Small numbers of city dwellers are now returning to the countryside. Can a new degrowth paradigm be discovered in the interplay between urban and rural life?
The following is the fifth section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.
Just as life does not end with adolescence, neither does civilization’s evolution stop with the end of growth. We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent’s transition into adulthood. Physical growth ceases, and vital resources turn inward to foster growth in other realms.
Economic growth and urbanization
In every society that has undergone a transition from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrial economy in the last 250 years, development has been defined by closely correlated processes of growth and expansion: of energy consumption, economic output, population, and urbanization. If economic and population growth are indeed coming to an end, it seems likely that we are entering a new stage in the urban-rural relationship as well.
Like the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and the United States before it and much of the Asian and African continents today, Japan’s cities swelled as modernization and industrialization gained steam beginning in the 1870s, creating the complex division of labor, economies of scale, and industrial clusters that drove economic expansion. But the stable dualistic relationship between countryside and city only began to dramatically shift during the postwar economic expansion. During the height of the economic miracle between 1955-1970, approximately nine million new migrants flooded into the three metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. During this period, Japan made use of its “demographic dividend” of a relatively young, urban workforce to fuel its economic boom.
By 1970 three quarters of the total population were urbanites, but more importantly, urbanization altered the nature of the rural economy, blurring the former dichotomy between city and countryside and functionally integrating even remote areas into a nationwide urban and regional system. Out-migration areas (kasochi) now face interrelated crises of demographic collapse and economic dependency on the metropolitan core. Nearly 8,000 settlements in 2006 were classified as marginal villages (genkai shūraku), with more than 50% of residents over 65. Farming and fishing are in decline without young people to sustain traditional industries, and many areas are now dependent on national government subsidies and public works spending to maintain employment.
The I-turn and the rebirth of rural life
Urbanization generated enormous wealth and delivered a higher quality of life to millions of new middle class consumers, but with the postwar employment system increasingly tenuous and a growing feeling of purposelessness and insecurity among young city dwellers, Japan’s rural roots are once again garnering attention as a source of meaning in the post-growth era. Today a small number of young people, mid-career professionals, retirees, artists and environmentalists are returning to the countryside in a phenomenon known as U-turn or I-turn (a play on inaka, the Japanese word for countryside). This was the premise of the award-winning 2008 film Departures, in which a gifted cellist living in Tokyo gives up his music career and moves back to his empty childhood home in a small city in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan, where he finds work preparing the deceased for cremation. Abandoning a highly specialized and prestigious career in the city for a stigmatized profession in the countryside causes internal and interpersonal conflict but ultimately allows him to reconnect to his roots and find meaning in his life.
I-turn made more headlines in 2009 with the debut of Shibuya Rice, a novelty brand produced by none other than young women from Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya district, a mecca of the gyaru (“girl”) street fashion and lifestyle sub-culture. Shiho Fujita, the aspiring singer and entrepreneur who started Shibuya Rice, has encouraged young urban women try out the nogyaru (“farm girls”) lifestyle by working on a 24 hectare farm in Ogata, Akita Prefecture. While dismissed by some as a stunt, the sight of urban fashionistas getting their hands dirty making food certainly stimulated thought about how city dwellers, typically alienated from the production of their food, could play a role in alleviating Japan’s frighteningly low rate of food self-sufficiency, which has declined from 73% in 1965 to just 40% in 2007, the lowest among major economies. Indeed, some young people discouraged by dismal job prospects are looking to rural agriculture as a possible future career path. An agricultural job fair in Osaka in 2009 attracted 1,400 people, and the government had to turn away applicants for lack of space for a recent $13 million program that helped train 2,400 urban youth in farming practices.
While sort-term youth farming programs have proven popular, some people are now seeking to forge economically sustainable lives in the countryside for the long-term. The Japan Organization for Internal Migration, or JOIN, runs an extensive website that encourages urban dwellers to resettle in rural communities by providing information about locating an empty house, how to farm and create a business, and how to live sustainably.
The end of growth is one factor behind growing interest in rural life. A 2011 information session in Tokyo run by I-turn veterans attracted over 220 college students considering alternatives to traditional employment. One organizer explained, “these are kids born in an era in which material abundance has already been realized. As adults, their interest in simple economic growth or making lots of money has declined relative to other values. Therefore, here and there we are now seeing young people, even talented people who would be sought after by any firm, calmly quitting their jobs and moving to the regions” (1).
I-turn pioneers often form intentional communities that result in a positive feedback loop and draw more migrants. The town of Ama in the Oki Islands between Japan and Korea has become famous for attracting hundreds of well-educated, young urbanites. Between 2004 and 2009, 234 I-turners, mostly between 20-40 years old, settled in the town of 2,400. Yuji Abe, a graduate of Kyoto University and former Toyota employee, told the Japan Business Press that he grew disaffected with urban life. “What’s the deeper meaning of selling inexpensive, good cars?” He quit his prestigious job and moved to Ama because he “wanted to prove that you can survive and live a spiritually rich life without being in the city or a big company.” The town is now working to save its declining high school and position itself as a national leader in community revival practices. In another example, the island of Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which for 35 years was the most rapidly aging community in Japan, has recently halted its population decline as young people have come to the island to start farming and enterprises including jam-making and fishing. Like Ama, some of the newcomers decided to move after hearing the experiences of those who moved to Oshima before them (2).*
From efficiency to sufficiency
Many young I-turners speak of rediscovering deep interpersonal connection and nature upon moving to the countryside, and their experience reveals the shortcomings of the logic of efficiency that underlies urbanization and economic growth: life loses meaning when people become mere cogs in a complex urban economy and use money to purchase all our human needs. I-turners have literally left this logic behind, but others are showing that it is possible to incorporate such principles into urban life as well (explored further in chapter two).
