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Rough Cut: Japan: The Slow Life
Behind the Lens: Interview with Reporter Jason Cohn

What brought you to Japan and how did you find your way to Shikoku?
Jason Cohn: I originally went to Japan after college in the late 1980s. I was fascinated by the place and their economic boom. I lived there for about four years, mostly in Sapporo. But I traveled around a lot.

As for Shikoku, I mostly go there because that's where my friends Sean and Misa live. It is a great island with lots of small farming communities. I'd love to live there for a year or so and get a little more used to their dialect.

Were you surprised by the beauty of Japan's countryside? Do you think most city dwellers even know about life in the country?
It's nothing like the American wilderness, where you can walk for hours without seeing signs of human habitation. Almost everywhere you walk - even way up in the mountains - there are little Buddhist and Shinto shrines and symbols of the long, continuous presence of the Japanese on these islands. There is not the same divide between wilderness and civilization that we experience in Western culture. It's more harmonious. Less wild. Still very, very lovely.

I think most Japanese are aware of these places. They go visit shrines and mountain hot springs on holidays. Their television dramas are often about life in small communities, I think because people are nostalgic for this.

Are you originally from a big city?
I'm from Los Angeles and I definitely consider myself a city boy. But I strongly believe that every city person needs to get out of town every now and then and try to connect with life at a slower pace.

But you can relate to the appeal cities have for young people?
Sure. I spent most of my time in Japan in Sapporo and Tokyo. And I really love Osaka and the other big cities. There is a tremendous amount of vitality in Japanese cities - great music, great art, great food, and lots of money to be made. But the cities are also full of vice and excessive materialism. You see a lot of what is essentially child prostitution, with high school girls who sell themselves to salary men [white collar business men] so they can buy designer clothes, for example. It's a symptom of what many people in Japan see as a generalized loss of values in urban life. The young people that I met in rural Shikoku left Tokyo because they didn't want to raise their children there.

How did you meet Misa and Sean?
I first saw Sean one night when he was playing guitar and singing on the street in Sapporo. He was really good but he wasn't making any money because he was playing obscure songs that the locals didn't know. I later met him at a bar and we began playing music together. We put together an act and started playing together on the streets at night. We played mostly Beatles songs. We traveled around the country and became great friends. Later Sean met and married Misa, and I love visiting them in Shikoku, which is where she's from originally.

When did the "back to nature" movement begin? I encountered it among the young surfers I met in Kyushu who had moved from Tokyo and Osaka in search of a simpler life after the burst of the 1980s economic bubble. Lifetime company jobs were no longer a secure, guaranteed option for young workers. Do you think that Japan's economic downturn caused the back to nature movement?
It's hard to call it a "movement" because I'm sure that statistically the number of young people leaving the countryside remains a wave, while those coming back to the "inaka" [countryside] from the cities is just a trickle. But I think there has been a steadily growing disaffection with the grinding life-cycle in places like Tokyo. You know, you spend your whole childhood studying for these mind-numbing exams so you can get into a decent university, and then you take a job and keep your head down for the next ten years until you have enough seniority to maybe assert yourself a little bit. That life is losing its appeal.

A lot of people who have grown up in the boom and post-boom periods have seen that there are other ways of living. They've traveled. They watch American and European movies. And they've seen growing pockets of alternative lifestyles in their own country, despite the overall pressure for conformity. So this idea of going back to nature and creating a slower paced life is attractive to some people. And the economics of it make it feasible for a lot of people. Because if you've made a decent salary for three or four years in Tokyo you can get a lot for your money way up in the mountains.

I met a lot of those same Japanese surfers, by the way, when I was an undergraduate in Santa Cruz, California. They were sons and daughters of wealthy industrialists who didn't have the mentality to dedicate themselves to the educational hamster wheel in Japan so they were basically locked out of the best high schools and then the best universities. Fortunately their parents had the wherewithal to send them abroad where they could "find themselves" over time, more like the way we do here. In the end, most of them got a degree from a good American university and are leading interesting lives. (Well, some of them sell pot for a living and surf everyday, but they're happy.)

How heavily does the Japanese government subsidize farming?
The government imposes tariffs and restrictions on foreign rice. And life in the countryside is subsidized in numerous ways. The political system, long dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, is built partly on an alliance of real estate developers, construction companies and rural voters. The result is a relentless push to pave every square inch of the country. On the other hand, it means that people who live in rural villages have great roads, bridges and other infrastructure, mostly paid for by the big cities.

