Inaka Lifestyle

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What I’ve Learned Living in Rural Japan & What To Expect

Table of Contents

As I write this, I have now lived in Japan for approx. 2.5 years. Somehow within that relatively short timespan, I’ve had a short-lived whiff of internet virality, literally had locals match-make me with free houses (yes, more than one), met my now-husband, and made good progress on creating our dream home here in the Japanese Countryside. It sounds like such a perfect dream when I write it out like that, hah!

But my experience in rural Japan is different than how it looks from the outside.

As I write this, here’s some background to I’m coming from:

I don’t live in a foreigner bubble.

Some people would wear this fact with a badge of honor and I do not. Staying in contact with people who you can relate with is better for mental health and a smart idea when anticipating culture shock.

At first, I felt glad that I was acting so adventurously; getting an authentically immersive cultural experience and flourishing. But with time, I learned that no one here understands where I’m coming from. They don’t understand why some things make me sad or upset, which can have a super gas-lighty effect on one’s sense of sanity and self-confidence. No one will say things that make me feel better quite like my friends back home. No sugar-coating it. That’s rough.

Socially I am always in this culture with zero to few breaks. No foreign partner who automatically understands where I’m coming from. No local English teacher buddies. Just me and the villagers, deep in the mountains.

100% of my time in Japan has been in small villages of Shikoku.

Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is rarely visited even by Japanese people. It’s difficult to access, has no bullet train, requires a car to get around, and has zero glittery attractions. A tall mountain, rope bridge and old shrines: yes. Towers, Disneyland and international exposure: not even close. We were even the first household in our village to get the internet. Now that’s remote.

In fact, one of the better-known popular news articles featuring Shikoku is about a town called Nagaro, where an elder was bummed that her peers kept passing away. So she started sewing life-size dolls to make the village feel a bit more lively. Now there are more dolls than humans there.

Read: There Are No Children Here. Just Lots of Life-Size Dolls

Rural? Check.

While there are people out there who are better experts on Japanese culture, I can guarantee you that my impressions are wholly authentic situations to anticipate for new incomers: maybe two months in / maybe three years later. But to some degree, if you are in rural Japan, they will likely happen.

My Top 4 Lessons-Learned About Culture and Life In Rural Japan

***Specifically based on my experiences in multiple villages of rural Ehime, Shikoku, but also note that countryside codes are determined on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Rural Japanese culture is different from urban Japanese Culture.

I was so delighted when I found this commercial produced by Kochi prefecture called “Countryside Life is Not Easy.” While the local area has pushed for rural migration, many people felt like picturesque inaka gurashi (countryside lifestyle) was false advertising. A serious percent of people trying to build a new life in Kochi gave up and left.

The commercial portrays a young guy from Tokyo trying to figure out how to fish. An alien-faced local with a brusk voice steps in to help, asking how his relocation has gone. The Tokyo man relates that country life wasn’t what he expected (low prices, slow life, sweet neighbors). Instead, he says “… life in the countryside isn’t that easy after all,” referring to local politics and lack of autonomy. The local man surprises the new guy, stating that he also couldn’t find common ground with the newcomer as easily as expected.

Rural Japan can be surprisingly more alien than expected, even for urban Japanese people.

More to watch on YouTube: Why This Japanese Youtuber Escaped From The Japanese Countryside
Immigration Failure (A Story about a Japanese person trying to move to Ehime prefecture)

Operating within the social hierarchy is necessary to avoid becoming a target.

Here, women are below men. Foreigners are below Japanese. Strangers are below locals. Age hierarchy rules. Oji-san (Grandpa) is the king of the countryside.

Watch on YouTube: Ask Shogo “Elder Priority”

Rural Japan needs agriculture to survive. Agricultural practices have been developed across generations. Strict adherence to “the way things are done” is enforced with life-or-death seriousness, as a deviation could mean the loss of life-sustaining crops (according to elder thinking). Social hierarchy and rule enforcement is the linchpin that holds everything else in place; the key to generations-old wisdom and the gateway to time-tested methods for survival. In this context, local-level social adherence is more critical than rules dictated by higher levels of government.

If you act against convention, this may warrant backlash with the efficiency of a knee-jerk reaction. Any deviation from local rules makes locals feel like the survival of the group is in jeopardy.

Speak out of order? Meet obligations too casually? Appear insincere when apologizing? You may be viewed not just as an annoyance. You may be viewed as a liability to the social order; a loose cannon; a life-or-death problem for an entire community.

村八分 (Murahachibu) means village-level ostracism. Intended to be a ground-up extra-judicial practice, the village takes matters into their own hands to either “correct” one person’s behavior, or make them feel so unaccepted that they leave. While typically considered to be an Edo-period practice, situations like this still make the news today.

In my personal opinion, foreign people are not taken very seriously in rural Japan. Murahachibu is unlikely, especially for foreigners who try their best to be respectful and be a non-disturbance. But know that if you offend a local norm, the local opinion (with the final decision made by a group of male elders) will likely have more effect on your quality of life than any law or court would.

See also: OSTRACISM IN JAPAN, Harvard’s John M. Olin Center

Historically, vertical society was violently enforced, where common people had to report to the absolute power of ruling local warlords and Samurai. This way lasted hundreds of years. It was eventually adopted into policies over time and was only abolished from written law during the American military occupation after WWII. But regardless of what is written in law or not, those vertical customs have been merged into the core psyche of the culture. Worth noting, too, that the American occupation was 1945-1952. Grandma and Grandpa neighbors were born around these years, meaning they were raised in a society of hierarchy that was baked into law. In multi-generational households, elders provide childcare, continuing to train young Japanese to operate within these customs. Your elder neighbors were raised this way with extreme strictness and things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

Rules and codes are not enforced by police or government. They are enforced by peers.

