Yu Iwamoto began adult life working in the slums, refugee camps and precarious schools of Afghanistan. Had he even heard, back then, of the Oki Islands off the coast of Shimane Prefecture?
He may have. The little archipelago is remote but famous. Political rebels in times gone by were exiled there to reflect on their crimes — or nurse their grievances. Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339), for instance. Who can a divine sovereign rebel against? Against upstart military governors who monopolized real power in the Emperor’s name, and at the Emperor’s expense.
His first rebellion having come to grief (a second one did rather better), Go-Daigo was reduced to composing sad poems at distant Oki, one of which reads, “If fate had decreed / that I must sink in the end / to this abysmal depth / whyever was I born to the highest rank of all?”
Iwamoto, now 35, may as a young man have known of this. What he didn’t know is that it would have anything to do with him. And yet he’s there now — not an exile but an activist. From Afghanistan to a little Oki town called Ama, population 2,400, is an interesting journey. As a university student in Tokyo in the early 2000s, he tells Bungei Shunju magazine, “it never occurred to me to get involved in regional revitalization.”
Naturally not. Activism back then meant penetrating the world’s most forbidding places — Afghanistan, for instance — to struggle against war, backwardness and poverty on behalf of a better life for all. Ama is a very long way from all that — or is it? “In a broad sense,” Iwamoto smiles, “working in Ama is like working overseas.”
Working anywhere in Japan outside Tokyo and Osaka might seem like working overseas, so peripheral have the regions been to postwar national aspirations. But is that set in stone? Suddenly, it seems, young people are rediscovering an ancient truth: Life, progress, the future are not exclusively urban phenomena. They happen in the country too, sometimes with greater intensity than in the city.
Iwamoto calls himself one of 300 local “I-turn” residents, an odd term deriving from “U-turn,” not the familiar traffic maneuver but a return to the old hometown and its homegrown values after a disillusioned migration to the city. “I-turners,” as opposed to “U-turners,” aren’t “turning,” however. They grew up in the city; their trajectory is a straight line out of it. Their rural longings are romantic in origin rather than nostalgic. Whether because the city repels them or the countryside calls them, to the country they go, with potential implications stretching far beyond the individual search for self-renewal.
The local Miryoku Project that Iwamoto heads — miryoku means “charm” or “attractiveness” — has drawn national coverage, mostly for its work to save a local high school from extinction. In 2007 the school was down to 30 students. If it closed — so what? Locals were resigned or indifferent. What does an overwhelmingly elderly population care about a high school?
Iwamoto and others saw their first task as persuading them that more than classes were at stake. No community without a school has a future. Families with children can’t stay even if they want to, and entrepreneurial outsiders can’t come, even if they want to — and they might. Remoteness is its own reward, if you’re the type, and then there are the untapped and semi-tapped commercial possibilities, such as beef and oysters (traditional standbys with insufficiently exploited expansion potential) and tourism (Emperor Go-Daigo was here).
The school was saved and even became something of a magnet for newcomers, thanks to innovative new regional studies and career-planning programs. The 300 I-turners testify to the project’s success. At the ferry terminal, the Bungei Shunju writer who interviewed Iwamoto finds welcoming signs reading, “There’s nothing we don’t have here” — quite a boast for a community with no convenience stores, no supermarkets, no pachinko parlors and so on. The signs are a challenge to discover what there is instead.
It’s not just the Oki Islands — it’s all over Japan. A Cabinet Office survey published in June shows 31.6 percent of urban respondents saying yes, they have thought more or less seriously about relocating permanently to the countryside — up 11 points from 2005. Among people in their 20s the enthusiasm is especially sharp, 38.7 percent affirming that’s where their thoughts are.
Moe Watanabe, a 26-year-old Tokyoite — former Tokyoite, rather — went through an evolution similar to Iwamoto’s. She was never in Afghanistan but, she tells the Asahi Shimbun, “ever since junior high school I thought I wanted to be involved with food issues in the developing world.”
She went to an agricultural college to equip herself with the necessary skills, and ended up, somewhat to her own surprise, not abroad but in rural Tottori Prefecture, helping to market local agricultural products nationwide. The turning point was the Tohoku disasters of March 11, 2011. They made her think: “What can I do overseas” that she couldn’t do with equal impact at home?
What indeed? On such insights and initiatives does rural Japan’s survival depend.
In the early days of industrialization young peasants migrated to the cities, sick to death of the old life and eager for a new one. What was new then is old now. Is the reverse true too — that what was old then is now new? It may be exaggerating to call what the Cabinet Office poll reflects a back-to-the-land movement, but it does reflect something — whether a mere passing mood or something of lasting significance is what bears watching.
“Back to the land.” Yuji Nakano retired five years ago from his company job in Tokyo and now, aged 68, is a more or less full-time farmer in rural Ibaraki Prefecture. His farming experience at the outset was “zero,” he tells Shukan Asahi magazine. “I picked it up gradually, increasing my harvest little by little” — until now he and his wife can ply relatives and friends with surplus onions, eggplant, okra, green peppers and what not. Like Watanabe, Nakano was moved by the 3/11 cataclysm to pause and review what’s important in life and what’s not, and what is, in his view is “slow life” — the opposite of the city’s relentless pursuit of it scarcely knows what anymore.
On the other hand, there’s Kazuhisa Ida, a 66-year-old retired architect turned gentleman farmer whose new property in Shizuoka Prefecture, with its relatively cool summers and fine view of the sea, seems a dream come true — and yet: “At first,” he tells Shukan Asahi, “my wife and I enjoyed growing vegetables and fishing, but after six months I was bored.”
Luckily, the regional Hello Work employment agency office found him a job with a local builder. He’d have gone crazy otherwise!
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.