. Some farms have been abandoned altogether, reclaimed by jungle. So if young people planting the terraced fields means that there's now a small back-to-the-earth movement bucking the trend, the older farmers are grateful, even if some of those young people are "crazy foreigners" like Burgoine.
He and his wife -- and their friends -- seem content to live and work in a quiet, green place, outside the fast lane. "I don't have great dreams of earning a lot of money," says Burgoine.
Justin Leyte - Sapporo, Japan
A fantastic "back to the earth" piece which applies not only to Japan, but to other industrialized nations who have forsaken their agricultural pasts for a shot at urbanization. I, myself, hope to get back to the land here in Japan. There is much more to life than the conveniences offered by city life. Even Sapporo, which is not considered huge by Japanese standards, feels huge to me at roughly 1.8 million people. I can totally relate to the thinking in this piece.
Alexander Pappas - Orleans, ON
Very facinating article. Being a 27 year old professional in the film industry who also has lived in Tokyo, speaks the language and who's wife is Japanese, I find this particularly interesting. One point though to make that Shikoku as mentioned above is not the spiritual center of Japan. The Shikoku-no-michi is certainly well regarded as an important pilgramidge and part of that countries spirituality. But it most certainly is not the spiritual center of Japan. I look forward to seeing more about this.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
The "spiritual center" in the story refers to Japan's "farm country" in general.
Have been thinking of doing the same.Inspiring.The day when these people are regarded as 'rich' as opposed to those who are cash rich,is coming.Sooner than you think.love.
Very moving. I have relatives who have their Master's degrees and worked in Honolulu but dropped out, moved to the Big Island, and are now living off the land, so to speak. You don't have the complexities associated with urban life there. However, living of the land, i.e. farming, is back-breaking work.
This film is very interesting and raises my concerns. I'm from a suburban area near Kyoto. I love big cities, however when these kind of documentaries are out I feel ashamed of young Japanese, including myself. I feel that I should do something and hope other young Japanese will seriously consider this issue. I wasn't think about my country when I was high school. However, now that I am studying in the States, being outside of my own country has made me think about Japanese domestic issues more than ever. I hope many others will care as much as I do. Thank you for sharing this film.
The Best place and rural living is North Lancaster Ontario Canada. Plus its inexpensive to live here. If you want to live beyond 100 years of age and have good hearing and eyesight and excellent health and still ride a bicycle, this place is for you.
Ali Ahmed - Penang, Penang
I think this is a romantic story about a young foreigner who has settled down in his wife's country and chosen the slow life to savor the beautiful married life. Every one knows country life keeps couples together better than what city life may offer to families. In the village you go to bed early because you need to wake up early the next morning. In colder nights, you huddle together around fire. What a better place than the Japanese hinterlands wherein to spend your honeymoon. Good luck, Burgoine.
Ranen Dutta - Vizag, India
[I know] monks who dropped from the race to find meaning out of life. At the same time I find that this is what is bound to happen as everything moves in a circle and when the cities become crowded it is natural that people will move back to villages. Besides, earning money [in the cities] has not brought any peace for anyone. [This trend of moving back to a simpler life in the country] means that humans are evolving and moving to higher stages of evolution.
Love & rgds
Curtis Plagge - Osaka, Japan
I am not far from Shikoku and would love to know how these people are progressing now. Is there a way to contact them? If I knew the specific area on Shikoku, I think I would like to visit them.
Alex Roberts - Allen, Texas
I thought it was a great story and very interesting to know that some people are actually moving back to the rural parts of any nation. Usually all you hear about is young people desperately trying to escape farm life. I thought the views of the Japanese countryside were beautiful and would like to visit them myself one day.
I couldn't see the clip, server must be too busy. I read recently Japan only grows 40% of its food, the rest is imported. America's decision to convert its corn into ethanol has the Japanese worried. The government is trying to assist rural communities to attract retirees from the big cities, to interest young people in farming. Farm vacations where urban families bring their kids to experience the farming life are also popular. City "girls" are invited to vacation for free in the countryside to meet lonely farmers. I think "back to the country" is a great trend. I want to retire to the countryside, too. My Japanese wife has other ideas, though. She's a city person...
