TASHIROMACHI, Akita Pref. – Junko Asari was a successful businesswoman in Tokyo seven years ago, earning about 30 million yen a year importing pets. Today she is a happy farmer in Akita Prefecture growing rice, mushrooms and other vegetables.
Asari, 33, is one of those “I-turn” people who have given up their businesses or successful or promising bureaucratic, academic and company careers to escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and other cities in favor of farming in rural areas. The “I” basically denotes a one-direction move.
Asari and her husband, Kaneteru, 45, live in Tashiromachi at the foot of the Shirakami mountain district, cultivating about 4.5 hectares of paddies and other crops.
The turning point in her life came in the fall of 1993, when she was invited by a journalist friend to visit Somalia, which was embroiled in a civil war.
She said what she witnessed there was, “so to speak, a hellish picture, which I still cannot forget even to this day.”
Asari saw heaps of bodies left on a roadside and a woman with a crying baby beside them. The mother merely looked at the infant, unable to breast-feed the baby.
At a refugee camp, she saw a woman selling her body to get money to eat. The scenes she observed in Somalia were so intense that she was petrified.
When she went to Somalia, she was importing pets, a business she started at the age of 22 and turned into a success.
However, following her return from Africa, Asari said, she questioned whether the business would make her satisfied.
In the end, money, she figured, corrupts people, so she decided to fold her business.
Unsure of what she should do next, Asari set out on a trip to northern Japan in the winter of 1993 and stopped off in the city of Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, where she met her future husband in a pub.
In the spring of the following year, she called on Kaneteru, making good on a promise she made to him to help plant rice.
While helping him in the paddies, she found herself at peace away from busy life in the city. She concluded she could find a new way of life in Aomori.
Five days later, the two married. She said she was more interested in devoting herself to farming than tying the knot.
The couple then moved to the neighboring prefecture of Akita.
Two years ago, they opened their home free of charge to those who wish to gain experience in the agricultural industry. Many people, ranging from office workers on the verge of retirement to young people looking for work, called on them.
Asari had lived in various places after her parents divorced when she was 5. She first went to a child protection center, then lived with her father, who remarried, but later moved on again. She held day and night part-time jobs after graduating from junior high school.
Many were encouraged by her story. A 17-year-old truant from Kanagawa Prefecture, who was having trouble deciding what to do, opted to become a fisherman after spending six months at the Asaris’ home.
Now a student at a fisheries school in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, he said, “I’ve learned more from Junko-san than the experience I had in farming.”
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