I-turn, of course, is not a viable solution for a highly dense urban society. It does, however, embody the discursive shift from the logic of efficiency to a paradigm of sufficiency that is necessary for a degrowth economy. It is important to emphasize that degrowth cannot be realized by breaking free of modernity and returning to a lost ideal of pre-modern life; advocates must engage with the pressing problems of wider society in an age of globalization. With this in mind, in the mid-1990s, Naoki Shiomi developed the concept of han-nō han-x, or “half farmer, half x,” as a model for practicing subsistence agriculture and also pursuing one’s calling in modern society. The idea has become popular around Japan (and Taiwan, where Shiomi’s book has been translated into Chinese), and today there are writers, activists, teachers, artists, and craftsmen who split their time between tilling the land and pursuing their career. While it sounds like an unrealistic lifestyle for someone engaged in a busy career, especially in an urban area, Shiomi emphasizes that simply devoting any time to self-sustenance can improve happiness: “You can be a farmer only during the weekends or for just one day a month. It doesn’t matter how much time or area you do farming. What matters is to get back in touch with natural plants in our lives as much as possible.”
Advocates and practitioners of simple, non-competitive alternative lifestyles, rural or urban, are frequently inspired by the concept of satoyama, a term that describes traditional landscapes formed and sustained by prolonged harmonious interaction between humans and nature. Located next to forested mountains, residents of satoyama communities sustainably harvest resources such as wood and mountain vegetables from natural areas, and also cultivate rice paddies and fields that over time become an essential part of the ecosystem. This view of humans as part of nature, not above it, is crucial to adapting to our environmental crisis, and is often lost in the discourse of “green growth,” “sustainable development” and other ideas rooted in a self-confident faith in engineering and efficiency.
Conclusion: a new type of happiness
This chapter has explored the ways in which Japan’s prolonged experience of economic stagnation and hesistant attitude towards economic liberalization and globalization has laid the groundwork for a degrowth economy. A variety of trends, particularly among youth of the post-bubble generation, are undermining the growth economy and hastening the transition to new conceptions of wealth and happiness. As the Japanese political world experiences upheaval in coming years, I expect that political faults will increasingly emerge along degrowth lines: between an older, conservative, establishment wing that advocates for growth through economic liberalization and efficiency, and growth skeptics who will be increasingly adept at articulating a vision of a post-growth society and a more human economy based on concept of sufficiency. Japan, and the rest of the global North, has an opportunity to move past the adolescent period of development to enjoy the fruits of post-growth adulthood, but only if it begins to see its crises as opportunities for real change.
In the next chapter, I will explore how Japanese architects and urban planners are designing for degrowth, perhaps providing inspiration for the transformation of other aspects of society.
(1) “zoku~ satoyama shihon shugi – kaso no shima koso 21 seiki no furonteia,” NHK Eco Channel, 31:00.
*Many I-turners maintain blogs or websites. Examples here, here, and here. More on Ama Town here.
2 thoughts on “I-turn to the countryside: pioneering alternative lifestyles”
You’re right, but to the extent that such experiments can help to forge new ways of thinking about community, the money economy, and the relationship between people and nature, I think it can have important implications for urban life, as well. The point is that the postwar social contract and system of capitalism is broken, and our current impasse cannot be overcome if we remain tied to the same notions of efficiency, progress, and modernity that have led us to our crisis in the first place. You’re right that cities are extremely efficient economic entities. But we consume too much, and in the context of constantly rising levels of consumption, efficiency is not a panacea for solving our environmental problems. That’s why I’m so disdainful of the idea of “sustainable development” or “green growth.” The idea that we can do what we’ve been doing but just do it greener is wishful thinking. Instead, I think that the I-Turn movement reflects a more fundamental change in young people’s values and cultural mindset: We no longer need personal success or growth in material wealth, we simply need to build durable human communities and find ways to survive in harmony with our environment. If that mindset can be brought back to the city, it could have broader implications than simply among hippie communities on collective farms.
The desire to escape modernity and return to a simpler agrarian way of life has been a constant on the Left ever since the nineteenth century. But I’m suggesting that perhaps it could be different this time, because it coincides with a broader cultural shift away from competition as the country enters its post-growth stage. This isn’t about practicality. But the urban-rural dialectic is important to imagining alternatives to our dominant form of capitalistic economic development.
Beginning around 1970, and continuing into the 1970’s, there was a movement in the U.S. that was called “back to the country.” Urban hippies who knew nothing about growing food moved to rural areas. The idea was to get away from “straight” culture in order to develop a self-sufficient counter-culture. Sustainability and environmentalism played a part in the movement. I don’t think it ever really went anywhere. I dipped a toe into it, but soon realized that I wasn’t a farmer, and that, day in and day out, I liked being around people more than I liked being around nature. Many people attracted to rural counter-culture just wanted to hang out with people with similar beliefs. I enjoyed living in a more diverse setting. So after a year it was back to the city for me, and I must not have been alone because the movement, if you can call it that, slowly and quietly burned out.
We only need a small percentage of the population to grow enough food for the entire population. Part of that reflects the growth of agribusiness, but even if the goal is small farms growing organic food, it doesn’t take that many people compared to the Nineteenth Century, when the majority of people were engaged in food production. And there’s no mass transit in the countryside, so dispersal of the population, whether it’s to quarter acre lots in the suburbs or 30 acre farms in the country, isn’t very green. Creating a sustainable planet means we must live more efficiently. I’m not sure that a “back to the country” movement fits into that.