“Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan”, edited by John Grant Ross


In his introduction to Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan, editor John Grant Ross promises this collection will not play into “wacky” Japan. There will be no treatises on love motels, maid cafes, or parades of fertility idols. Instead, Ross sets out to show rural Japan in all its splendor.


There seems to be some beguiling combination at work in the balance of aesthetic elements; it’s colorful yet austere, simultaneously manicured and wild; and it contains human-scale warmth alongside grandeur.


Ross arranges the anthology by location, beginning the essays in the southern-most parts of Japan and concluding in the northern-most areas. The contributors are all gaijin, many of whom first arrived in Japan as teachers in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. Some have married into Japanese families. Quite a few have lived in Japan for decades while others have only spent a couple years in the country and one has never lived there. Yet their stories all show how Japan has become a large part of their lives, and these stories vary as much as their locations. The ones that stand out the most are essays about industries specific to certain areas in Japan.


Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan, John Ross (ed.) (Camphor Press, August 2020)
Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan, John Ross (ed.) (Camphor Press, August 2020)

In “Figure in a Landscape”, Stephen Mansfield portrays New Zealand potter Paul Lorimer in Okinawa. Readers may know Okinawa because of US military troops, the fabled longevity of its residents or a holiday destination, but Mansfield writes of other resources.


The bedrock of this region, I am told, is composed of Permian and Triassic limestone, igneous rocks such as andesite and quartz porphyry, layers of phyllite, shale, and tuffaceous sandstone, something a potter would know.


Mansfield meets with Lorimer in his studio and explains that Lorimer arrived in Japan in 1977 and has lived in the Okinawa region for the last forty years. Lorimer creates practical items like vases, tea bowls, plates, and dishes, among others. But like other potters in Okinawa, he also makes shisa, the lion-dog figures often found above gate pillars or on rooftops.


Bodies of concentrated energy, these fierce, resolute sentinels protect the fortunes of the household. Unlike shisa typical of souvenir shops, all of Lorimer’s lion-dogs have different features. ‘I need to rest between bouts of making shisa,’ he says, ‘or the faces will show my fatigue.’


In “A Dyeing Tradition”, Suzanne Kamata writes about the indigo industry in Tokushima Prefecture, her home in southern Japan for more than thirty years. Kamata is familiar with indigo, as it is native to South Carolina, where her family in the US lives. But Japanese indigo came to Tokushima from southern China around 500 AD.


Throughout most of the Meiji Era (1868-1911), indigo production was one of the main Industries in Tokushima, and there were once at least a thousand indigo producers here. In 1886, however, German scientists discovered a chemical process for making the dye; the natural indigo industry then went into decline. In Tokushima today, only five families still process indigo commercially.


Indigo is important to Japanese handicrafts as it’s found in the curtains over Japanese doorways, in traditional clothing, and was supposed to be in the logo of the (Covid-postponed) 2020 Olympics. Kamata profiles several indigo artists who have been drawn to Tokushima, including Rowland Ricketts III, who came to Japan on the JET program, Hungarian Hanga Yoshihara Horvath, and Japanese members of Buaisou, a workshop started in 2012 and now Tokushima’s sixth commercial indigo producer. Buaisou has a branch in Brooklyn and has worked with the likes of Kanye West and Tory Burch.


Tea is the focus of “One Time, One Meeting” by Mei Ling Chiam. Based in Malaysia, Chiam is the only contributor who has not lived in Japan, but she has certainly spent loads of time there. Chiam’s essay is set in Shizuoka Prefecture and tells the story of her love of tea and how she became a certified tea master in Japan. She worries about the decreasing interest in traditional Japanese tea, especially among the younger generations.


Although tea is the embodiment of Japanese tradition, the national drink is ailing. Except for bottled tea, consumption is down. Old-style tea culture is out of sync with fast-paced twenty-first century lifestyles; young people don’t want to brew a simple cup of tea, let alone bother with the tea ceremony, and they’re more likely to be found in a Starbucks than in a tea house.


But technology has been good for tea farms in Japan. Instagram has helped drum up tourists, but the tea farms still face uphill battles as many of the recently retired tea farmers don’t have family members interested in carrying on the family business. Because of this, many tea plantations have been abandoned. Chiam can tell which ones have been left alone because the tea plants are in bloom. The leaves should be harvested well before the flowers of the tea plant bloom.


The essays in Ross’s collection all provide a delightful portrait of the Japanese countryside, without which Japanese culture would be relegated to the cities; many traditional arts like pottery, indigo products, and tea would disappear. As contributor Thersa Matsuura notes at the end of her essay on Japanese superstitions:


It’s very easy to learn the top, shallow part of any culture: it’s just a Google or YouTube search away. But if you want to get to the really interesting stuff, you’ve got to dig deep, because it lies down below the surface, often where the ogres hide.