I have wandered the countryside where I’ve wondered and written about rural America. Like a gawking rubbernecker passing the scene of a bad car wreck, I’ve turned my gaze in disbelief to the vacant buildings and collapsing trailers in abandoned villages and hamlets. I’ve stopped by the side of the road to raise my device to frame the desolation, only to lower it, unsnapped, recognizing the sins of my voyeurism. The imprints left on my heart by thousands of imagined lost souls from rural Kansas, New Mexico, or remote corners of Maine far outweigh the still images collected on my iPhone.
The miles I’ve driven, the dozens of interviews I’ve conducted, and the thousands of words I’ve posted have left little resolved. The out-migration of youth from small towns to big cities is exactly what I’d do under the circumstances; the intrepid efforts of enterprising individuals to rescue dying places spark our admiration but pale in light of the problem’s magnitude; the grim statistics of suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse shock us and occasionally shake dollars loose from Washington, but they change little if the community’s underlying problems remain unaddressed.
As gloomy as I get about the prospects for those vast stretches of America that lie beyond the reach of suburban sprawl, I was yanked back recently from the cliff’s edge by the slim volume Kuni: A Japanese Vision and Practice for Urban-Rural Reconnection. It made me ask myself if there weren’t other models of rural reinvention from elsewhere—in this case Japan—that might bring vitality again to these forgotten corners of America.
The book’s authorship is congenially shared between Tsuyoshi Sekihara, a community activist and advocate for rural Japan, and the eloquent and ebullient Richard McCarthy, also an activist as well as a food globalist of the highest order. I first met McCarthy about 20 years ago when he was organizing the Crescent City Farmers’ Market in New Orleans (he would later become the executive director of Slow Food USA). In my 2008 book Closing the Food Gap, I describe him as “…a stern Jesuit teacher and sophisticated gourmand …[who] can hold forth with ease on the tenets of Marxism and the Mondragon Manifesto, but prefers the simple pleasures of helping to restore people’s pride in their place, heritage, and food.” Fourteen years later, I wouldn’t change a word.
Together, Sekihara and McCarthy have conspired to translate the lessons learned from revitalizing rural Japan to struggling portions of America’s heartland. Along the way, they frame their stories against the backdrop of indifferent global market capitalism, always the hungry wolf at the door. The recurring themes of Japan’s rural communities mirror our own: out-migration to big cities (Tokyo is only four hours away from the book’s geographic focal point), a declining and aging population with access to fewer and fewer services, including food, and the breakdown of local governance. But rather than write off the snow-bound areas of northern Japan, or be content with the national government’s form of “benign neglect” which only places remote Japanese villages on life support, Sekihara becomes a tenacious uber-community organizer. Echoing a slogan that I heard from McCarthy when I first interviewed him, one he ascribed to the early 20th century Industrial Workers of the World, the purpose of Japanese rural organizing is to “Build a new world in the shell of the old.”
What Sekihara’s Japanese version of rural revitalization brings to the table is the concept of kuni, a self-contained community with a strong sense of identity and purpose. With kuni, size matters. Using a thoughtful process based on the realities of politics and group dynamics, Sekihara concludes that a population of between 500 and 2000 people is the Goldilocks “just right” sweet spot. More people, according to Sekihara, doesn’t allow for the kind of communication and democratic participation necessary for a high functioning community. On the other hand, not enough people breed two conditions: a kind of dictatorship of the few who make all the community’s decisions to the exclusion of others, and secondly, too few people available to provide both the formal and informal services required by any unit of community governance.
I find the latter condition more common in the U.S. than the first. Tragically, I recall the remote Adirondack New York hamlet I frequented in the summer as a child where buildings would burn to the ground because there were only two volunteers trained to operate the fire fighting equipment. And I’ll never forget the summer tourist I watched die in the parking lot of the town’s general store because it took 20 minutes for the hamlet’s defibrillator to travel one mile from the emergency service garage.
