Kunio Mase quit computer programming to grow sweet potatoes.


Enormous things are happening in the world. Also, small things. We shouldn’t altogether lose sight of the small things.

It’s easy to. The big things are so big they engulf us, claiming all our attention. The revolution they comprise — a quiet revolution in Japan, tumultuous enough elsewhere — is sowing changes so fundamental that it’s a daring prognosticator who will venture a prediction as to what the planet and its inhabitants will be like 50 years from now — or even 20, to say nothing of 100 or 200.

A viral pandemic rages worldwide; citizens of Hong Kong, Belarus, the United States and other political entities take to the streets in the tens and hundreds of thousands, defying the virus, the police and the sometimes absolutist regimes that deploy the police. It’s a tragic, wondrous, all-absorbing spectacle.

And yet, through it all, ordinary and private individuals live their ordinary and private lives, absorbed in ordinary and private concerns, achieving happiness or failing to after their own ordinary and private fashions — not oblivious to the larger currents but not part of them either.

Which brings us back to Mase and his sweet potatoes.

Mase (his and all the other names in this story are pseudonyms) is 40. He’s part of Spa magazine’s feature this month on living happily — it can be done, it seems — on ¥2 million a year. Five years ago he decided he’d programmed enough computers. He gave up a ¥6 million-a-year job, left the Tokyo home he’d purchased with a 35-year loan, said to his wife and kids, “We’ll see each other weekends, right?” — and headed north to rural Ibaraki Prefecture. There, helped by a local government subsidy offered to attract newcomers, he purchased a plot of land and set to work.

The life that pays is absurd, he came to realize. It demands too much, takes up too much of your time. With such leisure as it affords you might, for example, as he did, join a gym to keep fit. “That’s idiotic,” he says now, thinking among other things of the monthly fee. “Here my gym is the land I work.”

“Programming is supposed to be brain work,” he says, dismissively. “I use my head a lot more as a farmer than I ever did as a programmer.”

Ryoko Arai, 49, is a single mother in Tokyo raising three children aged 8 to 17. On ¥2 million a year? Just so. Her ex-husband pays ¥90,000 a month toward child support. She receives ¥58,000 per child from the government. She does odd jobs — chauffeuring kids for a day care center, greeting customers at a nightclub. For a while she ran an aesthetic salon out of her home. The pandemic put an end to that.

She pays no rent. She lives with her parents. Still, it’s tight. She saves nothing. And yet she manages. How? Quite well and contentedly, she assures Spa. The neighbors help her, she says. The pride with which she speaks of neighborhood ties harks back to an earlier time, before self-reliance became the virtue of virtues. She grew up here. The neighbors remember her as a kid. The market vendors remember her as a high school student working with them part-time. Once a week or so they leave bags full of vegetables dangling from her door knob.

Invariably, she and the kids have dinner together. She is perfectly frank with them about her finances and the help she receives.

“We tell each other everything. We laugh. Honestly, my family and my neighbors keep me going,” she says. “It’s OK to rely on others.”

Maybe it’s even good.

And when the person you rely on most dies? That’s Shukan Gendai magazine’s theme in its first issue this month. Marriage over time can grow wearisome, quarrelsome and finally cold; any number of times in the course of a conjugal lifetime a husband or wife may think, “How much better life would be alone!” Then, suddenly, you are alone, only to find, the magazine says, that, for better or worse — not necessarily worse — it’s not what you thought it would be.

Hiroshi Sawai, 74, lost his wife three years ago. He learned the meaning of loneliness at mealtimes.

“She’d done all the cooking,” he says. “She’d ask me what I want; I’d say, ‘Anything.’” He couldn’t even be bothered stating a preference. “But that won’t do now. A meal has to be planned, prepared. That’s when I discovered how dependent I’d been on her.”

Dependency, material and emotional, grows over time, you hardly feel it, you may even deny it; then suddenly the person you depended on most is gone. There’s more to it than lonely dinners. It can kill you. British research that Shukan Gendai cites shows men aged over 55 are more likely to die if recently widowed at a rate 40 percent higher than that of the general population.

If men are especially vulnerable, women have their own way of breaking down. Their characteristic symptom is malnutrition. They can cook, but simply lose interest.

There’s a bright side too. If marriage is a box, life as a widow or widower can blow the lid off it. Horizons expand. You take trips, make friends, hone skills, read books and find hobbies. An Osaka doctor the magazine speaks to conducted an informal survey among 1,000 people aged 60 and over and found 68.3 percent of those living with their families were satisfied with their lives — against 73.5 percent of those living alone.

Which just goes to show — something, no doubt, though hasty conclusions are unwarranted and this story will end, therefore, without one.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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