Way before Marie Kondo taught us how to clean out our closets, American Andy Couturier was learning how to live without extra stuff from folks in rural Japan.
NORTH ATLANTIC BOOKS, Nonfiction.
Couturier, who shares some of this wisdom in “The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan,” was in his mid-20s when he first came to Japan at the height of the bubble economy with his partner, Cynthia. They had planned to teach English for a couple of years and save up to buy a plot of land in northern California, where they had dreams of building their own house and raising their own food.
Once in Japan, they settled in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku, where they eventually became involved with a group of environmental activists. Couturier writes, “We were surprised to meet some entirely different types of people than the businessmen we were teaching.” Some of them eventually became subjects of the column Alternative Luxuries that Couturier wrote for The Japan Times in 1999-2000 and, later, of chapters in this book.
The 10 Japanese men and women profiled have learned to live lightly upon the Earth, with as little money as possible but with an abundance of time, which allows them to grow their own food, pursue creative endeavors, read, travel, revel in the beauty of nature and contemplate the meaning of life and death and the mysteries of the universe.
Among those introduced is the exuberant Kogan Murata, who derives great joy from playing ancient melodies on his bamboo flute. Murata lives with his partner and small son on an amazing ¥380,000 per year. They have no modern appliances and grow their own food. “It is a wonder to grow rice!” Murata exclaims in the book. “Exciting!”
Another chapter focuses on former experimental filmmaker, writer and philosopher Masanori Oe, whose father was a bunraku puppet-maker in Shikoku. As a child, Oe narrowly escaped death from the bombs of an American B-29. As an adult, he is the temporary custodian of a flame from the atomic blast in Hiroshima that has been passed from person to person. It burns in a lantern in his house as a reminder of “what happened that day and how it must not happen again.” He and his wife, Wakako, (also profiled in this book) now live in the mountains of central Honshu, where they grow rice and vegetables “without digging the soil or even pulling the weeds,” letting themselves be controlled by nature.
While living on the fringes of Japanese society, many of these individuals are nonetheless engaged in community life and the world at large. Community leader and anti-nuclear activist Atsuko Watanabe, for instance, famously convinced her fellow villagers in Kamikatsu to separate their garbage into over 40 categories. The Zero Waste Academy education center, which Watanabe helped to start, has attracted international media attention, bringing younger settlers who are helping to revitalize the town.
Couturier also interviews potter, anarchist and anti-nuclear activist San Oizumi, who invites him to a tea ceremony in the underground tearoom/nuclear fallout shelter that he dug by hand with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Couturier notes that its very small size “permits only a single conversation … as if the room were designed as a support to our intentions to be in an authentic dialogue with each other.” After the tea ceremony, they discuss the room’s other purpose. Oizumi tells Couturier, “At any time another Chernobyl could happen.”
When asked what he might like to have more of, Couturier himself says: “Even more time to have long conversations with friends. Even more time to do my writing, though I’m pretty satisfied almost all of the time.”
This handsomely produced volume is a new edition of a book originally published in 2010, well before the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. In preparing for the new edition, Couturier visited eight of the subjects again (two are now deceased) to update the book and to find out how they understood and coped with the disaster in Fukushima. Couturier has also added never-before-published photos and an extensive afterword.
Now in his 50s, the author earns a living teaching sessions on “writing from the subconscious” and leads book-completion groups at his writing center, The Opening, in Santa Cruz, California. He has overseen the completion of over 200 books, over 70 of which have been published.
He lives part of the year on a piece of land “off the grid” in a house he and Cynthia made using only hand tools. From his window, he has seen bobcats padding by in the snow, and once, his secondhand car’s headlights caught a black bear beneath a pear tree. One recent spring, they witnessed the sudden appearance of dozens of fuchsia orchids.
Though living in nature is not without its difficulties — deer and gophers intrude in his garden and there is no internet or telephone service — Couturier maintains that the challenges have their own rewards.