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Quest for meaning of life in rural Japan

by David Cozy

Great men will, often thanks to their depredations, force themselves on our attention.

THE FORGOTTEN JAPANESE: Encounters With Rural Life and Folklore, by Miyamoto Tsuneichi. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2010, 315 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

The fishermen, farmers, hunters, wanderers, carpenters and others about whom ethnologist Miyamoto Tsuneichi writes in “The Forgotten Japanese” are, on the other hand, more discreet. Those eager to recover the history they made, a history from which “great men’ are distant, need to go to them, and this Miyamoto did.

He walked, translator Jeffrey S. Irish tells us, “one hundred thousand miles in search of the meaning of life in rural Japan.” Whether he found “the meaning of life” is an open question, but he certainly found life and was able to observe it and report on it with a rare clarity.

One is happy, reading Miyamoto, to have one’s stereotypes about the rustics he meets shattered. We learn that the lives of these rural villagers were not, a century or two ago, as insular as we might have believed.

Money to spare makes travel possible; lack of money can make it necessary. The country people Miyamoto encounters often didn’t have the wherewithal to remain in villages with limited arable land.

“It is fair to say,” Miyamoto writes of people living on Oshima Island in Yamaguchi, “that almost every old person I know went away [when young] to work.”

A neighbor of Miyamoto’s grandfather, for example, followed his trade from Oshima Island to Tokyo, Taiwan and Korea until, shattered by his son’s death in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), he returned to the village “and sat by a charcoal brazier all day long, smoking his pipe” and “talked, without tiring, of days past.”

Women traveled, too. In the late 1950s, for example, Miyamoto spoke with an elderly aunt who told him how girls would hit the road to look for work as harvest hands. “They’d work for forty days and come back,” she explained.

“The pay was a little over three pounds (1.36 kilos) of rice a day, so a hardworking girl could work for forty days and bring back a 130-pound sack of rice.”

The trips these women made — they also traveled for pleasure — were important in other ways, as well. “In the old days,” Miyamoto’s aunt tells him, “no one would marry a girl who didn’t know the world. Someone who wasn’t worldly — someone who ‘only knew how to behave in front of an oven’ — was inevitably narrow-minded.” The notion that women are delicate flowers who should venture from the home only under the protection of men seems never to have occurred to these simple country folk.

Neither were they overly concerned with chastity. Speaking in 1957, a man in his 80s recalls how as a lad he thought nothing of walking eight or 10 miles (13 or 16 kilometers) after dinner to the house of a girl he liked. Once there, he’d slide under the young woman’s futon and the couple would frolic until sunrise.

“That’s how we all played,” Miyamoto’s informant tells him, “because there were no other pleasures to speak of.”

Pleasures may have been few, but even as lives were hard, villagers took care of each other in ways unimaginable today. We learn, for example, from an old man whom Miyamoto talked with in 1950 that, when he was a child, fishing boats would include among their crews a 5- or 6-year-old orphan, called a meshi morai (food receiver), who had no particular work to do but, in exchange for his food, was simply “supposed to play quietly on the boat.”

We read of a widowed mother, too poor to keep her son, staying overnight at several houses in a village — no one would turn away a mother and child — in order to decide which would make a good home for the boy.

When she happens upon a house where the grandmother says “What a cute boy. I’ll sleep with him and hold him,” she knows she has found the right place. “Apparently saying ‘I ask this of you,’ ” Miyamoto writes, “[the mother] left’ and her son had a new and loving family.

The elderly, too, were welcomed; speaking in 1957, an old man in Aichi remembers a homeless pilgrim who arrived one day: “He set down his belongings at my house, and for some reason or other he stayed. . . .

“It’s not as if he asked us to take him in or that we asked him to stay. Back then there was a lot of that sort of thing.’

That someone might take in a child in need simply because the mother asks, or a homeless wanderer simply because he shows up, is, in our time, unthinkable. The past, one sees, really is a foreign country. Miyamoto’s journey into that foreign place, his visit with its forgotten people, exquisitely told and exquisitely translated, is essential.