Everyone is in a hurry. There may be many reasons for this, but one result is certain: We don’t get much time to think. If we want to be more fully human, one of the places we could start is to consider what exactly “a human being” is. What are we here for? The first time I met the outspoken environmental activist Atsuko Watanabe, I had little idea how profoundly she would shake up the way I think. Meeting her gave me insights into such a variety of things: what it means to educate a child, or why a modern person would choose to pursue a spiritual life, or in what direction this whole world, our earth, might be moving. She has deeply examined the question: Given our small share of days here, what priorities should we make?
Atsuko and I are sitting up late, sipping homemade plum wine from small glasses at Atsuko’s dinner table, next to the woodstove in an old farmhouse deep in the mountains of Shikoku Island. You can almost feel the quiet up here, as the warble of night insects fades in and out on the other side of the sliding glass door. We’ve just enjoyed a sumptuous seven-course Indian vegetarian meal cooked by her husband, Gufu, and served on the Watanabes’ pottery. A single light bulb covered by a green glass lampshade hangs over the wooden table where we speak, and upstairs Atsuko’s two daughters are engrossed in their drawing, as usual. We can hear Gufu doing the dishes in the kitchen down the hall.
“The office worker in Japan is always being used by somebody,” Atsuko says in a plain, stating-a-fact tone of voice. “They have no freedom at all.”
Atsuko is always making these kinds of statements. But there’s strangely no anger or churning to her voice. She’s simply stating something she feels is obvious to anyone who wants to see. She continues, “And if you are being used by someone, you have very little freedom of heart. That’s the saddest thing for the office worker: being told what to do. And because he’s always in a hurry, there’s no energy left to think. In Japan, they just don’t grant you time.” She strokes the orange and white cat sitting in her lap, and says, “And if you are selling your time, no matter how much money you get, you can’t ever buy back that time. I knew from when I was eleven or twelve years old that I didn’t want to live that kind of life.”
“When I was a child I played in the rivers and fields near our rural relatives. I would lie in the fields and sketch weeds for hours at a time. My mother would tell me all about different kinds of grasses and plants, and explain the medicinal uses of certain leaves, or sometimes tell me folk tales about a particular flower.”
As she speaks, her words transport me to the Japanese countryside in summer, with its intense profusion of weeds, moths, wildflowers, dragonflies, beetles, and fragrances. The thickness of these summers seems to me to be part of the music of her voice. “I also loved to spend hours looking at the moon, musing about philosophical questions. Even when I was a child, I felt that I would have to have a life with enough time to contemplate, to let my mind range freely. And I also knew then I wanted to live in the midst of nature. I began to think that the ordinary way of living life would be boring and tedious in the extreme.”
I think I know what Atsuko means by “ordinary way of living life” in Japan. The city she was born in is about an hour and a half by car from her house, and is where I teach English. The overwhelming majority of women there stay at home to care for the children and keep the house spotless while their husbands work extremely long hours. A very small percentage of them have careers—the word housewife is very common here—and not many of the husbands, some of whom I teach, seem to much enjoy their jobs. Traffic, pollution, advertising, plastic, fluorescent lighting, and noise surround me everywhere I go.
Yet for all of Atsuko’s strong opinions and her willingness to confront people when she thinks they are wrong, her personality is almost always buoyant and full of enthusiasm. She really listens to people, leaning in toward them when they talk. Her high soprano voice is melodic and she is laughing and smiling so much of the time. It’s a pleasure to be in her presence. “So,” I ask her, “was it in India that your life started to diverge from the lives of other Japanese?”
“It was even before that, in 1976, before I went traveling. That was the period when all the other students were starting to talk about getting jobs. It occurred to me that once I did find a job, and took it, and began working and having money…most likely it would be hard to change back to a life without money later on.”
Then she pauses, thinking, and says, “Also there was likely ‘something else’ I wanted…I had wanted it since when I was small.”
“What kind of ‘something’?” I ask.
“I didn’t know exactly what then, but it was not working a job and living an ordinary life.
“Also, from the very beginning, I liked the mountains. I wanted to live there. There’s such quiet around here. And of course there’s the wind, the air, the water. Especially the wind,” she adds in a dreamy voice. As she says this the insects outside the window, as if on cue, lift their voices in both pitch and volume.