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thanks for your letter. We think you will like the video and it should be playing fine now.
Having lived 10 years in Japan myself, including on Shikoku, I am fascinated by how many respondents see Yayoi-style rice-agriculture as idyllic. In northern Japan, people are looking to the Jomon hunter-gatherers to find the perfect slow life and symbiosis with nature. Any takers?
A very interesting and refreshing article/video. I lived in Tokyo for four years and whilst it's obviously the place of choice for a lot of young people, longer-term residents generally seemed to dislike it. It's inspiring to see someone breaking away from the rat-race and finding a more peaceful and healthy life whilst at the same time putting something meaningful into the society he's chosen to live in.
Peter Phongpharnich - Tal Afar, Iraq
Inspiring story! It is rare to find young people who give up the comforts of city living and go rural.
Todd Leong - New York, NY
The Japanese countryside is such a world apart, a Shangri-la of sorts. I've lived there too and loved it but there are so few economic opportunities for young people who are trained from such a young age to aim for a place in a prestigious urban university. The economic reality of raising rice in Japan has wiped out this beautiful way of life. This was such a sweet, elegiac piece about a disappearing way of life. Good work Mr. Cohn.
Thuy Vu - Hanoi, Vietnam
Cool! I had chance to enjoy the atmosphere of rural life in Shilkoku for a very short time but I was absolutely attracted by the beauty of nature and the peacefulness of the people which is totally different from the huge, ugly, fast, and noisy Tokyo. Even in the rural areas, Japanese farmers can enjoy much more convenient life compared to rural life in Vietnam. If I were a Japanese native, I would lead such a slow life too!
Nigel Fogden - Vancouver, BC
I really liked this piece. I have the greatest respect for people in Japan who return to the country-side. What I find most saddening is how few Japanese really want to do so. People would rather have "convenience" in the cities. For most young Japanese, they love the farm because that's where their grandparents live, but they would never consider living there themselves. Traditional life is struggling against a modern culture that no longer values it, except as a token of the past. Everybody agrees that this is sad, but not many people take action to bring life back to the country-side. My greatest appreciation to those who do.
A very interesting story, Jason. It is nice to know that doing something you love in surroundings that inspire you is more important then the paycheck. If more people had the courage to follow their heart, there would be a lot more rice farmers out there!
Eric Fenster - Bnei Brak, Israel
The longing for the countryside expressed throughout the report is a healthy instinct. Great report, with a presentation as peaceful as the countryside itself.
Angel - Zunyi, Guizhou, China
I'm an artist from Los Angeles but live in China. I have worked in the big cities, but I made a home in a small city in rural China away from the westernization. Perhaps my Chicano ideology is why I feel passionate about Chinese tradition and prefer to live in a small place away from the big lights and what is considered modern. Sometimes I feel bad for the farmers who I meet in the big cities, those who left their towns to make money in the big city.
Satoshi Matsubara - Hyogo, Japan
Splendid contents! Being a child of the earth and nature it is important to live together and realize the true richness and importance and of agriculture. As many people as possible should notice such a thing. Thank you !!
Very interesting film. I also think it is hard for a few farmers to continue agriculture in rural areas. Surely a big city is very interesting and convenient, but rural areas have many good points, too. I think more young people should notice Japanese agriculture and the present condition in rural areas. We have to consider the gap between the cities and rural areas.
I prefer to live in the city over the country because facilities for travel are excellent, so commuting and going to school is easy and there are many shopping places. The calm atmosphere of the country is very precious, but I like the convenience of city over it.
Nashiko - Osaka, Japan
Very nice film!! We sometimes visit the countryside. During that time we can relax. We think the countryside is good place to bring up children too. Urban living is very noisy so we want to live countryside.
Inui Eri - Nara, Nara
I want to live in the countryside in my future because I absolutely think it is important to raise children there. I believe most people really love the countryside but they live in a big city to work and have their dreams come true.
Eri Matsui - Osaka, Japan
It is regretful that farmers on the decrease in Japan now. I heard from my grandparents that it has had many hard and difficult times so keeping it is very hard work, I think. But I hope agriculture remains in our future.
This was very splendid. As many people as possible should notice such a thing. I can't help but pray for people to realize the importance of agriculture. Thank you !!
