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If only there was an island somewhere …

Who hasn’t thought that at one time or another? A quiet, remote place, far from the mindless bustle and endless cares of the world, where you can grow your own food, build your own house, be on friendly terms with neighbors who are no more ambitious than you are and who share everything they have with you, knowing you’ll share everything you have with them. Progress? What for? Economic growth? No thanks!

Dreams of escaping civilization are as old as civilization. Mostly they come to nothing. Civilization has an iron will; it doesn’t take no for an answer; it’s here to stay; laggards, beware! If the education system doesn’t pound you into shape, reality has other taskmasters: parents, economic necessity, the sting of friends rising while you stagnate, etc.

Japan is full of islands — 6,852, to be exact — but few are flourishing. It’s an island country with a mainland mentality. Some islands that were once populous are now deserted. Others, their birthrates near if not at zero, face looming extinction.

Where to go, what to do, if you don’t fit the mainland mold? Resist it? It tightens its grip. Ask Yuichi Ito, who figures in Shukan Kinyobi magazine’s report on “child abuse in the name of education.” It’s nothing new, of course, but its persistence into a time of depopulation is puzzling. With fewer and fewer students competing for more and more university openings, just about anyone who wants a university education can get one. Why the mad scramble? Simply because, Shukan Kinyobi explains, the competition to get into the best universities — the ones that dignify a curriculum vitae — is as feral as ever. Just ask Yuichi Ito.

He made it into a top high school with links to a top university, but then his marks started to slip. Stress was making him ill; his mother’s relentless pressure wasn’t helping: “Go ahead, be a failure like your father! A second-rate college means a second-rate career!”

In dreams he saw himself killing his mother. Are dreams omens? Do they come true? Would his? A horrifying prospect! Desperate, he fled to a shelter for victims of child abuse.

“The only thing that counts with my mother is marks,” he told a counselor there. “She makes me feel like human garbage. She checks my phone, searches my bag. I hate it!”

Over time, the counselor mediated a tearful reconciliation. The mother too, it seems, had suffered similar abuse as a teen from her parents.

It’s one of several instances cited by the magazine. Many parents genuinely believe it’s for the child’s good, that early suffering will pay dividends later on. Maybe sometimes it does. The line between tough love and abuse is easy to cross unawares. How many of Japan’s most powerful politicians and business leaders were driven through the system by parents as vicariously ambitious as Yuichi’s mother? And how many of them pursue, consciously or not, vicarious revenge — again, like Yuichi’s mother?

Good news, reader: There is an island — not quite as pristine as the imaginary one sketched above, but bearing the advantage of not being imaginary. It’s name is Ojika. It’s one of the famous Goto Islands off the coast of Nagasaki.

The Goto archipelago, comprising 140 islands, is famous primarily for the refuge its remoteness offered to “hidden Christians” during the 250 years, from the early 17th to the late 19th centuries, when Christianity in Japan was an illegal and mercilessly persecuted faith. Ojika’s modern claim to fame is quite different, though related in the sense that it too revolves around being off the beaten track.

Jikyū jisoku has more of a ring to it than its English equivalent, “self-sufficiency.” It generally describes a community rather than an individual and carries a sense of being sustained by and satisfied with the fruits of one’s own communal soil, waters and labor. If the modern spirit is globalization symbolized by the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated with such difficulty, jikyū jisoku takes us back an era or two, to a time of contentment with less in return for more — less wealth, more of what, for want of a better word, we might call life.

“My income here is half what it was.” If that’s a complaint rather than a boast, you don’t belong here. But the one-time urban salaryman speaking to Shukan Shincho magazine of his tomato garden in his new Ojika home is not complaining — quite the contrary. “How rich,” he adds, “the life is here!”

Riches without money is like space without spaciousness — a paradox rather than a contradiction. Ojika is a tiny place. You can drive around it in half an hour. And there’s not much to do. There are a few drinking establishments, a handful of pachinko parlors, a karaoke bar here and there, even a golf course. But the big-city refugees who are turning up lately in increasing numbers — 50 percent of them actually stay — are not looking for entertainment. They’re escaping it.

“It’s raining yellowtail!” That’s how locals greet each other in February, when that particular fish is in season and profusion doesn’t have to be prayed for; it’s just there. Miho Nishiyama, late of Kanagawa Prefecture’s urban sprawl, picked up her phone one morning and heard, “It’s raining yellowtail — come over and have some!”

There’s no stigma attached to receiving; it’s understood that you’ll give no less generously when whatever grows in your garden is ripe for harvesting. The local economy seems more barter than cash.

Ojika’s population peaked in 1950 at 10,000; it’s 2,900 now — but rising, not falling as is the case with so many other rural backwaters, island or otherwise. That stems, Shukan Shincho says, from a conscious effort on the part of locals to keep the community alive. They’re hospitable people, and sufficiently well organized to run training and subsidy programs for would-be farmers and fishermen. A measure of success is the 20-plus babies born on the island last year. Can the population rebound to 5,000 within 20 years? Yes indeed, say the optimists.

There’s an old legend that encapsulates the Ojika spirit. It concerns a man banished to Ojika for debt who came to bless his fortune — the local seas proved bounteous and he an energetic harvester. His term expired but he never went back. Didn’t want to.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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