“In India, traveling alone, I had a lot of time to just sit and think, and to wonder about the reasons that I am here on this earth. At the same time, I saw that the Indians spent a lot of time in the temples, working to improve their souls, to move up when they go on to the next life. It was clear to me that spirituality was absolutely central to their lives in a way that it isn’t for us here in Japan. I started to give a lot of thought to what the purpose of being alive actually is.
“Many Japanese don’t have the opportunity”—she pauses—”don’t make an opportunity to think deeply about things for an extended period of time. Maybe that’s why many of them aren’t satisfied with their lives.
“I saw the people’s way of life there—their lives were very poor—and inside of their houses there wasn’t much of anything, almost nothing. And if they went shopping, they didn’t even put things in bags sometimes, they just held on to the vegetables with their hands, or in a basket. So whatever it is that a person has in India or Nepal or Pakistan, it’s plain for you to see when you travel there. It’s not hidden like in Japan. If it’s vegetables, it’s just vegetables, it’s not shrink-wrapped vegetable side dishes. It’s very simple, and it seemed incredibly beautiful to me. I realized that humans could live completely fulfilling lives in simple houses without much money or even electricity. This was an entirely new concept for me. And I started to believe that I might be able to live such a life myself.”
The very first time I visited Atsuko and Gufu’s house, many years ago now, their daughters were 2 and 4 years old. They were both extremely chattery and would squeal in mock fear when their mother warned them that Grandmother Rat would get them if they didn’t behave; or would laugh repeatedly about the animal they had just read about in a picture book—the sloth—shouting in unison: “Three fingers…and lazy!” collapsing into gales of hilarity. On subsequent visits, I would see their older daughter, Junko, spending hours cutting and coloring pieces of paper to make them different kinds of “food,” making bento boxes, and serving them up to everyone present. Once Gufu told me that Junko even made a fake vending machine that would serve drinks. “Without a TV, they make up all kinds of games for themselves,” he said.
The extent to which Atsuko puts faith in a child’s innate wisdom was also evident in her decision to allow Junko to quit going to school for several years and do homeschooling. “If my child doesn’t want to go to school, I am not going to force her.” Homeschooling was so unique, and so against the grain in this part of Japan, that the local television station did a half-hour program on the Watanabes’ life, focusing on Junko’s studying at home. The reporter asked Atsuko why she thought Junko didn’t want to go to school. With the plainest, most unaffected expression on her face, she looked at the camera and said, “Well it’s probably because the classes are boring.” Then she nodded her head, looking at the reporter, naming the elephant in the room so matter-of-factly, as she often does. “They make them do the same thing again and again.”
When Junko was at home all day, Atsuko simply encouraged her to pursue her own interests. “Sometimes we studied things together, she and I. And when Junko decided she wanted to return to school several years later, she was actually ahead of all the kids in her class.”
But then, with a look of concern on her face, she says, “Thinking back, studying at home may or may not have been the best for Junko, but if school wasn’t working for her, I told her that studying here would be OK too. We need to stop thinking ‘You must go to school; I order you to go to school.’ We have to find a better place for children who don’t fit in the system, and give that to them. It must be a place that is comforting and nurturing and free. I mean, their future is important; after all, they are human beings.”
Atsuko and I are in her garden, pulling weeds, something she says she really loves to do.
“You can see,” Atsuko says, “how powerful a force education is in Japan when you look at our history, and Japanese militarism in World War II. All those boys were willing to die because they were told that the emperor was above them, a god, and that their death would have meaning. I don’t think the basic philosophy of ranking, of ‘above’ and ‘below,’ has changed that much, even today.”
It occurs to me that her ability to break with the ritual practice of saying what’s expected exhibits the kind of inner fortitude that has allowed her to create the kind of richly satisfying life that she has, despite all the societal pressures to just do as expected.
“When,” I ask her, “did you first start getting active in politics?”
“It was the incident at Chernobyl. After that I realized I couldn’t just live a humble and plain life in the mountains. I had to get together with other people and try to make changes. Actually, I think it would be much more ideal to have a world where it wouldn’t be necessary for mothers
to go out into the society just to protect their children, but since other people weren’t doing it, I felt I had no choice.”
I know that activists in Japan must resign themselves to the reality that their chance of success is low—citizens rarely win any kind of battle against the government or large corporations here, even when the law is on their side. But none of the difficulties seem to prevent Atsuko from carrying on with her organizing, weeding her vegetable gardens, talking and telling stories, laughing and enjoying her life, and spending time with her wide network of friends.
