“How are you gonna keep ‘em on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”
— World War I song by Walter Donaldson, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis
The lure of the city, the metropolis and all of its trappings, has entranced rural dwellers since the dawn of urban life. Debate among anthropologists and archeologists persists: Which came first? Town or country? In Jane Jacobs’s 1969 book, The Economy of Cities, she makes the provocative claim that cities served as trading centers for foraged and hunted goods long before people settled on rural land to farm. Eventually, humans settled within close proximity of larger human settlements (i.e., towns and cities) and farmed. Much like today’s farmers market vendors, they would travel to town to market their goods. This makes the public market one of the more resilient institutions in human history — a thought that weighed heavily on me 25 years ago when I began my journey developing farmers markets, initially in New Orleans.
Fascinated with the prospect to reinvent and animate public spaces, I was also inspired by Jacobs’s vision of the economic concept: import substitution (which she calls import replacement). My contact with her thinking came in the 1990s, long after import substitution’s heyday had crashed and burned in the fire we now know to be neoliberalism. During the 1960s and 70s, import substitution served as a Keynesian call-to-action for national economies in the Global South to extricate their newly independent colonies from the legacy of empire. It is one thing to be legally independent, quite another to be economically free.
Just ask Tanzania’s President, Julius Nyerere, or Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Michael Manley about the challenges to redirect economic activity towards local needs (after hundreds of years producing then-strategic goods, like sugar, for British cups of tea). I met Manley in the early 1990s in New Orleans. By then, his thinking had evolved. Keynesian economics was very much in retreat by then. No longer was he attempting to nationalize industry on the island of Jamaica. Instead, he had come to embrace the power of cottage industry to recirculate goods and money at home, touching as many hands as possible in order to generate wealth. In 2020, these leaders are long gone. However, even then, I wondered, had Manley consciously made the transition from (national) import substitution to Jacobs’s (localized) import replacement? Or, had the pressures of the global regimes simply made national efforts less likely to succeed?
Today, national discourse everywhere seems unlikely to mobilize popular will, whereas examples of local engagement are everywhere. In 2018, I walked the beautiful tiny village of Nakanomata in Niigata Prefecture with Tsuyoshi Sekihara and pondered this question. He is the visionary leader who had, for the previous two decades, brought a sense of purpose to an otherwise forgotten part of Japan. Of course, nearly all of rural Japan is forgotten (except as a subject for a news story about decline and death). For Sekihara, his sense of purpose has a name: Kuni. He repurposes the ancient term for nation in Japan to describe a political project that reimagines a constellation of rural villages as the right size of a community managed by a nongovernmental entity. So, in other words, Sekihara is returning the concept of Kuni back to its original construct of community. The intermediary that promotes Kuni revives tradition, delivers social services and establishes lasting ties with the outside world via agritourism.
I asked Sekihara, “How did all of this come to be?” He quickly reminded me that, while he had indeed grown up in rural Niigata, he is not from this particular valley nestled up in the mountains and twenty-minutes from the Sea of Japan. When he moved to Nakanomata (a rural hamlet near and now incorporated by the city of Joetsu), he acknowledged that he was enchanted by its timeless beauty. However, the situation was dire politically, socially, ecologically and economically. He went on to describe how he was “recovering from a midlife crisis.” Relocating from Tokyo (where he had had a successful career in interior design), he intended to restart his life. Without his wife and without a job, he settled in a place very much like that of his birth, but not the precise location. Though familiar, it did not have all of the baggage of home. He sensed how he had opted for a place where a functioning society is winding down: Few young families remain, schools closing, and an aging population of rice farmers. Those who remain possess great knowledge about ecosystem management and cultural traditions, but with few eager ears to listen. This, he sought to change.
In Japan, Sekihara is what demographers describe as a classic J-Turn. This pictorial dialogue is handy for understanding population patterns of rural Japan. We should adopt the description for understanding patterns beyond Japan. It aptly describes the situation. An I-Turn is an individual who selects a rural place, maybe somewhat randomly. It is like putting the dot of a lower-case “i” on the map. U-Turns are when someone grows up in a rural community, leaves for the big city, but ultimately returns home. It is generally viewed as a pattern of failure. The curious success story is the J-Turn. Someone who grows up rural, leaves for urban opportunity, but then returns back to rural; however, their ultimate destination is not home itself, so much as someplace near or similar to home. This one-click removed frees you up from the pressures of giving up big city dreams only to return to the power structures that ruled your youth.
Is the J-Turn the secret strategy to address the concerns expressed in the American Songbook classic, “How are you gonna’ keep ‘em on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” Famously, Judy Garland performs it in the 1942 Hollywood hit, For Me and My Gal; however, it was written much earlier, at the close of WWI. Many American soldiers were farm boys who had, until the war, not traveled farther than the next town. Paris (and places like it) opened many eyes to excess, urban sophistication and tolerance. The song posits how, after experiencing Paris, many may find it difficult to go home to dull and repressive rural life. Or, what Sekihara describes as the “small dictatorship.”
Whether it is London, Paris or Tokyo, the allure of the city is a real force. Not only does it seduce the brightest talent from surrounding rural communities to abandon home, its message to those who remain is that “You are a loser.” The smug, self-congratulatory ethos is best expressed in another great American Songbook classic immortalized by Frank Sinatra, “New York, New York”: “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” Though catchy, these tunes are not entirely harmless. They convey an arrogance of the metropolis and aptly reflect the policy priorities of the 20th century: Get big or get out, ironically enough, even if you’re running a farm.
