Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of visiting Jeffrey Irish, a fascinating fellow in southern Japan who, as an American expatriate, is garnering considerable regional renown for his twelve years of residency in a tiny rural Japanese farming village, including two years as village head.
Jeff came to his current position in an equally unlikely way. Following college he got a job with a large Japanese construction company and showed sufficient business acumen to be asked, with two other employees, to start a U.S. branch of the company in New York City, a branch which ultimately grew to 180 employees as he moved up to become vice president.
Jeff soon demonstrated, however, that his was not going to be a routine climb through the corporate ranks because while attending a Japanese friend’s wedding he met the mayor of a rural seaside town in Kyushu who invited him to come to Japan and take up residency. Taking the offer seriously, Jeff decided to pursue his longtime interest in the country, quitting his corporate position and moving around the world to become a fisherman.
For three years Jeff worked on a boat and became so fascinated by the Japanese culture that he decided to study it in-depth by getting a Masters in East Asian Studies from Harvard. After graduation he moved back to Kyushu, this time to the tiny hamlet of Tsuchikure, and found his way to what is probably the first instance of a “gaijin” being voted to the position of village head by the increasingly elderly populace, a position he’s held for two of the last four years while simultaneously authoring multiple books and becoming a professor at Kagoshima Kokusai University.
Jeff’s fascinating story goes on, and I will elaborate further in a subsequent blog because he is a wonderful man (as is his lovely family), but I mention him now because when we met all-too-briefly in Kagoshima the week before last I asked him about his experiences living in satoyama for such an extended period.
I mentioned to Jeff my hypothesis that the satoyama culture and landscape is surely the byproduct of an a priori worldview of oneness held by the villagers, a dynamic result of day-to-day choices made over many generations by people who are living from a worldview of oneness. As such, authentic and sustainable satoyama landscapes cannot be artificially induced or reproduced even with the best of intentions by, say, an outside initiative, but must instead grow and evolve organically (given the right conditions) if they are to endure.
This made sense to him; however, when I elaborated further about the importance of interconnectedness to the those who live in satoyama landscapes, he said, “Well, of course! That’s a no-brainer.” Okay, perhaps it is obvious to a person who has lived in satoyama for over a decade, but not necessarily obvious to concerned outsiders!
Jeff elaborated, “If you asked any villager about the importance of a sense of interconnectedness or oneness, they wouldn’t know how to answer. For them, it is air. To be able to describe it one would have to be outside looking in. The best way to learn about living with an interconnected worldview would be to spend a full day watching exactly what they do, from morning to night.” In other words, their every move expresses a deep understanding of living in harmony with nature. One might call it “living oneness.”
Unfortunately, spending a day observing wasn’t possible for me on this trip since I had to leave Kagoshima the following morning, but I’ve subsequently contemplated what it might be like to see the world through eyes of oneness. But first, let’s look at where we tend to spend our time:
Pick perhaps any seemingly irreconcilable and conflicted stance in today’s world: Liberal or conservative; terrorist or freedom fighter; high technologist or Luddite; climate changer or climate fraudster; Peak Oil doomer or status quo booster; warrior or peacenik, deficit spender or deficit cutter, etc. Does either side of any of these conflicts have any real hope of prevailing over the other?
For a world in crisis, struggling to “think” our way out of the complex problems we face by choosing one side or the other of these various dualities will never suffice because attempting to solve problems at the level of duality is powerless and ultimately ineffectual. Frustrated in our attempts to win, we too often end up defaulting to an emotional response, lashing out, and repeating the same patterns of dysfunction in ever-downward spirals as the underlying problems loom ever-larger.
Now, imagine stepping up and out of this world of flash judgments and polarized ideologies, of inflamed rants and empty despair, of futile and fruitless tugs-of-war between irreconcilable contrarian positions. Stepping up and out is hard to do given our habitual behavior patterns, but that is precisely what is needed because we can’t get where we need to go by identifying with only one side of an issue.
