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Shōchū and the art of conflict resolution: an islander’s insight

by Amy Chavez

Japanese people who have left our island as young adults to pursue jobs in the cities sometimes come back to live here after retirement. They’ve got an ancestral home to move back into and can enjoy their days talking with old friends and watching the sun set over the Seto Inland Sea. While drinking shōchū.

If you don’t drink shōchū, however, you’re bound to have problems adjusting to island life. It’s like moving to Okinawa and not partaking in awamori (an even more lethal alcoholic brew): It’s a part of the local culture. Those who don’t drink shōchū might even find themselves thinking, “There’s nothing to do here!” Of course, there is plenty to do here. It’s just that most things involve shōchū.

Recently, one retiree who moved back aroused the ire of some of the locals.

“He thinks he knows everything!” said one person. “He hasn’t lived on this island in decades and he’s teaching the Shiraishi Dance, our national intangible cultural property! He doesn’t even know the dance moves — he’s making things up!”

I laugh it off, but another person pipes up: “It’s a problem all over Japan. As people move back to the countryside, they need something to do, so they get involved in the local politics and try to change things.”

One thing you should never try to do is change the islanders or their traditions. After all, they’ve chosen to keep this life. They are the ones who stayed.

Those who decided to leave should remember why they left. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that those who stayed behind to support the island economy see returnees as outsiders — sometimes even traitors.

“I wanted to leave the island when I was young,” says one of the locals, who owns a business on the beach. “I had a chance to work in Canada. But my family said my island needed me more. They felt I could do more good by staying here to help the island succeed,” he says, while taking a swig of shōchū. And to be fair, he has done great things for the island.

We also have several Chinese women who moved to the island as brides and whose children are now in the local school.

“The Chinese mothers,” I heard someone say the other day, “dress their girls in clothes that violate the school uniform rules. They come dressed in brightly colored shirts under their uniform, and sometimes wear pink socks — with sequins! This is a problem.”

The reason it’s a problem is that all six of the other girls in the school want to dress that way too, but aren’t allowed to. It’s unfair.

“It’s a big problem,” the Japanese mother says again, shaking her head.

But really, what people complain about are not problems at all — they’re issues. Problems are big things that, if changed, have consequences. Issues are smaller things that change within a larger context.

Overfishing? Now there’s a problem. Garbage in the sea? Huge consequences. A weak economy? It affects all of us. And we have girls wearing pink socks to school! With sequins!

Within a small community like ours, most interpersonal issues are solved with shōchū. If the dean of the school went over to the offending mother’s house holding a glass of shōchū in her hand, and the offending mother had a bottle nearby herself, they’d be able to have a heart-to-heart talk.

While starting off the discussion with the change of seasons, the dean could then very tactfully steer the discussion to the topic of her visit — “You know, I’ve been thinking about pink socks lately” — and strike up a meaningful dialogue about school rules and how all children must follow them. She could even use a story to illustrate her point, such as “A girl with pink socks walks into a bar . . .” with the tale ending with, “It was the sparkly sequins on the girl’s pink socks that attracted the tiger to come out from behind the bar and devour the little girl.” That should do it, I’d think.

But the question remains: When does an issue become a problem? And how does one judge the severity of a problem?

Perhaps islanders see issues as problems because our island is so small that everything seems bigger than we are —bigger than the 327 houses and 5 km road. It’s no wonder that even the slightest difficulties are magnified in our tiny world.

Perhaps difficulties should be quantitative, measured according to how many people are affected: Six schoolgirls compared to 581 islanders doesn’t seem like a very big problem.

Or perhaps difficulties should be qualitative, based on how they affect people’s quality of life: Will one returnee’s new teaching methods of an old dance change a generation of children who grew up learning it otherwise?

Maybe we need a more manageable form of measurement, such as distance: Pink socks are worth 300 meters and sequins — which, as we have seen, can mean the difference between life and death — another 700 meters, making it a 1 km problem. A difficult returnee is 1.2 km. If we only have 2.2 km of problems in our life, we’re doing pretty well!

We often hear people say, “It’s the little things in life that count.” But they’re talking about the good little things. The bad little things, of course, should be ignored.

And don’t forget to relax and drink some shōchū.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” (Volcano Press, 2013). She’ll be speaking for SWET Kansai in Kobe at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3. The event is open to the public. Visit the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators website (www.swet.jp) for details and reservations.

  • Jim Cody

    excellent thinking. the same issue vs problem exists in so many small communities. its not just island life. thanks for the words.