I live in Kobe. Kobe is big city, but Kobe has a lot of nature. I like nature, but I don't think I can live in a rural area because I am so used to city life!!!
San Diego, CA
Great story! Someday I would like to visit Japan and see life in the country side.
I love to live rural place!! I live in Osaka now, but my birth place is Nagano. It's very country and I grew up there. I think rural places haven't disappeared, but if they do it is not going to be Japan, I think ... I really love Japan as it is.
I have lived in rural Japan for one year doing agriculture. Now I live in Osaka. The city is very convinient but it's noisy and the air is dirty so I like rural areas better. If more people experienced agriculture, they could understand the importance of food.
If the younger generation is not interested in the old Japanese lifestyle no need to pity its dissapearance because the old lifestyle has little or no need in the current era. The government of Japan is terrible for heavily subsidizing the inefficient Japanese rice industry.
Arthur - Ashizuri, Kochi Prefecture
A nice piece on what is a growing trend in Japan: the move from the cites to the country and the search for a simpler life. Good luck to you, Sean & Misa
New York, N
This is fantastic. So happy a friend told me about it. Great work!!
Richard - Takamatsu-shi, Kagawa-ken
Intersting story. I fear the pressure for countries to end their subsidies of agriculture (especially rice in Japan and Korea) may have a drastically negative effect on this already dwindling population of farmers.
Miguel - New York, NY
A helpful reminder that in the silence and surrounded by nature, God speaks volumes through His creation. Thanks.
Jim Doherty - Chapel Hill, NC
The rice fields and surrounding hills in Japan are really beautiful beyond compare. I taught English in rural Japan, and the experience of hiking through such rice fields in early mornings as the fog lifted left me with deep memories, almost spiritual in nature. I think I understand Shinto, and thus, Japan better as a result of this experience. I grew up in rural Colorado near the San Juan Mountains, and have a definite perspective on the beauty of rural USA, but Japan's mountains and valleys left a deep, unparalleled impression on me. Since that initial entre into Japan, I returned again to live in Tokyo to work for an international pharmaceutical company, and daily I wished to be back in the spiritual center of Japan. Thanks Jason for transporting me there again.
Al Fabrizio - Elizabeth, NJ
A great reminder that there are alternatives to the homogenization and corporatificiation of life.
Ryuta Yamamoto - Tokyo, JAPAN
Thank you to write this article. I am living here in Tokyo, I feel hopeless. These people can't have the time to think about their life or even to appreciate the beautiful nature exist in our country. I was born in this big city, but not many people live here nowdays come out their village to become one of Robots. I would say I hate to live here though, this is my birth place. As a Tokyo Boy, I would please DO NOT corrupt my city anymore.
I wouldn't be surprised to see an ever growing trend like this worldwide. Choosing a slower paced lifestyle will probably become more appealing as civilization tightens it's grip on people's energies. Our "lives" are being marginalized in the name of profit. Wonderful story.
Michael Roemen - Eugene, OR
Great piece! I was truly impressed by Sean's decision to pursue this lifestyle. I lived in Nagano, Japan for three years as an English teacher at an agricultural high school. We had a working farm on campus complete with rice fields and food processing facilities. Although the average age of Japanese farmers is advanced, it is important to understand that there are younger generations learning both old and new methods of farming in designated agricultural schools in virtually every region of Japan. The older farmers in our area would come and instruct the 300 students in classes and on the farm. It's important to understand that in some cases the "disappearing" rural young Japanese go to the big cities for a couple years only to return home to carry on the family business or farm, and they settle in and learn farming. Japan has been an example to the world on how to integrate an ancient culture with a modern one, and I have to believe that somehow her farming techniques will also find a way to endure and be carried on to younger generations.
Phred Kaufman - Sapporo, Japan
A very well done and interesting film on one of the realities of the new Japan. Although compared to Tokyo Sapporo is not so hectic.
claude schreiber - berkeley, ca
I loved this story. Congratulations to J. Cohn and thank you.
Wow. What a great story -- I never considered the rice farmers of Japan and this footage gave me some insight to the changes of a world far away. The footage of rural Japan was beautiful. Thank you for sharing this story. Tres impressive.