As we talk, the lyrical bird calls and the crescendoing insects, which then fade back into the silence of the afternoon, are always reminding me of the place Atsuko and Gufu have chosen to live. I can also feel the thickness of the air coming in from outside and the scents of the plants that live on the wealth of the fertile soil. This makes me aware, too, of the permeability of the house itself—Japanese architecture that doesn’t wall off the outside world. Each of these things is speaking, subliminally, of what is valuable to Atsuko and Gufu, and, I recognize, to me.
“Perhaps the most important thing that happened to me,” Atsuko says as we continue our interview, “maybe in my whole life, was learning about Rudolf Steiner. I was concerned about what was happening to the girls in school. Several years before, I had read a book on pedagogy by a Japanese woman who was living in Germany—Munich, I think it was. She had a daughter who she sent to school there. She didn’t even know it was a Rudolf Steiner school, a Waldorf school; it was simply closest to where she lived. And she wrote a book about Steiner’s methods. It was incredibly interesting to me, and I responded with a very powerful emotion.
“He wrote such amazing things about the problem of education. I kept saying to myself, ‘That’s true, that’s right, yes, yes,’ as I was reading. I started to really regret that I hadn’t encountered Steiner earlier. Reading him, I feel as if I were able to look backstage at a theater to all the ropes and stage tricks behind the changing scenery of all of life.”
As I’ve been thinking about Atsuko’s life, I imagine that she’s saved herself a lot of regrets, the kind of regrets many people have when they don’t do what they know will be best for their lives. But when I ask her, it turns out, I’m wrong again.
“My life is strewn with regrets!”
“Absolutely!” (Her tone says, What the hell did you think?) “I’m always thinking, I should have done it this way, or that other way.”
“Really? I’m so sad to hear that.”
“You are?” She looks at me almost as if I were some kind of fool. “Because I’ve made progress since when I was young, that is why I have regrets. People who have made no progress,” she says with something close to derision in her voice, “look back and say, ‘I’m so satisfied with that! My life was wonderful!’” She’s speaking rapidly, with absolute conviction. It’s almost frightening, her intensity. “I can at the very least say that even if it isn’t much, I’ve made some progress.” And then, finally, she adds in a very sweet voice, “And that’s good. Because I have regrets, I have done well.”
I recall now what Atsuko said years ago when I first met her, that her priority has been to have the time to muse and reflect and really think about things. She’s been making this her priority for years. The results, I speculate, are the subtlety of her thinking, and the deeply considered nature of her choices. Perhaps it is simply about making sure that you have time for yourself. “Most people have directed their attention toward having things more than time, and that’s why they are always running.”
“But you have a lot to do, as well,” I say, thinking of her time weeding, or hand-peeling chestnuts, or cooking, or doing her environmental work.
“I do, but while I’m doing them, my spirit is free. No one is telling me, ‘Work!’ That’s the most important thing. And in any case, I didn’t choose this life for the pleasure of it, but because it seemed to be the right way to spend the life that I was given.”
I consider that Atsuko is one of the most buoyant and lively people I know. Her life is full of laughter. Yet this happens, it seems, without her trying to pursue it, without it being her goal.
“It’s the same way with comfort,” she continues. “As I told you before. In Nepal and India, I could see that millions of people were living without a lot of material things that we have in Japan. And living alongside such people, I knew that the purpose of my life was not to live in the maximum amount of comfort.”
Again, the seeming contradiction causes me to smile. Her life, it seems to me, is suffused in the tranquility that can be found only in nature—breathing crisp mountain air early in the morning, listening to the gentle calls of the night insects on a warm summer’s evening, or resting her eyes on the colors and textures of an old wooden farmhouse instead of the harsh geometry and neon of a city. It is as though through her practice of not grasping for either pleasure or comfort, she has both in abundance. Sometimes, like this evening, the pleasure is just that of sitting and talking deep into the night.
“What’s next for you, then?”
“I will work on the town council for three more years, and that will be it. Then I will live a simple life, and I will have more time.”
“How will you spend it?”
“I want to get the gardens in perfect shape. That’s number one. It’s part of the preparation for my own death. Then I want to bring my own experience of being a human deeper and deeper. Of course studying Steiner more completely, but also many other books: books on people, society, trees, plants, stars. I want to really understand a lot. Then, if it is possible for me, I would like to go to museums. This would be for my own enjoyment. Also I want to spend more time painting and drawing pictures. But if I die now—I am sixtytwo years old—it would be wrong of me to not accept it.”
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #57.