We are sitting up late sipping plum wine from small glasses at Atsuko Watanabe’s dinner table next to the woodstove in an old farmhouse deep in the mountains of Shikoku. Her husband, Gufudo, is washing the dishes (the Watanabes’ own handmade pottery) from tonight’s seven-course Indian vegetarian meal.
Watanabe has been telling me about her many years of living in India.
“I was influenced greatly by the Indians in two ways,” she says. “First, spirituality is absolutely central to their lives in a way that it isn’t here in Japan for us. Secondly, I recognized that humans could live completely fulfilling lives in simple houses without much money or electrical appliances. This was an entirely new concept for me.
“And I started to believe that I might be able to live such a life myself.”
At first glance, the unadorned rural life that Watanabe lives might seem to be a return to traditional ways long gone in most parts of Japan. She cooks her meals on a wood-fired stove, grows much of her own food on the terraced fields that descend into the misty valley below, and hand-paints the ceramics by which she and her husband earn their modest income. There is no television, no electronic appliances, nothing made of plastic. The wooden bathtub is handmade. Freshly harvested rice plants hang upside down from bamboo poles. A return to the past?
No, says Watanabe. “I am not a traditionalist. I am just a woman living a simple life in the mountains. That’s all.
“I gave up using a gas stove to cook on because here in the village there are a lot of lumber mills which throw away their scrap wood; I didn’t like seeing it all go to waste. It’s also quite interesting to cook with wood. Planting rice by hand makes me feel connected with my ancestors, and I like knowing where my food comes from.”
What made her give up the city life that her brother and sisters all chose?
“As a child I played in the rivers and fields near our rural relatives, even though I myself was raised in the city. I also loved to spend hours looking at the moon, musing about philosophical questions. I felt even then that I would have to have a life with enough time to contemplate, to let my mind range freely,” she expalins.
“I studied oil painting and Japanese art in college and focused on botanicals and landscapes. I would just go out to any abandoned field and sketch flowering weeds for hours at a time.”
After college, Watanabe traveled in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, and stayed for several years, studying not only the natural environment but the spiritual and aesthetic traditions.
“Many Japanese don’t have the opportunity — don’t make an opportunity — to think deeply about things. Maybe that’s why they aren’t satisfied with the lives they live.”
A few years later Watanabe encountered the thinking of Rudolf Steiner, the 19th-century Christian mystic and founder of the anthroposophy movement. Deeply moved by his ideas about the progression of souls through numerous existences, she decided to become a Christian — although her form of Christianity is pretty far from the mainstream, organized church.
“I don’t believe, for example,” she explains, “that we have only one life and either go to heaven or hell. I believe that we are reincarnated and gather up abilities and potencies passing from one incarnation to the next. I also believe that we have as many as six bodies, six spiritual bodies, in each of us, none of which can be seen by ordinary sight.”
Why did she become a Catholic? “I was interested in those things that might have remained, passed down century by century all the way from Jesus Christ himself. I wanted to understand what, in a specific way, are the essential elements of Christianity and what has been mixed in later by ordinary people.”
Besides food, botany, aesthetics and spirituality, Atsuko is also involved in a number of environmental and political struggles, often in leadership roles. She has fought the building of nuclear plants, coal-fired electricity generating stations and dams and is active in a local Amnesty International chapter.
Her main field of activism, however, is education: fighting for a freer, less competition-focused school system for her two girls. “They want to assign a number for everything in school,” she says. “Who can swim better, who can climb a rope faster. Why all this ranking? Does it really help the children develop?”
She allowed her elder daughter, Junko, to quit school for several years and schooled her at home, simply because Junko didn’t want to go.
“She pursued her own interests, and we studied things together, she and I. When she decided to return several years later, she was actually ahead of all the kids in her class.”
When Junko graduated from elementary school last year, the parents’ group asked Watanabe to give the traditional “thank you to the teachers” address. She wasn’t particularly eager, but since no other parent wanted to, she agreed. I smile to myself, imagining the school administrators’ faces upon hearing that the outspoken Watanabe was going to be given a platform at a public function.
“I told the teachers I couldn’t thank them, not yet, because their relationship with the children has just begun,” she says.
“Children leaving the sixth grade are just beginning to have a real interaction with what they have encountered so far in life. Up until this point, they have just been receiving all that has been told to them, all that the teachers have said and taught. Now they start to reflect, evaluate and criticize, so their interaction with the teachers is actually just beginning. Once my child has a chance to really relate to their teaching, I’ll know whether to thank them or not.
“Anyway, I don’t like such formulaic ceremonies in which school officials pressure parents into saying ‘thank you’ to them when the parents might not necessarily feel it. A lot of the parents felt just as I did: Those teachers did, at best, an average job. But none of the parents would even consider saying such a thing. I, however, have no problem in that regard.”
Maybe, I suggest, more people would live this way if only they knew how much fun it could be.
“People of the modern age are focused on ‘having fun.’ Before, humans did what they needed to do. If pleasure came their way they welcomed it, but enjoyment was not the purpose of life. Now we need everything to be entertaining. When it ceases to be entertaining, we stop doing it.
“I didn’t choose this life for the pleasure of it, but because it seemed the right way to spend the life I was given.”