The main opposition parties claim that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s attempt to make the upcoming Lower House election a referendum on postal reform is simply a scheme to deflect public attention away from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s fiscal failures under his leadership. Consequently, they are campaigning on broader social reform, with the current national pension system receiving the brunt of their rhetorical attack.

Though the opposition claims the public is more interested in pensions than post offices, it’s not clear if the electorate understands the social-security morass any better than they understand postal privatization. To make it easier, the Democratic Party of Japan has said that its pension plan would guarantee at least 70,000 yen a month per person in benefits, which exceeds the Communist Party’s more modest pledge of 50,000 yen. Not to be outdone, the Social Democrats have promised 80,000 yen.

These are minimums, but the message they convey is that Japanese people must lower their expectations. Under the present system, the average retired couple receives about 200,000 yen a month in benefits. Experts say that two people need at least 300,000 yen a month to lead a decent middle class existence. Under the proposed LDP pension plan, premiums will rise and payments will drop, so obviously future pensioners are going to have to make do with less, regardless of who’s in power.

In this light, the notion of moving to the countryside takes on a more practical cast.

Retirees in many developed countries leave cities for less crowded places because they want to live out their lives in a more relaxed way. That’s true in Japan, too, but recently the back-to-nature movement has been as much about necessity as it is about choice. Some economists have suggested that when people retire they should grow their own food because they may not be able to afford it otherwise.

TV Tokyo’s popular Monday night variety show, “Towns and Villages Where you can Live in Affluence for 100,000 yen a Month,” goes right to the heart of the matter. The program highlights places throughout Japan where couples can live the good life and still have money left over from their pensions. Each week, the show spotlights three small towns or villages in Japan where couples — usually retired, but not always — have reinvented their lives, usually for the better and always cheaper.

In most cases the couples have moved from big cities, a situation that may become epidemic as the baby boom generation retires. Most boomers who work in cities grew up elsewhere. They came to places like Tokyo and Osaka to help Japan realize its industrial ambitions, and now that that’s been accomplished many will return to their rural roots if only because it’s impossible to live in Tokyo as pensioners in the same style they enjoyed as working stiffs.

Regional governments understand this, and some of the segments on “Towns and Villages” look like promotional videos trumpeting the charms of a particular locality. A profile of a couple who moved from Ibaraki Prefecture to a village in Hokkaido stressed the kind of civic perks one wouldn’t expect from rural life: elaborately developed public parks, subsidized school trips to a sister city in Canada, free land for agricultural use, even free housing for young women who are thinking of moving to the area. Much of the money used for public-welfare projects like these came from the central government, which means they were paid for by city people who will likely end up living in these kinds of places when they retire.

However, the stories stress initiative. These people, most of whom are affluent to begin with, have “dreams.”

A Tokyo salaryman takes early retirement to start a stained-glass workshop in the mountains of Fukushima, where he and his musician wife live a fabulously comfortable life on 73,000 yen a month. A former real-estate executive leaves Yokohama when he is 50 and builds his own “American-style” house on a huge tract of land on the western side of the Izu Peninsula. Having already paid for their land and their house, the couple needs only 68,000 yen a month to live in what Americans would consider normal middle-class comfort, but which the program presents as the lap of luxury for Japanese. Describing their spread as a “resort,” the wife claims she has “no desire to travel anywhere.”

Not all the houses showcased on the program can be described as a step up, but the idea of comfort is channeled into other lifestyle considerations. A family moves from Kyoto to a village in Tokushima because of their young son’s allergies, and with it the father’s salary drops to a sixth of what he earned as a systems engineer. Their house is old, but they are happier. The natural environment and close-knit community make it all worthwhile.

Food is given more air time than shelter and some viewers may find the emphasis on cuisine overbearing, but that doesn’t mean the show sidesteps Japan’s intractable housing problem. “Towns and Villages” invites viewers to submit their own future “dreams,” and a man from Kawagoe once said he wanted to retire to the Shonan coast where he could “drink coffee on a wooden deck overlooking the beach every morning.” The show estimated that the land he owns and the house he built on it for 50 million yen seven years ago is now only worth 22 million yen. Shonan, where land is even more expensive than it is in Tokyo, is obviously out. And though the producers find property for him on a beach in Chiba for only 17 million, yen there’s no comparison.

The conclusion one draws is that not only can you not count on your national pension to support you when you retire, but that property you now own may be worth a lot less than you think. Better start learning how to grow food.