Where I think the notion of kuni takes a promising leap forward is with the Japanese administrative structure called the Regional Management Organization (RMO). Think of a a rural American county government serving a few thousand people scattered across several small towns and villages, none of which are large enough to offer necessary services efficiently. It assumes such functions as public safety and health (albeit, often underfunded) while public education is available through regional school districts. The U.S. system differs from the kuni model in that the RMO builds off the efficient scale of county service delivery—consolidating government functions across many villages—but extends the notion of cooperation by also raising up the cultural and spiritual attributes of the place. It encourages and administers a robust inclusion of repeat urban visitors who view the region as a second home where they stay longer and participate more deeply in the life of the community. During their stays, urbanites engage in various rituals, including agricultural festivals that celebrate the rice harvest, for example.
The RMO also promotes conservation and natural resource education programs for young people, and in a manner similar to the food movement’s embrace of regional food economies, stresses the use of natural resources—agriculture and forest products—for their core economic development strategy. Food figures prominently among the RMO’s functions, from meeting the nutritional needs of low-mobility residents living in Japan’s equivalent of food deserts, to the promotion of what’s called the Rice Covenant which enables both urban “voluntourists” and rural residents to benefit physically and spiritually from the harvest.
As I read Sekihara’s prescriptions for kuni development and McCarthy’s commentary, I began to sense something more comprehensive and integrative than I’m accustomed in U.S. rural development circles. Kuni respects place, culture, ritual, and the natural world. America employs a mix of non-profits, universities, and local, state, and federal governments to cobble together services and occasionally produce innovative initiatives. Do I dare say that kuni offered something more compelling and soulful?
Kuni’s circulation of rural and urban cross currents provides outside money, diversity, and a healthy renewal of ideas and values. At the same time, kuni has a confident commitment to its place and self-sufficiency that also feels emotionally satisfying. As Sekihara put it, “In a kuni, people meet and talk about the abundant harvest, the damage done by a typhoon, a newly born child, a death…the taste of vegetables picked that morning, the taste of spring water from the mountain, the scent of the wind, and the cold rain from yesterday.” Why do I find the notion of such conversations so appealing?
This lovely book is not without shortcomings. Given McCarthy’s obvious desire to make comparisons between kuni and American community economic development strategies, we would have benefitted from a broader discussion of the Japanese social, cultural, and political contexts. We need to know more because exporting ideas across several thousand miles of ocean is far more difficult than shipping millions of Subarus.
I’ll also add that McCarthy’s masterfully composed, silky prose collides at times with Sekihara’s terse, matter-of-fact writing style. The book’s structure alternates between one or two chapters authored by Sekihara, and one written by McCarthy who actively shares flights of philosophical fancy. These uneven transitions made me imagine an exchange between the silver-tongued William F. Buckley, Jr. and a bumptious labor union organizer. McCarthy is such a fluid writer and capacious thinker, and Sekihara is so riveted on the mechanics of organizing and governance, that they sometimes complement each other perfectly, while, at other times, they are like two trains passing in the night. Fortunately for the reader who’s willing to work a little harder, nothing will be lost, and there is much to be gained from putting in a little extra effort.
Most Westerners’ heads are filled with images of packed Japanese subways, bustling Tokyo streets, and the industrial juggernaut of Japan, Inc. They have given little thought to that country’s rural places. According to Sekihara, 300 Japanese villages disappear every year. Likewise, we Americans give little thought to our own rural places which only reinforces the nation’s yawning divide. Rather than take photos of our bereft country villages and landscapes, we might actively search for a mutuality of interests that brings the metropolitan world into a relationship with the non-metropolitan world. The community supported agriculture (CSA) movement, coincidentally imported from Japan several decades ago and reinvented thousands of times over in the U.S., offers one positive model. Kuni, as a more comprehensive and integrated approach to rural development, is also worth our undivided attention if not a whole-hearted embrace.