Do you think that people such as Sean's "otosan" [mentor or "father"] scrutinizes his work more because he is a foreigner?
I always believed that the foreigners who complain (as they do, interminably) about not being truly accepted into Japanese society are usually the ones that don't speak Japanese and expect everyone around them to conform to their Western ways. You do see a negative attitude about foreigners in places like Tokyo where the stereotype seems to be of the boorish Westerner who comes to Japan to get rich quick, take a pretty young Japanese wife and otherwise take advantage of Japanese folks' native generosity and good will. It's a complicated question. I wish the foreigners I had met in Japan did a better job of dispelling that image. But I think that the Japanese could be a little less suspicious of foreigners' motivations. They will sometimes ask you what you're doing there, and the implication seems to be: What do you want from us?

On the other hand, Sean is clearly not there to make money. In fact, he's showing great respect and reverence for a way of life that most Japanese young people have no interest in. So I think that Sean is a bit of a curiosity in the Japanese countryside because he's Australian. Everyone there treats him with a little extra care, certainly not with suspicion or animosity. He's been given almost everything he owns in the village. And he's learned what he knows about farming because people took the time to teach him.

Do Sean and Misa sell their rice? Is there any sort of "slow food" movement in Japan that would encourage other couples like them to start a rice farm?
A slow-food movement in Japan would be redundant. Food is a religion there. People love to eat all kinds of food: Slow food, fast food, super-fast food like at vending machines, and everything in between. The idea of sitting down to a long meal which you enjoy with lots of booze and conversation has never gone away in Japan. It's definitely part of the traditional concept of the meal. And it's still popular with young people who like to eat at pubs, ordering a variety of delicious small dishes in between cups of sake and draft beer. So you don't need to sell the Japanese on the importance of enjoying their meals. They're way ahead of us on that one.

Right now everything Sean and Misa grow is for themselves. But I think they'd like to get to where they can sell boutique products at stores and farmer's markets. I think they could connect with a new generation that's thinking more about organics and unique things that they can't get at the supermarket. Misa is the entrepreneurial one. Maybe she'll figure out how to make some money marketing their food.

What is the WTO [World Trade Organization] status of rice bought and sold by Japan?
Rice is protected in Japan. Thai, Chinese, American and Australian rice does get sold in Japan, but the amount that can be imported is limited. The Japanese consumers used to resist buying the foreign rice, believing it was inferior. But that stigma is going away and most consumers now are happy to pay less for foreign grown rice. Rice export countries like the U.S. and Australia are trying to break down the tariffs, but the Japanese farmers, like Sean's mentor, say that without the protections rice farming will disappear within a generation. They might be right.

As for exports of Japanese rice - forget about it. It's way too expensive for anyone else to buy. Even the high-end Japanese grocery stores in California that cater to wealthy Japanese expats sell California rice. It tastes good and costs a fraction of the price.

How much a part of the average Japanese diet would you say rice is?
Most folks still eat rice two or three meals a day. Rice is the absolute core of the Japanese diet. And once you've eaten their bread you'll understand why.

It seemed like there is a real threat to the art of growing rice with the passing of the older generation. Are families, communities or the government doing anything to lure youth into the industry?
I think all agriculture is in danger in Japan. The flight of young people from farm areas is one problem, but it's a symptom of the fact that most people don't see a future for Japanese agriculture in a global economy. Japan is too small, with too little arable land. Labor is too expensive. Fertilizers and seeds are too expensive. They just don't see how they can compete in the long term against cheap labor countries like Thailand and China, and places where technology and economies of scale allow us to grow super-efficiently, like in the U.S. and Australia.

Do you ever see Japanese agriculture truly dying out? What do you see happening to the abandoned farmland shown in your film in 10 years?
I hope the Japanese find a way of keeping that part of the country vital without paving over all of it. Japan is one of the most densely urbanized countries in the world. And the products of Japanese cities - the cars, the electronics, the cultural goods - are what drive their miraculous economy. But the Japanese soul is still in the rice fields and the small fishing villages. I think they need their rice paddies the way we need Yellowstone and Yosemite. It's a very important part of their self-understanding as a nation and I would hate to see it destroyed.