I got my first real taste of rural Japan in June 2006--a big icy slurp of hearty north-country zarusoba (a traditional Japanese summer meal consisting of a tray of iced buckwheat noodles served with a cold dipping sauce). Nobuoki Kaneko, the stoic 60-something proprietor of the soba shop and my employer-host for the next month, was a one-man show. Not only did he make and sell his own soba, he planted, harvested and milled his own organic buckwheat as well. This was farm-to-fork (farm-to-chopsticks?) in the purest sense of the phrase, and certainly a memorable introduction to Japanese country life.
I had just finished my sophomore year at Pomona College, where I was studying Japanese and had just declared as a history major. Looking to travel and improve my language skills but wanting to avoid the steamy crush of Japan's big cities and tourist sites (with family in Tokyo and Kobe, I had already traversed much of Japan's "beaten track" during earlier visits), I bought a backpack and some rubber boots and headed to Japan's rural north. From June through August, I lived and worked on two farms: Kaneko's farm and restaurant in mountainous Yamagata Prefecture, and a large family farm on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The summer opened my eyes to a completely new side of Japan, one that seemed to cling to the vestiges of traditional culture, beating the drum for What Once Was in a universe far removed from modern, cosmopolitan Tokyo's hustle and bustle. At the time, I felt like I had discovered the "real" Japan; naive, sure, but nevertheless, my interest in rural Japan had been ignited.
This is a traditional mountain settlement near where I taught. This farm has most likely belonged to the same family for centuries. I don't know this for sure, but I assume that the current residents are the final generation.
Returning to the U.S., I focused my studies on rural areas and, with my senior thesis on the horizon, began forming a project dealing with rural Japan. With the help of a professor, I began collecting diaries written by rural Japanese during World War II, with plans to study everyday life and the private responses of rural Japanese to the war. The following summer, I returned to rural Japan (this time, to the southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, as well as a tiny 60-person island halfway to Okinawa) and completed full translations of three diaries, farming during the day and translating at night. My research on ordinary people and the "everyday" in wartime rural Japan was driven by a realization that despite the large body of work published on war-era Japan, almost none of it paid any attention to ordinary folks in rural areas. With my thesis, I attempted to unearth the buried microhistories of rural farmers, laborers, housewives, children and the elderly and formally acknowledge their historical agency both as individuals and as a group. In history--and, I imagine, in many other fields--scholars have traditionally ignored ordinary citizens and individual actors in favor of large institutions and the elite, passing over rural areas and other geographic and socioeconomic peripheries in favor of privileged urban cores. Many scholars' focuses and approaches to history and other disciplines have begun to shift, but there is still much ground to make up.
It is important to correct this intellectual imbalance; this task is especially urgent today, as the world's rural communities struggle to keep pace with unprecedented demographic, economic, technological, environmental and cultural developments. Much has been made about the new global "urban majority," and the metropole still occupies the majority of our collective focus. In 2008, 82% of Americans lived in urban areas; this figure is certainly impressive, but it overlooks the fact that nearly 60 million Americans currently live in rural areas--a population that still ranks among the top 25 most populous nations in the world. We simply cannot afford to continue ignoring our rural communities.
I participated in a disaster training exercise that involved me being airlifted out of my school in an army helicopter... this is an aerial shot of the valley where I lived for two years (actually the neighboring town, but my town looked like this too). From what I've seen of the rest of Japan, I think this level of development is typical for most rural areas. The Japanese countryside is much more densely populated than in the U.S.
My most recent stint in Japan--which, incidentally, also has close to 60 million rural residents--painted a bleak picture for the future of rural communities worldwide. The region I lived in for two years struggles with geographic isolation, job shortages, a lack of industry, a rapidly shrinking and aging population, environmental degradation, misguided development and public works projects, and an alarming disappearance of its rich cultural heritage. Abandoned homes, schools, and businesses blight the landscape, and historic buildings crumble as they wait for the inevitable wrecking ball. Buildings and services are inaccessible to the elderly, who currently make up nearly half the population--a figure that will soon skyrocket. Infrastructure and planning are outdated, inefficient, and often environmentally harmful. These problems affect not only the small town I lived in, but towns and regional cities across Japan. If this can happen in Japan, one of the wealthiest nations in the world*, then why not in other modern, postindustrial nations--why not here?
This is Chiiori, the 300-year-old mountain farmhouse where I spent my final month in Japan. It was purchased in the 70s by American writer Alex Kerr, and unlike most houses of its kind, it has been preserved in basically its original state. It is still a working farm, and we also ran it as an overnight guesthouse.
The problem is that the issues affecting rural areas in first-world countries often fly under our radar. Riding a sleek, air-conditioned train around glittering Tokyo reveals nothing about the struggles of tiny, forgotten Ichiu, Japan; just as a visit to Minneapolis doesn't tell us what is worrying the good folks in Lake Wobegon. We have to spread the word and get to work. But how does one concerned with the health and prosperity of our rural areas go about alerting the rest of the world? How does one convince the hardcore urbanists of the value of a rural community? How does one convince the pessimists of the incredible opportunities for rural growth and revival and reinvention? And, having finally achieved all of that, how does one make good on those claims? As I enter the next chapter of my studies, I'll certainly be keeping these questions at the front of my mind.
Andrew Wald has travelled frequently and extensively throughout Japan, and lived in rural Japan from 2008 to 2010. Trained as a historian, he will begin pursuing an M.Arch degree this fall, with hopes to continue research on the development of rural areas. Andrew is a proud, born-and-raised Minnesotan.