This is why I was struck by Sekihara’s accomplishments and approach to reinvent life in rural Japan (otherwise known in countless articles and studies as the nation’s “retirement home”). Writing in The Atlantic, Alana Semuels describes: “In some rural regions, nature is reclaiming the land. Families are tearing down unused homes, turning the land back into fields.” Back in 2005, when my family returned to post-Katrina New Orleans after spending four-months as climate refugees in Houston, I could not help but ponder the city’s future. Kudzu and cats claw vines were beginning to grow over homes with reckless abandon. During some of the darker periods of recovery, many of us wondered if a future is possible.
In 2008, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Japan Society’s Innovators Network travel to rural Japan and to learn from Sekihara and others on how they are responding to rural decline. Wandering through the now-manicured forests of rural Joetsu and the picture-perfect traditional village with Sekihara and the Japan Society’s Fumiko Miyamoto and Betty Borden, we learned more about the terrible state of the forests upon his arrival. It was as if the village government had all but closed up shop. The municipality of Joetsu assumed responsibility but its coverage had become spotty and the prevailing policy of austerity made it unlikely for rural forest maintenance to be a fiscal priority. This is where the J-Turner himself, Sekihara, comes in. He settles in decaying rural Joetsu in 2002, in search of beauty, fresh air, and timber ideal for woodworking. Instead, he encounters rusting infrastructure, abandoned homes, and bleak prospects for the future. His status as a J-Turner puts him in a unique status to approach problems differently than anyone else in the equation. He becomes the spark.
Sekihara begins to take it upon himself to clean out the thousand-year-old irrigation ditches that have distributed fresh water from the snow packs to the rice fields. Soon, he is joined by other elderly residents who remember an earlier time. Long ago, these were the responsibility of the community: Farmers, whose commitment to mutual aid and autonomy, saw it as their role to maintain the land and water to provide a livelihood. With the rise of the centralized state (and especially the primate city of Tokyo), these responsibilities were professionalized. This made them someone else’s responsibility.
The beauty of rural Joetsu is like much of the rest of Japan. Just because it is rural, it does not mean that it is wild. The 1000-year irrigation system requires constant maintenance and agreements among farmers to share resources.
The concept of the primate city is important to understand how Tokyo looms large in actual size and especially large in popular imagination. A primate city is one that has grown disproportionately so much larger than any other in a nation that it effectively has hegemony over the nation. By contrast to Japan and its Tokyo, the United States does not have a primate city. New York City may dominate, but it has to compete with three other big cities (Los Angeles and Chicago) for attention and influence. In Japan, Tokyo rules.
With public interest fading and government resources failing to manage rural areas, like the mountainous outskirts of Joetsu, there was literally no one left to care. The 1,800 people scattered in the 25 or so communities had not been mobilized to do anything in years. With Sekihara, the J-Turner, everything changed.
At first, a small number of volunteers joined in to clean the canals and trim the forests. These actions surprised others. Who would possibly devote energy to a lost cause? Village mayors were dubious of Sekihara’s actions. After all, they serve as indictments of their failure to lead. Some of the smarter mayors and village elders recognized that this new, albeit foolhardy efforts led by someone who could be “from here,” but isn’t, may actually be a good thing. This spark set in motion an experiment in regional autonomy, creative social enterprise, and an answer to the question in the song, “How are you gonna keep ‘em on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” You do it by making the rural place a destination in itself.
Sekihara has “seen Paree,” figuratively speaking. He had been a great success in Tokyo, but opted to leave. The professional and personal crisis he experienced had shocked him into realizing that everything he had strived for was, in fact, an illusion. Success, as he came to understand, would be realized near home in the forgotten rural corners of Joetsu. He incorporated the Kamiechigo Yamazato Fan Club to formalize and sustain his efforts. After all, while he might have “returned to the farm,” as in the song, the real challenge is to keep young talent there. Make rural Joetsu desirable, full of life and culture and exchanges between locals and visitors. These attributes are the very ones that make the escape to the city less attractive to young talent. Or, even better, encourage the young to leave in search of new skills and education, but with the expressed purpose of returning to make the rural Kuni even more of a shangri-la.
These dynamics play out the world over. In the United States, young people grow up in dying Midwestern towns. They dream of the escape to New York City. There, they believe, they will find themselves. Of course, it is not just Manhattan. The lure of Chicago invades many young people’s imagination in the surrounding Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Only in the metropolis will they find the indicators of “real life”: bike-sharing schemes, third wave coffee shops, and careers. The messaging is powerful. Choose to be a consumer of big city life, or stay at home and be a loser.
In Sekihara’s concept of Kuni — delivered by the intermediary organization, the Fan Club — there is no reason to yearn for or to fear the metropolis. It restores balance between the large and the small, the urban and the rural. After all, if the metropolis’ residents become fans of the small village and its authentic rituals, beauty and sense of well-being, then they will flock to it (bringing cosmopolitan influences together with a reinforcing notion that real life is actually out here in the rural hinterlands).
Sekihara’s strategy to imagine and construct the Kuni is more complicated than what I have described thus far. It is a disciplined, yet imaginative, program to revive dying places, replace local government and services, project a positive sense of collective self, and reinvent the traditions, rituals, and politics of mutual aid. The scale of life in the Kuni promises to deliver a happy balance. The Kuni (or community) is small enough to deliver belonging, but not so small and insular as to be claustrophobic. It is large enough and open enough to the rest of the world (thanks to Fan Club members in the city) so as to bring in fresh ideas and new faces. This reduces the concern that once “they’ve seen Paree,” we lose them forever.