Speaking directly is not just distasteful. It’s risky.

At a work drinking party, one of my female seniors asked if I like camping. It seemed like a low-stakes question, as I have seen people have different hobbies, interests, etc. That guy likes drones. That woman likes volleyball. All good.

So I scrunched up my face and said “no,” with a slight tone of reluctance, thinking this would be a relatable response, considering the hefty presence of mosquitos and poisonous mukade centipedes in the inaka. They knew me as a city girl: the New York city designer. And our group did not exactly seem like a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy type. But my senior was taken aback with all seriousness and shock, clearly disturbed by my response.

The team’s only old goofball guy burst out laughing and said “Yeah, Besenie! Me too!” and put out his hand to high five me. Meanwhile, the rest of the team, unamused and noticeably uncomfortable, shifted the topic. This is just one of many happenings that was by no means of ill-intention by me and people like me, which has contributed to distaste by locals for western culture and people.

Sometimes I hear other foreigners talk about gaijin-card privileges. It is true that many of my cultural mistakes are forgiven more easily than they would be for young Japanese. But my foreign-ness doesn’t feel like it gives me that same level of get-out-of-jail-free card as it does for foreigners in more urban areas. In urban areas, Japanese people are likely to have more regular exposure and “practice” with foreigners. In rural areas, it is much more rare, meaning less room for locals to anticipate and accept cultural differences.

There is higher likeliness that your seemingly harmless mistakes could have a ripple effect, coloring every aspect of your life in a rural area.

I said I don’t like camping, and it could mean that I don’t get a job interview, get rejected for housing, a local construction company won’t give me a service quote, and people feel it’s too risky to keep me as a friend. Chotto high pressure, da ne.

Foreign people should anticipate some level of rejection in rural Japan.

I thought that if I did my research, I could prepare myself. I’ve always been an outcast. I can handle not fitting in. If I live here and do my best to be kind, understanding and respectful, everything will be fine.

But when “asked whether [rural Japanese people] want a higher percentage of foreigners in their community, 54.5% said they do not, with many citing concerns about increased friction or deterioration of the social order.” [Japan Today]

My feeling is that the other half who said they would be fine with it haven’t had enough experience with a foreign person to develop an opinion on it, and if they knew the kinds of values we hold and the way we intend to live, they would change their mind.

For example, we may prefer to prioritize family over work, may choose to speak up about being bullied, we may not want to take PTO to clean an elderly neighbor’s pond filter, quit our jobs to follow the suggestions of an elder who prefers that you pursue agriculture or open an English school… these examples are getting increasingly strange all of the examples listed are situations I have witnessed.

This is not gaijin-smashing (the term for when foreigners pretend to not understand Japanese rules and expectations). This is what it can mean to “disobey the social order.”

Let me explain this with a few examples because it’s important.

Grandma sees your car parked at home on a weekday morning. Even though you have a remote IT job, you are on the clock, but she doesn’t get it because she doesn’t have the internet and doesn’t understand how you could actually be working from home. She comes over to ask you to go join a group to harvest in her field for the rest of the day. If you don’t go, you are disrespecting rural Japanese social order.

A woman just a few years older gets jealous because the locals are fascinated by you and more forgiving to you. They call you cute, interesting and smart. She starts spreading rumors about you and telling everyone you are a bad person, embezzle money and you need to close your business. But grandpa lets himself into your house, asks you to make him tea, then he tells you to make up with her; “Yes, you should close your business and try to be better friends with her. She’s trying to help you.” If you don’t do what he says, you are disrespecting rural Japanese social order.

You just sat down with your wife and child for dinner: it’s your daughter’s birthday and Mom baked a special cake with candles. You just got back from a two-week business trip and are exhausted, looking forward to the crispy hot chicken she just plated up for you. Your boss calls and wants you to go to the office to talk something over. You have to go. If you don’t, you are disrespecting rural Japanese social order.

What to do differently for those planning to move to rural Japan.

I had a honeymoon phase when moving to Japan. It lasted long enough that I had convinced myself it wasn’t a phase. But when I started having more problems and stressors, I asked myself “What could I have done differently? How do I change my behavior so both me and my neighbors can live together better from here on out?” After all, it’s not just hard for you. It’s hard for them, too.

I’ve poured over books and research trying to understand retroactively. But book upon book spells out rules on how to use chopsticks, how deep to bow, when to give gifts, phrases to memorize, and it all falls short. None of this was what I needed to know.

I don’t have all the answers, but here are some of the personal tips I would give for anyone planning on trying to successfully move to the Japanese Countryside:

  1. Create and maintain a foreigner social support network for your own mental health.
  2. Plan to make sacrifices on some matters you hold close to your heart.
  3. Plan to contribute to local initiatives with your time and labor: in the way they want you to (not the way you want to).
  4. It’s ok to avoid answering questions that could make you disliked or a target.
  5. Treat people around you like you would expect to treat elders in the 1950’s. Formality you would have expected while saying “yes, maam / no, sir.”
  6. There is never a situation where it’s ok to cancel plans or be late. If you have to, apologize with great seriousness.
  7. In fact, it any situation that someone could take the least bit of offense, quickly apologize. It’s safer for you regardless of the situation, and your quality of life will be better this way.
  8. Don’t expect for things to work perfectly where you first land. Many people who move to the inaka have a social problem, get more careful, move elsewhere, and do better their 2nd time around.

I sincerely hope this article helps someone out there. If this resonates, I’d love to hear from you. Go ahead and DM me on Instagram. Best luck to all y’all out there! – Bitsii