Instead what if we were to see both sides clearly from a dispassionate place and come to a reasoned consensus, a middle way that seems to provide the only real hope of genuine problem solving. Letting go of our identification with one side of an argument doesn’t mean giving up, withdrawing or becoming indifferent or apathetic. Rather it means taking a backward step from both sides and seeing things from a perspective where new and previously unrecognized choices can emerge.
This can be illustrated by the classic tale of two monks: Two monks were walking through the forest and came upon a woman unable to cross a river. Seeing the need, one monk picked up the woman, carried her across and set her down on the other bank. Both monks proceeded on their way, but miles later it became evident that the second monk was disturbed. When the first monk inquired as to why, the second monk said he couldn’t understand why the first monk had violated his vows by touching a woman. The first monk responded, “I put the woman down miles ago, and you’re still carrying her.”
When we bring our full, present awareness to a polarity we have the possibility of recognizing that a seeming paradox can be resolved by taking an even-larger perspective. The problems don’t change. We change our perspective on them. And previously unseen possibilities emerge that can provide the basis for genuine resolution, or consensus.
Jeff spoke to this transcendent sense of possibility when he mentioned that a high-point of his experience as village chief occurs during regular village meetings when issues and conflicts are discussed and resolved through building consensus. Nowadays in the West, attempting to reach consensus seems antiquated if not impossible, but it is actually a natural approach when all participants recognize the survival value and benefits of living in harmony with nature and each other. Living in harmony, as any married couple knows, requires give-and-take. Balance. Sacrifice. But the benefits are rich and deep and include maturity, authenticity, beauty, and fulfillment. Even discussing these words in the context of community relations seems out of place to a Western sensibility, but that is indeed what’s possible, and proven over the course of centuries in satoyama culture.
Getting back to what it might look like for us Westerners to live from a worldview of oneness, I offer the following as a point of departure:
What if we stepped above our customary dualities? For example, rather than seeing things as either sacred or profane, what if instead we recognized everyone and everything as divine? What would it look like? What might happen if we began seeing hard science and advanced technology as sacred? Or flying in a plane or driving a car as sacred acts? How might seeing everything as divine change one’s outlook and choices? Rather than identifying with only one pole of an issue, what if we saw both poles together as two sides of the same coin? As two potentially complementary aspects of oneness? Can they get along? What would be the result? It would be oneness. Indeed, such a view might very well be called Shintoism.
Shintoism has a long tradition of seeing everything as divine. Rocks, trees, lakes, people, even cars and buildings. It is normal to take one’s new car to a Shinto shrine for a special blessing, and normal, too, for new houses and commercial buildings to be recipients of elaborate cleansing and blessing rituals during construction, conducted by local Shinto priests and attended by construction company executives, building owners and tenants alike. These recognitions of the divine are taken seriously by the Japanese who, modern and developed as most are, still resonate with their ancient ways. City-dwellers may not feel quite the same natural “air” of interconnectedness that villagers take for granted, but respect and appreciation of the divine permeates the culture nonetheless, and there is clearly a growing longing for reconnection to what is meaningful and enduring, as demonstrated by the burgeoning interest in farming among young people and a resurgence of efforts toward revitalizing their rural roots embedded as they are in the natural landscape.
One of the reasons Japan is so intriguing to this foreigner is because the people, culture and land are permeated by this ancient wisdom of ecological consciousness. For anyone paying attention, it fairly exudes from the aesthetics, values, and customs. For many, it is “air.” Such traditional ways of being are clearly threatened by the imported Western worldview which has so firmly taken hold since being introduced nearly 150 years ago, but this perceived dichotomy between Eastern and Western worldviews is itself a dialectical construct begging to be transcended, presenting an opportunity to resist idealizing or rejecting one or the other, ancient or modern, natural or built, and to instead find an inspiring and fulfilling consensus that bridges these two seemingly disparate ways of being. Now is the time to build such bridges between the oft-conflicted dualities that characterize our modern world. Indeed, now is the time to find harmony in consensus and begin living oneness.